Tactical (r)evolution and a Cultured Football trip to Warsaw

A lot has happened since May 2015. We have had two full football seasons, an international tournament at Euro2016 and Scotland have (again) failed to qualify for major international tournaments in the aforementioned Euro2016 and the upcoming Russia2018 World Cup.

May 2015 did however offer a clear illustration of how football and indeed other cultures or societies are progressing, or perhaps more accurately the directions in which these aspects are moving. This allows for a comparison with Scottish Football and society in general.

The reference to May 2015 is a reference to the Europa League Final, held on the 27th of May in the National Stadium in Warsaw. The match was between Sevilla of Spain (in the midst of their period hogging this trophy) and Dnipro of the Ukraine. Sevilla won the match 3-2, it was a thoroughly entertaining game and wider experience including the build up to the game, atmosphere and perhaps most relevant to a football themed blog – tactically.

Tactical (R)evolution

In the title of this blog, I have tried to convey a sense of the tactics on show being both revolutionary and evolutionary, in truth this is probably not completely true. The tactics which I will describe shortly had most probably been in use for a long time previously, but this game represented the first time I had seen such a clear example of this progression in tactics and therefore personally I have taken this game of when I really saw a shift in how the game or sport in approached from this perspective.

Now watching the highlights of the game back, it is difficult to really appreciate the intricacies of the respective tactical formations and approaches. There were some great goals, Dnipro took the lead with a run through an inside channel, cross and good header. Sevilla then went in front through a slightly scrappy (albeit good finish) goal from a corner and then a goal from a great through ball, clever striker run and tap in after rounding the keeper. Dnipro equalised with a wonderful curling free kick and then Sevilla won the game with another good ball through the defence and clinical finish from Carlos Bacca. The goals therefore while demonstrating great skill, do not really illustrate any real tactical innovation. The most interesting tactical developments were in the more low key parts of the game when the teams were keeping possession and trying to build attacks.

In previous blogs, I have outlined in broad terms how many Scottish club sides and indeed the National team line up tactically. As a broad example, at lower level club football you generally see relatively orthodox 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 (4-5-1), 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 formations with big, strong centre halves, the odd fast winger or ball playing midfielder and often a “little and large” strike pairing, one with bulk the other mobility.

One things about Scottish football that is noted is the relative rigidity of the formations, you often see a back four staying as such, perhaps an attack minded full back running up to support a wide midfielder, but always mindful of defensive responsibilities and keeping the “shape” for solidity should the team lose the ball and be required to defend. This is true at lower levels, where from probably an amatuer level up players tend to stick to their “zones” on the pitch, for example we have all seen the central midfielder who doesn’t ever leave the centre circle or the centre half who doesn’t cross the half way line and makes it their life purpose to batter the ball as far away as possible with head or foot. Even up at international level, the National team can often be seen playing very much in a formation, with limited switching of positions and players staying in their designated or imaginary area of the pitch whether attacking or defending. Now, this is not to say that there is anything whatsoever wrong with this approach, it does clearly work well for many many teams and has been studied, analysed and operated by practitioners far more knowledgeable and skilled than myself.

Dniprosevillatacticspic

In the game itself, Dnipro lined up in a rough 4-2-3-1 formation (see above https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_UEFA_Europa_League_Final#Match), a strong back four with some good wingers and very skillful midfield and attacking players. This in itself is not too dissimilar to what we are accustomed to seeing in Scottish Football, albeit the familiar formation was populated by more skillful players than we are used to seeing in the Scottish game, hence the appearance in a European Final and two goals scored on the night.

Sevilla however lined up in a very fluid formation which changed depending on the situation in the game at the time. On the face of things, as above this started life on paper as an orthodox 4-2-3-1 but there was far more to it than this. When in possession, Mbia in the middle of the park for Sevilla would drop (almost counter intuitively) in between the centre halves who in turn would push out to form a relatively orthodox back three. The full backs would then push right up to a position which could be described as a wide midfield position. The attacking midfielders as set out on paper were then given the freedom to float and change positions with the other attacking players given the presence of full backs in wide positions to provide structure and an extra defender to provide solidity should the ball be lost.

When the ball was lost, the full backs retreated first, followed by the attacking midfielders to form a rough 5-4-1 formation which could morph back into the original 4-2-3-1 with Mbia moving back up to fill his original central position. This ensured defensive solidity and a strong core of the team to cover the single attacker from Dnipro and repel any counter attacks – an important attacking weapon in modern football.

It was interesting seeing this type of tactic being employed. The added width of full backs has the effect of pinning the opposition attacking wingers back, or if not then pulling other midfielders or opposition full backs out of position to cover. The advanced full backs as above allow the attacking midfielders to have more freedom to move and change position and support the single striker. The combination of all of this is the the opposition have to adapt, move players to cover and ultimately make a decision on: whether to stick to opposition players man to man and risk the fluidity and movement of the attackers exploiting the space which has been left by following a mobile attacking midfielder; or, allow the players to “go” and maintain a tactical formation but then risk giving the opposition more time on the ball to see or spot clever runs or passes or indeed play through the defensive lines.

Now this approach is clearly not foolproof or unbeatable. We are after all talking about the Europa League Final which while a high level is not the very top level of European football and by definition there were better teams domestically and on a European stage than Sevilla at this point in time, who were able to defeat these tactics. It was nonetheless a fascinating illustration of how a fairly orthodox formation can be adapted and an alternative to the structured approach familiar to Scottish Football can be employed and the approach can be enhanced or varied depending on your point of view.

Cultured Football Trip to Warsaw

Aside from the tactical lessons observed at the match, the city of Warsaw offered a number of other insights into football on foreign soil which can again be compared and contrasted with Scottish football.

The city and old town areas offered very picturesque buildings, squares and architecture. Despite what you would think was a fairly tempermental climate, a lot of bars and cafes in the centre open out onto squares and streets offering a very cosmopolitan and cultured atmosphere. There were a number of craft beer style pubs, representing a real shift towards “hipsterism” which we are seeing in Scotland too.

After mixing with fans in the centre, over standard beers, craft beers, coffee, coffee with cherry vodka (amazing) as well as a variety of local and more familiar food, there were various options for travelling to the stadium. The stadium, a modern complex with a capacity of circa 58,000, with a retractable roof, was completed in time for Euro2012 and is located just on the edge of the city centre. We chose to walk to the stadium from the centre, but the usual variety of reliable European public transport was available.

Inside the large bowl of the stadium, there was a good atmosphere – something not always achievable in large stadia. The outer cordon for tickets was in place, although the offering of bars and food stalls you often find within the cordon at European club games was missing on this occasion, presumably due to the game being a final and thus a more corporate affair. All the ingredients were however there for a great footballing experience, a fantastic city, reasonably priced food and drink at a variety of bars and restaurants, friendly locals and as above, a stunning stadium with a vibrant atmosphere. All in, a great trip and Warsaw is definitely on the list for a future football trip!!

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