Having just started my first tenure as a Select soccer coach with Seattle United I can see a lot of changes in the game since I played select soccer in high school. Like all changes there are good and bad. Having grown up in America playing the game I am like many. My interest in the game was started by my father. He had played a little when he was young in Denmark. Knowing a lot of fathers with sons and daughters these days the interest kids derive is often driven by whatever interest their parents may have. My Dad was not a huge fanatic but I quickly became one. It started simply with my dad taking me to see the Seattle Sounders play the Philadelphia Atoms in 1974. It struck me as very exciting and the desire to play and learn more about the game has never ceased.
Back in those days, in the early 70’s, the game was simple no matter what age. The game was always played 11v11. The formation was a 2-3-5. Which meant two fullback’s, three midfielders and five forwards. In my honest opinion it was a good formation to introduce kids to as it was very offensive minded. At the pro level most teams were using either a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3. This would continue through the 80’s. The positions were well-defined. In those days there were not a lot of offensive minded defenders (unless you saw Brazil, they were all offensive minded). The mids controlled the area between the penalty boxes. The forwards usually had one big man dubbed “the target man”. He was big strong and good in the air.
In the 1986 World Cup I remember seeing something new in terms of formation. Denmark had made their first World Cup and they were loaded with midfield talent, with players like Michael Laudrup, Soren Lerby, Jesper Olson, and Frank Arnesen. THeir German coach Sepp Piontek recognized this and did something different. The formation they went with was more or less a 3-6-1, flooding the midfield with talent. In some instances they would flood one side with a double overlap. It was fun to watch.
Today the game has changed yet again with a hole host formation and position changes, Today when we look at our back four we have rid ourselves of the sweeper and stopper concept and gone to what we term a flat-back four (all coaches hate this term as the back four are not really “flat”). Our outside back now must be able to run the field from end line to end line. They must have excellent technical skills for both defense and offense. The center backs are big and athletic. The one thing you do not see here is the center backs making strong runs forward. When I look at Manchester United’s two center backs (Vidic and Ferdinand) you really only see them move forward is on corner kicks.
In midfield we have seen some of the biggest changes. In the late 90’s we saw the advent of the defensive midfielder. We can actually point to one player who influenced this more than others, the Frenchman Claude Makalele. You could probably argue that it is a bad term as I think it has two roles. One breaking up the offense and the point of attack. The second being holding the ball and from a deep position setting up the offense for attack. Essentially the defensive midfielder is the link between the offense and defense. As the position has become a staple of the game you now see in some instances teams play with two or three defensive midfielders. What I find an interesting evolution is that the central midfielder used to the “quarterback” of the team. Organizing the offense and maintaining possession of the ball. Looking at the modern game this role has been marginalized. Many teams rely more on the defensive mid to provide the linking service and direct things from a deeper position. The more traditional center mid would be just inside the mid way line. You look at the larger clubs like Manchester United and Manchester City they don’t seem to have the classical central midfielder. That does not mean it has disappeared, but it certainly is not as common. There are good examples of people who still play that traditional role, Xavi Hernandez at Barcelona probably being the best.
When we look up top at the forwards that has completely changed. The big target man who just heads the ball at goal is not as prevalent. In the 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 the high forward is isolated and asked to a lot of work chasing down defenders. If you look at Chelsea’s Didier Drigba, look how much work he is doing when Chelsea do not have the ball. When you have two forwards a lot of times the second drops a bit deeper and is given more freedom to roam, good example would be Christiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid or Ronaldinho during his AC Barcelona days (waste of talent, but that is another story. That require a player with creativity and endurance. You used to have the concept of wingers and they still exist they are not necessarily a core part of most teams. However when we talk as coaches so much about width and depth I wonder why we don’t see more of that type of player – to be clear there are still around, but if you look at many English Premier League, they don’t have a classic winger.
This evolution will continue, just like in every sport. But what we are seeing is players need to be complete, both on offense and defense. The days of I am just a defender or I am just a forward are over. I think you will see formation changes – i can foresee more formations laden with defensive mids so you will have a 3-2-3-2 or 3-2-4-1 – some teams are already doing this today. Even when they see apparent they are not – when you look at Barcelona’s line up you may think you are seeing a traditional 4-3-3, but the top three play deeper in the midfield than traditional forward ever would. Even when a 4-3-3 is deployed it can be used more as a defensive maneuver, case in point every team who played Spain in the 2010 World Cup. The reason being the common view of Spain and Barcelona, to be successful you must stop Xavi and Inniesta from receiving the ball in midfield, so pressure the defenders.
I think what makes soccer (and sports in general) interesting is following the formation changes, technical changes, and physical challenges the game provides. It’s what gets me excited about coaching the game and discovering new ways of conveying those changes in the game. Beyond that it is trying to stay ahead of those changes.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Henrik Hoffmann June 26, 2011