A few years ago the Boy took part in a regional age group competition and whilst his team didn’t set the world on fire they had, what could be considered, a good tournament. Central to their success was the fact they had two of the best forwards in the competition and, whilst at one end the Boy and his teammates kept the opposition frustrated, these two forwards ran havoc amongst most of the teams they played.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was disappointed to see that both of these players were now playing in midfield, one as a deep lying wide player and the other sat just in front of the defence. Whilst neither of these players looked effective in their new positions, what disappointed me the most was when I asked the Boy why they had changed, he informed me that the coach had told them they need to be able to play in different positions if they want to succeed in the modern game.
On the face of it this may be regarded as sound advice, in the modern game there are a lot of players who are required to play in multiple positions for their clubs, remember Mame Diouf playing at right back in extra time for Stoke against Chelsea? And this is one of the considerations outlined in New Zealand’s Whole of Football Plan. But I would argue that unless you are a freakish enigma such as James Milner, a player who seems to be able to play most positions on the park with consummate ease, there are natural areas of delineation for every player on the football pitch.
In the case of the two ex-forwards now masquerading as midfielders both of these players have an inbuilt instinct to do one thing, put the ball in the back of the net, and when they take to the pitch that is all they think about. But in taking them away from their natural action areas you are removing them from where they are most effective. Both of these players had OK tournaments but each was responsible for putting their defence under pressure because they were naturally drawn to the opposition’s penalty area. You may argue that these players need to learn discipline and how to play how their coach wants but I would suggest the coach needs to identify what his players’ strengths are and to set up his team accordingly. Otherwise when, or if, these players return to where they want to play you will have replaced an instinctive goal scorer with a forward who is always looking to defend.
At the moment I know it is the vogue to have teams who defend from the front and attackers who are programmed to work hard and look for their supporting players but, as I have mentioned in previous posts, football is ever changing and, what is trending right now in the professional game will not necessarily be the same when the young players of today are old enough to be considered. Would you play Messi at right back or John Terry on the right wing? Would you swap Shawcross and Shaqiri’s staring positions? Holland’s “Total Football” of the seventies, which is the basis of today’s fluid formations worked because of the players at Rinus Michels’ disposal but it was also laced with a huge dose of pragmatism and it is this pragmatism which needs to be exercised when coaches begin to swap players from position to position.
And it is this pragmatism which I feel is missing as teams try to implement the currently popular fluid formations which we see used so effectively by the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona. How many times this season have you seen goals conceded because of the mantra “keep the ball at all costs”? With the advent of midfielders playing in defence, think John Stones and David Luiz, the art of defending is rapidly becoming eroded and it is the prevalence of midfielders spreading into every position on the football pitch which I fear the Whole of Football Plan will replicate. Total Football was all about players being able to play in any position not players playing the same way wherever they are on the park. It was about centre forwards, wingers, centre halves and fullbacks and not just about utility players, it had at its core gifted individuals which made the system work and its success began to wane with those players. A lesson perhaps for those who maintain it is all about having a common system throughout your club or federation?
Those two players may have had OK tournaments but the frustrating thing as a spectator was they were both better than the players who replaced them up front and if they had swapped I don’t think either of their replacements would have minded. One plays central midfield for his club side whilst the other played right back for the last two tournaments.
Maybe it’s not pragmatism that is required but common sense!