By Marcelo Antonelli
Tactics are an important part of any team sport. But the term “tactics” can be perceived in many different ways and generate a wide range of reactions and opinions, depending on the context.
How much emphasis should be placed on tactics?
Do tactics restrict or enhance decision-making?
In this article I will attempt to answer those questions, seeking to provide information that may help all involved in soccer to reflect more clearly on the subject and its consequences on the process of player's development.
A game of tactics
All aspects of soccer have evolved significantly in the past decades. The tactical evolution of the game was certainly a big area of improvement, powered by the expansion of technological tools. So many teams, coaches, and players have access to a wide variety of resources that help in the dissemination of audiovisual content. Professionals with the role of data analysis are becoming more common among coaching staffs of high-level teams.
Books, courses, and videos have been produced to explore the intricacies of tactics. We have even heard several times that "soccer used to be technical and now it is tactical."
While tactical advancements are noted, many have started to question whether these advances in tactics and training methods have made players less creative, more controlled, and with low decision power.
This discussion can be made in reference to professional players, but we also need to analyze whether tactics are negatively affecting the development of youngsters in the youth football categories.
For example, Marijn Beuker, technical director of one of the Dutch clubs that has been considered as a reference in the base, AZ Alkmaar, claimed to have abolished "tactics" at the club for players under 16 years old (Training Ground Guru). Massimiliano Allegri, who recently guided Juventus Turin to five consecutive titles in Italy, stated that "tactics and schemes are destroying soccer".
In the United States, the American Soccer Federation (US Soccer) courses teach youth coaches the "Play Practice Play" method, which emphasizes that even during training all activities should be game-based, aiming to avoid coaches who spend too much time giving technical analytical training or explaining "tactics."
But are tactics “bad” during player development?
Answering this question is a complex and controversial task because there are many ways to look at it. For a better understanding of the topic, let’s first better understand the term “tactics.”
We will use the “Brazilian Glossary of Soccer” as our guide. Published in 2020, this glossary seeks to help standardize the terminology used in the country. The Glossary deals with tactics in the context of what it calls the "tactical dimension of the game," and, according to it:
Tactics "the way that the player, through their positioning and movements, occupies and manages the spaces on the field. For that, it is necessary that the player manifest the knowledge in the action, which is characterized as the ability to perceive, analyze, decide, and perform an action that best suits a game situation. Tactics in soccer are expressed in different levels of relationship between the players within the team, such as collective tactics (team and group) and individual tactics".
The glossary divides tactics in soccer as follows:
Team tactic – they must involve at least 5 players
Group tactic - from 2 to 4 players
Individual tactics - 1 player
The glossary goes on, defining other related terms:
Game model is the set of tactical references that will create the references for training and competition.
System of play (formation) "described in numerical format, indicating the number of players that act in each sector of the field or subsectors (goalkeeper, defense, midfield, and attack), for example: 1-4-4-2, 1-3-5-2, 1-4-2-3-1, among others.
Game schemes, or tactical schemes, "are the connections established between the players during matches, that is, the way they relate or communicate based on the roles played on the field, their virtues and limitations." The manual goes further and defines a variety of tactical principles: general, operational, fundamental, and specific.
Considering all of these possible "variations" within the “tactical dimension,” it is understandable how a discussion about the consequences of "tactics" may lead to a variety of different conclusions.
In this sense, we propose to analyze the consequences of the training process using different approaches related to the tactical dimension.
First, we will discuss a player’s development based on a certain formation and then focus on a player’s development based on principles of the game.
I- Development led by a certain formation or model of play.
A well-defined model of play (which will include one or more formations) is very important for a team to be successful in modern soccer.
However, when thinking about the development of players, it is important to consider the limitations that models of play may impose on the players.
For example, if a player grew up having his development based on a certain model, likely he developed an understanding of the game from the role he was supposed to play in this model and worked on the skills and competencies needed for his role.
The older the age of the team, the more detailed the model tends to be, and likely the more complex the tasks that will be demanded from the player.
While this seems to be a logical training progression (from simplest to most complex), there is a problem that can occur according to this form of approach: it does not respect age sensitive periods for optimal development.
Let's illustrate this scenario with two examples:
I. A player who grew up as a midfielder always performing a very specific role and following instructions to play two-touches and pass short when receiving or stealing the ball, and stay back to help prevent counter attacks. .
II. A player who grew up as a winger, being instructed to, when the team has the ball, always play wide, looking for 1v1 situations and, without the ball, defend the opposing team's fullback.
If these players only had "position-specific" training during the crucial years of acquiring motor skills, they may have had both technical and cognitive development limited by the functions required in their role.
The midfielder to which we referred above may not have developed many dribbling skills and the ability to penetrate and finish; while the winger may not have developed how to play inside the field or float defensively.
If these demands arrive, for example, at the U17 level, the players will no longer have the same capacity to adapt to the game as they did when they were younger.
To mitigate the problem, a strategy often used by youth coaches is to have players play many different positions so they can experience other challenges and develop a variety of skills. Even in this case, the development will still be narrowed by the positions that the players experience and the functions associated with those positions in that model of play.
Ideally, at young ages, models of play should not be overly controlled in a way that it limits players' development based upon very specific positions and roles.
II- Development led by tactical principles
Let’s now consider development led by a different kind of “tactics” - principles of the game.
For Castelo (1994), cited by Costa et al. (2011), the tactical “principles of the game” are the theoretical translation of the logic of the game.
For these principles to be understood and developed, a pedagogical option is conditioned games, which involve activities with changes in the rules (changing the size of the field, positioning, and the number of players, goals, etc.), seeking to create challenges so that players can solve the problems of the game (BALZANO, 2012).
It is also possible to develop tactical principles through individual and group tactics, understanding them as expressions of the game, seeking optimal solutions to challenges that are repeated in terms of logic within the infinite variability of the game.
Two examples of individual tactics are defensive anticipation, in which the defender anticipates the opponent's attacker in order to intercept the ball, and offensive anticipation, which usually occurs during a cross, in which the attacker anticipates the defender to try to finish the ball into the opponent's goal.
To enrich a players' repertoire and creativity, characteristics of culture and other team sports can be included in the teaching-learning process. Futsal allows for great development of individual and group tactics due to elements facilitating interactions (such as a low bouncing ball and smooth surface), and elements that create constraints (such as space).
For example, in order to create space away from a defender, one can teach a typical futsal movement (which is an individual tactic) known as "dar o gato" (check-out), in which the player initiates a run before the ball, followed by a quick change of direction to create space to receive the ball. While most soccer coaches work on this kind of movement, Futsal provides the optimal environment to develop it.
Another example coming from futsal would be variations of traditional combinations such as the "give and go" (also known as "one two" or "wall pass"): concepts behind typical futsal moves, such as the parallel and diagonal, can help develop players' the ability to perceive the actions of the opponents and quickly react accordingly (Antonelli, 2018).
Adding layers of decision-making possibilities to the combinations mentioned above, the player may also decide individually whether to make a longer run if his defender is beaten or a short one with a sudden stop when the defender anticipates his run (Balzano, 2020).
For Santana (2019), individual tactics are a form of expression of players' autonomy and represent an important resource in solving the problems of the game.
Within this perspective of adding elements to the process, perceiving elements during the game, and offering options for solutions, individual and group tactics can be used as catalysts for decision making, cognitive and motor development.
A great capacity to perceive and solve the situations micro (around the ball) will help a player to perform in any modern game model.
However, even individual and group tactics can be “demanded” from players without awareness of the context, and therefore, not contribute for the players capacity to understand the game and apply effective decision making.
After all, tactics restrict or extend decision-making?
Tactics can both restrict and amplify players' decision-making and technical abilities. It is important not to seek a dualistic view and consider them as "good" or "bad", but to understand the tactical universe and the implications of different approaches (didactic-methodological):
The way the coach understands, develops, and possibly requires the application of tactics can make them more restrictive or more comprehensive.
A few key takes:
A- At young ages, early specialization of “position” or “function” should be avoided. During early years of development, players have a great capacity for cognitive and motor acquisition, therefore players should be exposed to a rich environment, full of different stimuli.
B- Coaches should take great care when “requiring” the application of tactics (whether individual, group, or team tactics). While a coach may believe requiring a certain tactic may be a quick “solution” to a problem, it may lead to it being used out of an appropriate context in other situations.
C- During development, more important than memorizing the tactics that a coach wants, players should understand the logic associated with each tactic, in a way that they keep developing their understanding of the game of soccer.
Tactics are, and have been a part of the game since the early years. An intentional and organized tactical approach that takes into account the different stages of development and that don’t “imprison” the players, can help them to develop their understanding of the game, autonomy, and capacity to respond effectively to the demands of the game.
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