Lines and Diamonds: Part Nine – Tactical Contingencies

This is part nine of the series by The Hand of God.

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Tactics are usually designed with ideal circumstances in mind, but in reality, managers can’t depend on having perfect weather and an injury-free squad. This chapter will look at common circumstances that can influence a team’s performance on the pitch. A manager’s ability to navigate these more mundane challenges is just as important as his understanding of systems and styles.

9.1 INJURIES

Injuries are an unavoidable part of football management, and an injury crisis can easily derail a season for even the best of teams. Good fitness management is an important part of the job, and it’s an area that overlaps heavily with tactical management. Match strategies are often designed to balance the competing demands of player fitness and the manager’s playing philosophy, and in many cases, a manager’s playing philosophy itself is informed by injury concerns.

The most effective of way of dealing with injuries is to do everything possible to prevent them. In terms of match tactics, this can be by incorporating less physically demanding approaches into the team’s play. Pushing a team to carry out a physically taxing style for 90 minutes in every match can produce big scorelines and exciting play, but it can just as easily lead to lengthy injury lists and points lost in the weeks ahead. By utilising match strategies that give players opportunities to conserve energy, especially when a result is already secured, a manager can help keep his players fitter and less jaded.

Strategic substitutions are another effective method of avoiding injuries. When you take over a club, it’s a good idea to review scout reports and player histories to get a sense of which players are prone to injury. By only keeping these players on the pitch as much as needed, you can help increase their total playing time over the course of the season.

Still, even when all the right precautions are taken, injuries will still occur. When they occur during a match, it is important to keep your cool and try to think things through. Though injuries are incredibly frustrating, this frustration can make things go from bad to worse if it leads to thoughtless decisions.

When replacing an injured player, you should always consider how the substitution will affect the overall balance of the tactic. This is simple enough if you are making a like-for-like replacement, but it may be the case that you need to make adjustments to accommodate the new player. This is particularly important when replacing a key player in a vital role. If your playmaker gets injured, it’s best not to hand over his creative duties to an 18 year-old back-up midfielder, and if your lone creative forward gets injured, that poacher you haven’t been able to offload will require shifting more creative responsibility onto others. Often, these situations may require you to reposition a superior player who is already on the pitch, perhaps even playing them out of position to keep the overall system intact, and in some cases, you may need to alter the team’s system to take the pressure off a replacement who is not prepared to take on the injured player’s responsibilities.

Long term, the same considerations apply. A common mistake inexperienced managers make is to persist with a system designed to get the best out of players who have been injured. If the back-ups can’t do the job, then you must adapt. There is no sense in having inadequate players keep a system warm until the right players are available.

Though injuries are frustrating, they do present opportunities, and an injury crisis should be thought of as a test of your managerial ability. When managed poorly, they can quickly see a team’s season spiral into ruin, but if managed well, they can see new ideas and young stars come to the fore.

9.2 DOWN TO TEN MEN

A team playing better when it’s down to ten men is one of the great cliches of football. However, this phenomenon doesn’t always just come down to a side buckling down under duress or an opponent becoming complacent. Depending on the circumstances, a sending off or late injury may prompt a change of tactics from your opponent, and this can work to your advantage. Often, you will see the 11-man side decide to press their advantage. They might send another player forward, possibly change their system and even press higher up the pitch. Even if they don’t actually make tactical adjustments, the increased amount of space available will often naturally encourage their players to move forward more aggressively. Meanwhile, the 10-man side drops back, starts playing it direct to the striker and suddenly finds itself with a steady stream of counterattacks.

After going down a man, a purely defensive reaction is natural, but if your attacking approach becomes completely ineffective, this can increase the burden of your defence. Playing with ten men always equates to a loss of support. You have less players who can receive a pass, and this makes it much more difficult to try to play through a defence.

The easiest solution is to play more direct. If you bypass the midfield entirely, you don’t need to rely on support play as much, though naturally, this will come at the cost of possession. If your opponent is still playing a cautious defence, you can also do the opposite: hold possession at the back, waste time and sacrifice any attacking threat altogether. Of course, you’ll need to account for the qualities of your forward, and if necessary (especially when chasing a badly needed result), it can help to bring on more defensive-minded midfielders to allow you to add a second man up top.

Sending more players forward in attack will increase the need for high risk tackles from defenders.
Sending more players forward in attack will increase the need for high risk tackles from defenders.

Finally, if you do choose to keep pursuing more complex attacking patterns, you must choose your battles and focus on where the space is available. As above, going down to 10 means losing support, and this means that the opposition gains extra cover. Extra cover allows the opposition to hold its shape more effectively, so if you try to play through space that the opposition has congested, you will be far less likely to succeed.

When facing an opponent who has been reduced to ten men, you do not necessarily have to make any changes, but if you are desperate for a goal, you should adapt your attacking system to take advantage of any space that has opened up as a result. You should also avoid assuming that having a numerical advantage means a more direct, cavalier approach is more appropriate. For example, if your opponent has had to sacrifice a forward, their basic defensive shape at the back will be unchanged, so you won’t necessarily benefit if you just start funneling the ball up to a striker facing a 1v3 situation.

The main benefit of being a man up is that you can stretch the opposition defence more effectively. With fewer players, the opposition has to ask each player to cover more ground, and this makes each player more susceptible to being lured out of position. Often, patient play based on creating depth and width for mobile attackers will prove more effective than rushing forward. Though if the opposition has sacrificed any counterattacking threat to get more players behind the ball, you may also benefit from sending another defender forward (or releasing a second holding midfielder to offer closer support around the area).

9.3 FORM & CONFIDENCE

A key player short on confidence can be as disruptive to a team’s season as an injury. A striker who has lost touch with his goal-scoring instincts or a playmaker who just can’t pick out the right pass can leave a team playing like it only has 10 men on the pitch. Often, managers assume poor form and low confidence are purely man management issues, but a tactical solution on the pitch can be far more effective than a few words of encouragement in the dressing room.

In some cases, the problem is entirely tactical. This often happens when an underrated team has enjoyed an extended run of good form and opposition teams have responded by playing more defensively. Suddenly, the strikers find there’s less space to attack and simple build-up patterns can no longer be relied upon to consistently create chances. In these cases, tactical adjustments are required, and you should avoid the temptation to try to recapture the success of an old formula when the tactical landscape has changed.

If a player is simply not making the most out of good opportunities (for example, missing sitters or avoiding challenging passes), then confidence is more likely the issue. In these cases, tactical adjustments can still be made to help the player rediscover his form. The key is to take pressure off the player by easing the responsibilities of his role. This will make the team less dependent on his individual performances, and when the team’s performance picks up, the player will be able to work through his issues without the burden of feeling as if he’s costing the team points.

There are three ways to do this. First, you can simply turn the player into an impact sub in low pressure situations. Goals are more likely to be scored when opposition defences are tired and demoralised, so sending the player on when he’s fresh and the opposition is out of steam will let him play with more freedom and rediscover his talents. The risk of this approach is that the player might not react well to an effective change in squad status.

The second approach is to actually change the player’s role. This is usually done by assigning a more general role to a struggling playmaker or by putting an attacker in a more limited role that lets him play to his strengths. Often, you will want to give the struggling player’s responsibilities to a teammate in order to preserve the overall balance of your system.

The third approach is to change the system as a whole. This is usually done when a struggling player needs the system to give him more support or, in the case of defensive players, cover. The most common example is a lone striker who is being asked to carve out chances for himself. In that case, adding a second striker who focuses on opening up more space for him is a simple yet often effective answer. The same idea applies to players in other roles and positions. For example, a struggling playmaker might benefit from the presence of an additional generalist midfielder who can take up some of his creative responsibilities. Likewise, a central defender who has become prone to errors might be benefit from the addition of a defensive midfielder or a third central defender.

Finally, you can pursue a combination of these three approaches. This is often the case when a change of role would disrupt the system. For example, switching a complete forward to a target man or poacher might require adding a support striker or attacking midfielder to help him.

9.4 NEW PLAYERS & TEAM COHESION

Moving to a new team or overhauling a squad can present a difficult tactical challenge. Until players are accustomed to both the manager’s tactics and their teammates’ personal styles, decision-making will tend to suffer, and this can see points dropped due to errors and disorganised play. If the manager also prefers a mentally or technically demanding approach that further increases the risk of errors, the club can easily end up suffering a “transitional” season.

Most managers just accept that players will need time to adapt, but the risks of this approach increase with the demands of the manager’s system. Generally, any style that demands fast, high risk decision-making from its players will tend to struggle more while the players are adjusting. The most common examples include aggressive pressing styles and high tempo, short-passing styles.

There are a few ways to reduce the risk of dropping points during an adjustment period if the club is in a desperate state. The first is to introduce a less demanding transitional approach to be used while the manager’s preferred approach is perfected on the training ground. This can involve using a simplified approach that reduces the risk of player errors altogether, simply playing at a lower tempo or, if you are taking over a club in the middle of season, adopting elements of the approach that the players had already been training under the previous manager.

It can also be beneficial to rely more on the team’s established players until the squad as a whole has adapted. These players will have a better mutual understanding with one another, and if you have been at the club for a while, they will understand your tactics better than players who have just arrived. This is particularly important when it comes to choosing players for the more demanding roles in your system. For example, a playmaker needs more than just good technique and vision. He also needs to understand what his manager wants and what his teammates are likely to do.

9.5 WEATHER & PITCH CONDITIONS

The extent to which weather and pitch conditions will influence your tactics greatly depends on your style of play. Before settling upon a style of play to develop at your club, it is important to consider whether it is suitable to the pitch and weather conditions that you are likely to face in your league. This is most likely to be a concern if you prefer a highly technical style of play. In that case, you might wish to avoid working in leagues where pitch conditions are poor due to either the financial state of the clubs or the weather of the region.

Assuming your preferred tactical approach isn’t completely at odds with the league and climate in which you intend to manage, you will likely still have to deal with bad weather from time to time. When this happens, you shouldn’t necessarily tell your players to go more direct at the first sign of rain. Rather, you should carefully consider whether the risks of sticking to your normal style under the current conditions outweigh risks of asking the players to adopt a style with which they’re not entirely familiar. A light downpour or somewhat choppy pitch will certainly affect players’ abilities, but under most styles of play, players can be expected to adapt accordingly. In some cases, bad weather may even be beneficial to the team’s preferred style of play.

Players in a diamond formation will find it easier to respond to wide threats on a narrow pitch.
Players in a diamond formation will find it easier to respond to wide threats on a narrow pitch.

When faced with more extreme conditions or a poor performance, adjustments are far more likely to be necessary. For the savvy and flexible manager, the weather can then become a potent ally in exploiting opposition weaknesses. In any case, it’s always a good idea to check the weather and pitch conditions before a match. This can help you recognise any problems or potential advantages shortly after the match begins.

In terms of the pitch, there are two aspects that should be considered: the actual condition of the turf (irrespective of the weather) and the dimensions. The turf conditions will mainly affect players’ ability to receive, dribble and pass the ball along the ground. An uneven pitch will make the speed and trajectory of the ball’s movement less predictable when it travels along the ground. This increases the risk of a player miscontrolling the ball or misplacing a pass. It also makes it more difficult for defenders to anticipate the destination of a direct ball when it’s drilled along the ground or descending into an unpredictable series of bounces.

If your team is struggling to string together passes on a poor pitch, you may need to play a more direct game. You may also need to rely more on crosses or shots from distance rather than attempting to finesse the ball into the net. As players come under more pressure, the situation will become more difficult for players attempting a technical style of play.

A poor pitch can make a high pressure style of defending all the more effective, especially if the team targets players who are already somewhat uncomfortable on the ball. Consequently, disruptive tactics are ideally suited to poor pitch conditions. Possession tactics, on the other hand, are very difficult to pull off, and it’s extremely risky to expect defenders to control possession in your own half of the pitch when they can’t reliably control the ball.

Pitch size relates directly to the tactical principles of width and depth along with their defensive counterparts, balance and compression. A smaller pitch makes the playing area naturally compact, so the defending team will find it easier to restrict space between the lines and shift from flank to flank. This makes it more difficult for either side to play through or around the opposition in a more complex build-up style. On the other hand, a side that transitions quickly with direct balls played to athletic runners will often find the opposition defence unbalanced closer to their goal when playing on a shorter pitch.

A larger pitch does the opposite. It opens up more space for attackers with defences struggling to remain compact without exposing space on the flanks and depth on either end of the defensive line. This makes it easier for a complex build-up style to find space, create space and achieve penetration. On the other hand, it increases the physical demands of a counterattacking style since attackers are forced to cover more ground when attempting an end-to-end attack.

In terms of match control tactics, a larger pitch will favour possession tactics while a smaller pitch will make it more difficult and much riskier to circulate the ball around the back if the opposition is looking to press your players into mistakes. For much the same reason, a disruptive tactic will be more effective on a smaller pitch whereas a larger pitch can see players chasing the ball fruitlessly unless a challenge is made before the opposition has had time to disperse into good supporting positions. When using an obstruction tactic, a larger pitch will make it even riskier to play with a narrow formation or without quick defenders since there will be more space to play the ball around and behind the defensive block. Rush tactics will tend to be even more brutal on a large pitch, though the greater amount of space to cover will also increase the risk of the team being stretched into disarray.

A soaked pitch creates many of the same problems as a generally poor pitch, and when a poor pitch gets wet, the situation becomes all the more difficult for sides that like to play technical football. In addition to the difficulty of controlling the ball, wet conditions make it more difficult to maneuver at pace without slipping. This makes dribbling much more difficult, so defences will find it much easier to stop attackers who try to work the ball past them with close control.

A wet ball is also more difficult for a goalkeeper to handle. This makes crosses and shots from distance more difficult to claim, and this can result in more loose balls around the area. Rain can also affect a goalkeeper’s vision, so a heavy downpour can be very advantageous for midfielders who like to shoot from outside the area.

Not all bad weather disadvantages short passing sides. Strong winds will hinder a long ball style.
Not all bad weather disadvantages short passing sides. Strong winds will hinder a long ball style.

With under-soil heating, snow is unlikely to be an issue at the top level of the game, but in the lower leagues, snowfall brings all the challenges of a rainy pitch to a further extreme. Heavier snowfall can also make it far more difficult to move at pace while very cold air can be a nuisance for players who attempt frequent sprints.

Windy conditions create different problems. In strong winds, it becomes extremely difficult to accurately play a ball into the air, and it can also affect the accuracy of long passes drilled along the ground. Short passing technique becomes more important as does the ability to finesse the ball into the area. Players will find it more difficult to cross the ball accurately, and in gusty conditions, you should consider encouraging players to play the ball short on set pieces. Still, the wind will also make the ball’s unpredictable for defenders, and this can work to the advantage of a team that’s content to just hoof it and ride their luck. Similarly, shots from distance can be affected, but they will also be more difficult for a goalkeeper to read.

Climate can have a massive influence in regions prone to extreme temperatures. In hot, humid climates, players will tire more quickly, and this will increase the risk of playing a high tempo, aggressive pressing style or end-to-end style of attack. In a league where warmer temperatures are the norm, match strategies that incorporate possession and obstruction tactics to reduce physical exertion are necessary to avoid late game exhaustion. In extreme conditions, heat and humidity can even prove a test of players’ morale and work rate. In a league where colder temperatures are the norm, players will have a better chance of sustaining a high tempo style for the full 90 minutes, though doing so will still increase the risk of fatigue and muscle injury.

9.6 SET PIECES

Set pieces are football’s great equaliser. They can produce unlikely triumphs and unravel tactical masterpieces. They decide the fate of seasons and tournaments at the highest level. They will win you points, and they will cost you points. Yet, they are often ignored until the damage is done.

To set up attacking set piece routines, the most important detail to consider is the supply. For corners, there are three types: in-swinging balls, out-swinging balls and short corners. If your corner taker is on the side of the pitch opposite to his strongest foot (for example, a right-footed player taking a corner from the left), he’s more likely to play an in-swinger. If your corner taker is on the same side of the pitch as his strongest foot, he’s more likely to play an out-swinger. Short corners will be attempted if a player is specifically instructed to do so.

In-swinging balls are the most common, and they generally have a greater likelihood of directly resulting in goals. The advantage of an in-swinging ball is that the players attacking the ball only need to get a slight touch on it to redirect it and test the keeper with a close range shot. The disadvantage of an in-swinging ball is that they are, nevertheless, easier for the goalkeeper to claim or punch away.

If a player is instructed to play the ball to a specific part of the penalty area, in-swinging balls are usually most effective when played to either the near or far post. Accordingly, you should have the players you want to attack the ball instructed to attack the posts. Having teammates instructed to stand on the posts or challenge the keeper can also help obstruct and pin back defenders when the ball is traveling closer to goal.

Out-swinging balls are more difficult to convert into good shots, but they are also harder for the keeper to come out and claim. An out-swinger can be a good option when a goalkeeper has little aerial ability and a poor command of his area. They can also be used to try to prompt an error from keepers with poor communication and decision-making ability.

Out-swinging balls are usually played to the penalty spot. If you’re having trouble winning headers closer to goal, this can potentially result in a free header, goalkeeper error or even see the ball brought down for a shot from the second ball. To attack out-swingers, you should have the players you want to attack the ball simply go forward or attack the ball from deep. These players should also have very good heading ability to ensure they can actually test the keeper. As with in-swingers, it can be helpful to have teammates stand on the posts or challenge the keeper if you want to pin back defenders, though you should avoid challenging the keeper if you are trying to lure him off his line.

Another detail to consider, and one you should consider when setting up your defensive routine, is the marking scheme of the defending side. There are three options: man-marking, zonal marking (by using the zonal marking, edge of area and “go back” instructions) or a mixed approach. The same principles that apply to open play situations apply here. Zonal marking is a good option if you have players who read the game well and can be trusted to make good decisions. Zonal marking will also ensure that the area in front of goal remains well defended, so there’s less room for opposition runners to maneuver. The risk of zonal marking is that a lapse of concentration can see an opposition runner go unmarked.

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With an out-swinging delivery, players have a better chance at bringing the ball down for a shot.

Man marking is a good option if you have athletic players who can be relied upon to tightly mark and keep up with their man. The relative simplicity of man marking reduces the risk of a poor decision or loss of concentration, but it increases the risk that a player with good acceleration and movement can slip away from his marker at the last moment. This means that setting up an effective man marking routine also requires a closer attention to detail to ensure defenders are being matched up to attackers who they can keep up with and challenge physically. Man marking can also see space open up in the box if the attacking team uses a routine that aims to stretch the opposition.

Short corners are a good option if you are trying to maintain possession, facing a side that excels at defending aerial balls into the box or playing in windy conditions. A short corner can also be used to drag out zonal markers to open up space for a subsequent cross. When taking short corners, you will need a player to offer a short option, and it’s also usually beneficial to have a long shot specialist lurking on the edge of the area who can receive the ball for a shot from distance.

Attacking free kick routines are mainly a question of whether you want your players to attempt shots or place a ball into the area for teammates to attack. Encouraging shots is a good idea if you have a player with high ratings in the free kick and long shot attributes. Encouraging crosses and balls into the area are a good idea if you have a lot of tall players who can win aerial balls.

If you want to encourage free kick takers to take shots, you should instruct them to take free kicks on the side of the pitch opposite to their strongest foot. If you want to encourage them to attempt crosses, you should instruct them to take free kicks on the side of the pitch that corresponds to their strongest foot. Alternately, to maintain possession or compensate for strong winds, you can request the ball be played short to a teammate standing with the the free kick taker.

Defensively, most of the same considerations that apply to corners apply here, though you should also consider whether you want to disrupt or set up a wall. When attacking free kicks, disrupting the wall is a good idea if you are looking to encourage direct shots on goal. When defending free kicks, a wall will help the keeper defend against direct shots on goal by allowing him to focus on defending a smaller stretch of the goal. In most cases, the standard instructions work well, though a keeper with poor reflexes and little reach/aerial ability can benefit from placing more teammates in the wall.

Throw-in routines are mainly a question of your overall playing style. Long throw-ins work best for more direct sides with players who can win the ball in the air. Short throw-ins work best for more patient sides with smaller, more technical players. Quick throw-ins work best for teams that want to maintain a fast tempo and potentially take advantage of lapses of concentration.

9.7 A BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE

Football is a game of fine margins. Player errors, chance deflections, incompetent officials and countless other factors can lay waste to flawless tactical plans. Some days, everything will go wrong. It happens to the best managers and best teams. When it happens, don’t panic.

The occasional bad result is not necessarily an indication of a flawed tactical set-up, and managers who chase perfection make matters worse when they overreact to every loss. The benefit of a clear philosophy is that it creates a foundation for consistency and refinement over the long term. A manager who abandons his core principles too readily will find his teams constantly in transition.

Still, it’s important to understand the shortcomings of your tactical approach. If you understand your weaknesses, you will be able to tell the difference between structural flaws and a mere bad day at the office. This allows you to develop strategies for coping with situations that bring the worst out of your style and system. Just like players, a manager needs time to adapt to and familiarise himself with how a tactical philosophy works in practice. Good management skills develop through experience, and even a manager who has spent years refining his methods must realise that there are too many variables at play to allow for perfection.

 

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