About Simon Smith

I'm a history student by day and football tactic nerd by night. Tragically raised as a Cumbrian Arsenal fan by football-muggle parents, the world of football writing is my sweet revenge for having no ability as a payer. I'm a former co-host of the award nominated Penny Floater podcast and regular on The False Nine.

Aleksandar Kolarov: will the inverted full back help us overcome a defensive Gaël Cliché?


In the fourth installment of ‘Tacticle Your Fancy’, Simon Smith discusses the merits of Manchester City’s Aleksandar Kolarov and explores the idea of a back ‘three and a half’…

This has been a strange week for Manchester City’s full backs. I basically love Aleksandar Kolarov, but I strongly hate the constant popular analysis of him. It’s not that it’s wrong, on Match of the Day when the pundits gather round and highlight his attacking penetration but defensive shortcomings, or when the fans are rightly frustrated when a lapse in his concentration allows yet another testy ball into a dangerous area.

No, that does very well summarize the issue in Pellegrini playing him. The reason I hate that isn’t because of its inaccuracy but for the same reason I detest comparisons between Theo Walcott and defensive workhorse James Milner, why I loathe it when an old reliable like Ashley Cole is held up as an example of what Kolarov should try and emulate. These players play in the same part of the pitch, but they are far from the same position.

So to find myself enjoying not only Kolarov’s performance against the unfortunate Newcastle United on Sunday but also the quality of analysis on Match of the Day 2 was something of a surprise. Was there more detail than usual, a clever insight into his role I had missed? No, just the usual pointing out of his wide attacking overlapping with Silva cutting inside: an interesting feature but one prevalent in many top sides and a regular tactic of Mancini before Pellegrini.

What made the analysis good was what was left unsaid. Kolarov was effectively analyzed as if he was a midfielder in City’s 2-6-2 formation. Continue reading

Tactickle Your Fancy: Strikerless sides of a different kind


The False Nine’s tactics aficionado Simon Smith discusses the varying uses of strikerless formations…

Watching AS Roma destroy Internazionale last week was one of my highlights of the season, because it felt like a win for the underdog. I’m not saying that I prefer the Romans to Inter, or even that I wanted them to win, but seeing a team who sold their best defender and forward reborn through a collective strategy is hard not to enjoy. If the experiment with Zemen ended in tears, Garcia has been refreshingly simplistic in the way he makes attacking football look natural, instead of requiring a season long revolution. The most obvious change to the attack has been the reintroduction of Totti to centre forward after a season as the trequartista.

Just two days earlier, Sam Allerdici grabbed the headlines by adopting a similar strategy to demolish hot favourites Tottenham Hotspur 3-0.  Are we to believe that this is because he was influenced by Serie A, or is the more cynical view that this was a desperate throw of the dice born out of Andy Carroll’s injury more accurate? Increasingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly following Barcelona’s success, the false nine is being used to describe systems in football matches in all the major European leagues. The real question is whether this is because the formation is more commonly used, or whether the term is: and to answer this, we need to look at strikerless formations in the pre Guardiola world. Continue reading

Arsenal, Tottenham and the return of the Number Eight


Simon Smith’s latest tactics column looks at North London’s Number Eights, who are currently trumping their rivals’ split teams…

An Arsenal fan recently told me he hoped Tottenham would finish second in the league this season. It turned out to be a tongue in cheek setup for a joke about how Arsenal always finish higher. While I laughed, I’m sure Spurs fans will struggle to see the humour through the cruelty: recruiting a new manager, changing the playing squad, extracting every last penny from the Madrid coffers to reinvest this season – literally every meticulous thing Daniel Levy has been able to do to improve Tottenham’s standing has been done. Meanwhile the red half of North London have somehow managed, at times, to appear languid and lazy while staying one step ahead.

Whether or not that will be the case by May remains to be seen, but certainly this increasingly divergent ethos of each team has been on display already this season. It’s not so much a style of play as much as a method in achieving this style: I couldn’t help but notice the very Tottenham and Arsenal ways that their new number eights have been unearthed and harnessed this season. I’m talking about the more attack-minded holding player, the function midfielder as opposed to the defensive specialist. Both have made a conscious decision to change the individual charged with this role, both have improved their fluidity as a result, but both have achieved this in a different manner. Continue reading

Kaka, Ozil, Mata and Isco: The Logic of Buying a Playmaker


Making his triumphant TFN return after a summer spent away, Simon Smith explores the rationale behind the recent recruitment of creative players…

It was 2nd September and I was walking to the train station in Milan when I came across a crowd of Rossoneri singing Kaka’s name outside a restaurant. This impromptu chorus line, decked out in the famous black and red stripes of Milan, had gathered hoping to catch a glimpse of their returning hero inside enjoying a meal. Watching the fans jostle for position to welcome the prodigal Brazilian home, I couldn’t help but wonder why his arrival had received so little coverage outside of Italy whilst clearly meaning so much to the those within the city. Though Kaka is certainly past his best years now – his transfer will likely become more famous for his massive pay cut and dispensing of the usual signing bonuses and fees that made the move possible – surely such fluff stories about a name as huge as his is exactly what the English red-tops thrive on? Perhaps the problem for Kaka’s PR team, and the cause for the general lack of interest in his homecoming, is that even with his profile he wasn’t the biggest playmaker to move this summer; he wasn’t even close.

Willian, Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Gotze, Erikson, Isco, Lamela, Thiago, Kevin Prince Boateng; it was an uncharacteristically active season for playmaker deals throughout Europe. In a busy summer all round, with such highly sought after stars as Tevez, Cavani, Falcao and Bale sealing big moves, and the protracted transfer sagas of Rooney and Suarez dominating the back pages, it remains rare to see so many so-called number tens change clubs at the same time. The playmaker is such an ambiguous term that it has become difficult to pinpoint what sort of player the word describes in the modern game; the general use means an attacking player who can unpick the opposition defence, somewhere in between more metronomic passers like Michael Carrick – midfield managers rather than playmakers – and players who operate more like second strikers, such as Stevan Jovetic.

If the playmakers of the present can be so diverse in their role and make up, why do teams remain so tentative about bringing them into their side? Arguably it may well be variety and the lack of standardisation that can make clubs  hesitate over their number tens. Continue reading

Tactical Trends of 2012-13


Simon Smith reflects on some of the tactical trends from last season…

The summer of speculation is fully underway as gossip, exclusives, breaking nonsense and rumours replace the reflections team of the year lists and player reviews. It can only mean one thing: enough time has passed for us to properly look at the last year from a few steps back and assess a season that wasn’t quite.

In entertainment terms that is. In tactical terms, quietly and under the radar, there were some big changes taking place. Perhaps the biggest season in four or five years in terms of the changes to playing style at the highest level, 2012-13 won’t be remembered as a classic but certainly will be remembered as the year tiki taka lost its sheen. The event of the season for the purist must surely be Bayern Munich’s demolition of the much heralded Barcelona in the Champion’s League, an outcome some had predicted but executed in so brutal and total a manner as to surprise world football in general.  The death of tiki taka was the talk of the internet, but it was clearly premature.  What we can say with more clarity is that the dominance of tiki taka is over, and even if nothing as coherent and successful has come along to replace it, the one system hegemony of the Xaviesta era is probably over now. Continue reading

Hypothetical XI #17: The Best of Wigan Athletic in the Premier League

Wigan Team

So long Wigan Athletic, and thanks for all the fish end of season memories. As Roberto Martinez’s men slip into the Championship, with an unlikely FA Cup under their arm for their efforts, Simon Smith salutes their greatest hits with a hypothetical squad list of players who have excelled at the DW over the last eight years…

After eight years in the Premier League that nobody could have predicted back in 2005, Wigan Athletic will depart the glitz and glamour of the top flight leaving us with the memories of so many exciting but fundamentally flawed teams. I’m not sure which is harder, choosing the creative players to omit or the defenders to include… Nonetheless, here’s an ultimate Wigan XI from the last eight years that reflects the nature of the team: a controversial and uncompromising 3-2-5 to have the purist salivating and the Italian fan crying with rage, sheer rage at the audacity to play so open! Continue reading

Greek Cup half empty as Asteras lose out to Olympiakos in final

Greece Soccer Cup Final

While the usual suspects may have been denied in England’s cup competitions  this year, Simon Smith looks at how hopes of a challenge to the one city monopoly of Greek football faded in yesterday’s cup final between Olympiakos and Asteras…

I’m sure there will be enough speculation about the future of Wigan that I can avoid joining the Martinez brigade here.  It was a brilliant final, a classic giant killing final the likes of which we have been too long deprived of.  Sadly, in the midst of all this, a David killing has slipped under the radar in this weekend’s other cup final.  It’s the sorry tale of Asteras Triploi’s extra time drubbing by champions Olympiakos.

It’s been quite a season for Greek football.  It’s not going to be remembered as a classic: there was no title race, Fan violence continued to spiral out of control, the Hellenic Football Federation proved itself once again to be incapable of any meaningful authority and European campaigns were abysmal.  But it won’t be a season we will forget in a hurry.  This probably will be remembered as the defining season for the Superleague in its recent history.  It’s been one of those seasons you don’t forget because it captured the feeling in the sport so perfectly, so typically, that anybody without knowledge of Greek football could look at the table, watch a few games, and instantly understand what was going on.  I wrote in February about the way the season was heading, but I couldn’t have hoped that the Greek Cup final would epitomise the rest of the year so perfectly. Continue reading