In recent years, few people have taken the effort and insight to look into football tactics from a journalistic perspective. Jonathan Wilson is one exception.
Wilson has written for various prominent publications, including The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, The Independent, and The Observer. He has also authored several books on football tactics and history, which have been well-received by fans and critics alike. Some of his notable works include the excellent Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics and The Anatomy of England: A History in Ten Matches.
Wilson’s writing often delves deep into the tactical aspects of the game, exploring different formations, strategies, and historical developments in football. He is known for his meticulous research and ability to provide detailed analysis of matches, teams, and players. In addition to his written work, Jonathan Wilson has made appearances as a pundit and commentator on television and radio, providing expert insights on football matches and events. He has established himself as a respected and influential voice in the world of football journalism.
Here we analyze some of his recent articles to gain insights of where football tactics are heading.
The “New” Manchester City Game
It’s hard to ignore how Man City coach Josep Guardiola has evolved his tactics, dominating the Premier League in the past few seasons and finally getting the first, coveted Champions League for the Northern side.
Reflecting on the CL victory, Wilson discusses Pep Guardiola’s tactical decisions and their impact on Manchester City’s success in the Champions League final. It emphasizes that not all tactical adjustments are a result of overthinking, but rather a strategic approach. Guardiola made changes to accommodate striker Erling Haaland, which involved positioning John Stones as a flexible central defender-wing-half.
However, to counter Internazionale’s attacking pair in the final, Guardiola decided to have Stones start as a center-back and step up alongside Rodri. This allowed Stones the freedom to dictate the game and display his authority as a libero, a role in which he excelled. Wilson acknowledges Guardiola’s ability to improve players and highlights Stones’ development under his guidance. Despite initial doubts and limited game time in previous seasons, Stones has become a key player for Manchester City, demonstrating his passing ability, defensive skills, and aerial prowess.
Overall, the takeaway here is the tactical flexibility that Guardiola has demanded from his players.
The Role of Coaches
In another article, Wilson reflects on the changing role of coaches. In it, he explores how the dominance of a few superclubs and how their expectation of winning every game comfortably affects their tactical approach, often focusing solely on attacking. However, this approach can be problematic when facing teams of similar quality, as superclubs may struggle defensively and lack the ability to fight entrenched battles. The decline in defending standards among elite clubs is attributed to various factors, including the shift towards attacking play.
Wilson also touches upon the influence of revenue generation on the game, which has led to a heightened focus on individual players and their celebrity status. The author mentions Pep Guardiola’s success at Barcelona, where he emphasized an academy-driven style of play. However, it has become more challenging for Guardiola to replicate this success without significant spending. The article criticizes the tendency of club owners to prioritize celebrity signings over team harmony and tactical coherence, which can disrupt a team’s performance. This ends up being a paradoxical situation.
Meanwhile, the attitude of players has changed, according to Wilson. He claims there has been a shift towards self-interest and a limited willingness to adhere to tactical systems. This, combined with constant pressure for results, leads to tactical conservatism and inhibits experimentation. Despite this, the game has become highly systematized, and a manager’s ability to resolve the tension between tactical systems and individual star power often determines success at elite clubs.
The article finally reflects on the post-Cruyffian age of football, where teams have adopted various styles and approaches. It suggests that after an ideological revolution, the remnants often feel like compromises. There is no dominant style currently dictating the direction of the game, and top teams employ a range of tactics, albeit with certain trends like pressing and the acceptance of false 9s. The article concludes that the current era is characterized more by retrenchment than radicalism in terms of tactical innovation.
The Modern Player
Finally, in another article, Wilson reflects on the talented João Félix and how he has struggled to be a fully modern player, despite his obvious talents. This indicates that Wilson’s reflections on the change in the game are true.
Today, the modern player has to be physically dominant, energetic for the entirety of the match, and must be able to fulfill a number of tactical roles. This includes forwards who know how to press relentlessly and intelligently, fullbacks that can seamlessly join the attack, and center-backs that can double as midfielders.
Again, this goes hand in hand with the theme from his other articles, in which he posits that tactics have changed to the extent that more is demanded from players. Long gone are the days in which footballers would smoke at half time, drink several nights a week, party all the time, and sport pot bellies. Today, they must be in increasingly better shape, do their tactical homework, and be willing to adapt to their manager’s systems.
What Does the Future Hold?
Based on Wilson’s observations, the following insights give us some idea of what the future might hold for football.
- Tactical Flexibility: Pep Guardiola’s success with Manchester City highlights the importance of tactical flexibility. Guardiola made strategic adjustments to accommodate players like Erling Haaland and utilized John Stones in different positions, showcasing the ability to adapt and employ different tactical approaches based on the opponent and game situation.
- Changing Role of Coaches: The dominance of superclubs and the expectation of winning comfortably has led to a shift in the tactical approach, often focusing primarily on attacking. However, this can create vulnerabilities when facing teams of similar quality, as elite clubs may struggle defensively. The decline in defending standards among top clubs is attributed to various factors, including the emphasis on attacking play.
- Influence of Revenue Generation: The need to generate revenue has resulted in a heightened focus on individual players and their celebrity status. Club owners sometimes prioritize celebrity signings over team harmony and tactical coherence, which can negatively impact a team’s performance. This paradoxical situation is a challenge for coaches like Guardiola, who previously succeeded with an academy-driven style of play. Coaches will have to balance footballing needs with club needs.
- Attitude of Players: There has been a shift towards self-interest among players, with limited willingness to adhere to tactical systems. The constant pressure for results and the emphasis on individual accolades like the Ballon d’Or have contributed to tactical conservatism and a lack of experimentation. However, the game has become highly systematized, and a manager’s ability to balance tactical systems and individual star power determines success at elite clubs.
- Post-Cruyffian Age: Football has entered a period of retrenchment rather than radicalism in terms of tactical innovation. There is no dominant style dictating the direction of the game, and top teams employ a range of tactics. While certain trends like pressing and the acceptance of false 9s exist, there is no singular tactical revolution shaping the modern game.
- Modern Player Demands: The modern player must be physically dominant, maintain high energy levels throughout the match, and fulfill various tactical roles. Players are expected to press relentlessly, contribute to attacks, and exhibit versatility across different positions. The game now requires athletes in peak physical condition who are willing to adapt to their manager’s systems and invest in tactical preparation.
Overall, the future of football tactics involves a combination of tactical flexibility, balancing individual star power with team cohesion, and demanding more from players in terms of physicality and tactical adaptability. The game continues to evolve, but without a dominant tactical revolution, teams employ a variety of approaches.