The Football Tactics Paradigm


In defence of the Alan’s and their punditry, The False Nine debutant, Elko Born, tackles the myth of the football manager… 

These days, whoever is tired of hearing Alan Shearer and Alan Hansen repeat chewed down, romantic cliché’s every Saturday and Sunday night needs not to worry.

It’s 2013, and only a few clicks or swipes separate the modern football fan from a vast array of carefully thought out football theory. From hypotheses about the advent of the ‘false nine’ to discussions  on the merits of high pressing; on the internet, it’s all out there in abundance, nicely laid out in articles written by amateurs and professionals alike. Indeed, after the 2008 publication of Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book Inverting the Pyramid, a whole generation of football writers – many of whom undoubtedly spent the lion’s share of their childhood dragging arrows across a green square whilst playing a certain computer game – took it upon themselves to blog and tweet away about every single tactical detail imaginable. Some of these blogposts and tweets are highly original, interesting and insightful. Others, so it seems to this writer, reek of ignorance and unwarranted pseudo-intellectualism.

Conceptualizations of the modern playmaker, for example, can be considered as highly informative, while comparisons between Russian formalist literary theories and the art of football might just be stretching it. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that for many, football theory and tactical analyses added a great deal to football writing.

The case is, however, that for some people who enjoy reading about modern playmakers and high pressing, a vague feeling of uneasiness remains. That uneasiness may well lay in the fact that in football, sometimes – or rather, quite a lot of the times – events take turns only explicable by the words of the romantic. A good case in point, to take a recent example, might be Borussia Dortmund’s 2012/2013 Champions League quarterfinal effort against Malaga. Dortmund’s manager, Jürgen Klopp, is often revered for his tactical genius, yet in that game, his team wasn’t able to snatch the lead until they went for a crazy, all or nothing kamikaze attack in the last minutes of injury time. As it became apparent on media like Twitter, the irony of it all wanted that after that game, quite a lot of fans and footballer writers alike primarily ascribed Dortmund’s success to one man alone: Jürgen Klopp. The sheer audacity of Dortmund’s injury time heroics was, according to many, only secondary.

Something about this apparent consensus did not quite sit well. Of course, managers leave their marks on teams, both on the training field and the match pitch. And yes, Klopp is a great manager, whose tactical intelligence no doubt contributed a great deal to Dortmund’s formidable achievements these past few years. But besides the sheer quality of Dortmund’s squad, is it all Klopp and his tactics? Or is it also true that, in football, a lot of the times outcomes are determined by other factors as well, and isn’t it true that, in many ways, football theory and tactical analyses often obscure these factors?

As Professor in Sport and Society at the Leeds Metropolitan University, Stephen Wagg wrote an article titled ‘Angels of Us All? Football Management, Globalization and the Politics of Celebrity’. In this article, published in the October 2007 issue of the scientific journal Soccer & Society, Wagg uses two case studies – Sven-Göran Eriksson and José Mourinho –  to postulate the following hypothesis:

  ‘…football management is, first and foremost, a paradigm for explaining the results of football matches that are commercially and/or politically important…The importance of this paradigm is that, at any given moment in the life of a significant football team, explanation of that team’s performance will be reduced to a single determinant: the stewardship of its manager’ (p. 441-442).

Indeed, as Wagg convincingly shows in his case study of Mourinho’s career at Chelsea, from 2004 until 2007 media (football writers, amongst others) repeatedly ascribed Chelsea’s success to the mythical Portuguese alone, largely ignoring certain structural factors (Abramovich’s millions) along the way. In this particular case, this type of media-framing is not as harmless as it might appear. As Wagg goes on to show: during Mourinho’s reign at Chelsea, most media primarily styled Mourinho as the producer and Abramovich as the consumer of Chelsea’s success. Therefore, the harsh reality of overwhelming importance of financial capital in modern (Premier League) football was obscured all too often.


Extrapolating Wagg’s theory, one could argue that a similar dynamic takes place in the world of football theory and tactical analyses. Indeed, while theoretical conceptualizations of the game can be very fruitful in some cases, sometimes they play into the myth of the football manager too much, obscuring not only the undeniable influence of Russian and Middle Eastern millions in modern football, but also those factors only the words of the romantic can explain. Dortmund’s effort against Malaga once again comes to mind. Isn’t it true that in that match, besides Klopp’s tactical genius, major factors contributing to Dortmund’s eventual victory were persistence, inspiration, luck, hard work –  all that which one, in an unsatisfactory effort to put it all in one word, would call ‘passion’?

By nature, football theory and tactical analyses fail to incorporate these factors in their attempts at explaining the game – if only because at the end of the day, ‘passion’ is not a suitable theoretical concept. It is therefore important that, while we click and swipe our way through informative theory, we remember that the game of football belongs not just to the theorists, but to the romantics as well. Football theory and tactical analyses have their place, for sure, but we should be wary that the football tactics paradigm does not grow into an all-powerful, all obscuring god.

Thorough tactical analyses aside, it might just be true that in some cases, the only theory capable of explaining a certain match outcome would amount to nothing more than the following statement: ‘Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win’.

Even in this brave new world we live in, The Alan’s – and Gary’s – have their place. Let’s not get rid of them quite yet.

The author of this article is fully aware that he made use of theory in his attempt to discredit theory. Perhaps this works into his theory about the duality of football theory. He’s not quite sure yet, but you can talk to him about it on Twitter.

@Elko_B; @The_False_Nine

2 thoughts on “The Football Tactics Paradigm

  1. Hi

    Great piece, Jonathan Wilson touched a little bit on this subject in the Guardian after the Dortmund-Malaga match, asking whether it is tactics or players that ensure a victory? I think you’ve hit the nail on the coffin here, much like music and films, you get poseurs. There are those that truly understand the genius of why a manager set his side up in this or that manner and those that jump on the bandwagon and use terms like “counter press” to seem like they know what they’re on about

    P.S. I hope by “Gary” you didn’t mean Neville ‘cos he’s one of the good guys :)

    • Hey Daniel, thanks for the kind words.

      I know the Wilson piece you’re talking about. I read it shortly after I wrote this piece, it almost seemed like a reply!

      And the Gary I was talking about was of the Linker variety.

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