Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern and the Essence of Tactical Development —The Space Principle

Within the ergonomics and ever-changing systems of productivity in the tactical world of football, new formulas and principles are constantly fabricated by managers and players alike in pursuit of being one step ahead of the opposition.

The compendium of tactics and strategies has evolved over time from the initial, ridiculously lop-sided 1-2-7 formation of the late 1800’s, to the miraculous invention of catenaccio alongside Rinus’ total football and then the recent sagas of 4-4-2 variants and progressions – tactics will always and forever evolve as managers look to better their own ideas and formations, while bettering that of an opponents.

Before I begin to speak of the recent revelation that has worked so well in particularly German football, a background on the idealogies of it must be elaborated for it to be wholly understood.

The creation of space was always undermined and never truly considered in football until the invention of the high pressing game and then other counters against it. ‘Total Football’ was the first real developed style of football to truly take on the notion of creating space for teammates. A Dutch tactic invented by Rinus Michels in the 1970’s, ‘Total Football’ is the embodiment of fluency and eloquence on a football field. Pioneered for the more technically graced footballers in the world, the system was designed to forever keep structure in possession, but doing so by creating space in movement.

In ‘Total Football’ the logistics are that a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team’s intended organisational structure. ‘Total Football’s tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each player within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it requires a player to have high technical ability.

The thoery’s basis idealogy is for a player, say left-winger, to move out of position dragging their defender (marker) with them across the field. This then created space in behind on that left-side for say a centralised attacker or the left-back to then run into and flank, widening the agnostics of play and instituting a pocket of space.

As ‘Total Football’ is the creation and attacking anology of space, there is always a defensive counter for methods as such.  As the basic idea of ‘Total Football’ is to create space by getting the man-marker to follow you, zonal marking was developed as a defensive strategy where defenders cover an area of the pitch rather than marking a specific opponent. Albeit, man-to-man marking (the basis of catenaccio) was the defensive repertoire at the time of ‘Total Football’ in the 1970’s, and known for its performance by Berti Vogts against Cruyff (an advocate of ‘Total Football’) in 1974, it still has its flaws against preventing the openings of space. Back to the matter of zonal marking; the biggest advantage of zonal marking is its flexibility. Communication is very important when zonal marking is used, to ensure that no gaps are left in the defensive coverage.

With those two world-renowned tactics the basis and intelligence behind the recent revelations of spatial principles, it has become something managers are all looking to conform and convert to part of their team’s systematics, or an individual player’s style.

Defensively, it’s not such a big deal to many, the entourage of cancelling out space isn’t always as important as other tactics within defending; for instance the likes of Barcelona, who thrive off sitting up the field in possession. Defensively, Barcelona have become a ghost of what once was a stalwart and feared asset.

Guardiola and Vilanova have each realised the acres of space they tolerated in defence, with attacking wing-backs like Alves and Alba, you cannot help the matter – unless you have Busquets. Obviously, that leads on to another topic and would divert my attention entirely, but looking into it on a brief; Barcelona are become rather competent to a physical astuteness on the counter-attack, perfectly examplified by Bayern Munich in the Champions League last season, hammering Barca over two legs, although suffering little possession.

Bayern used the use of space on the wings, with inverted attacks to off balance Barcelona, and even managed to put a total of 7 goals past them. However, not all managers have a squad like Heynckes and not all managers have the intelligence to defeat Barcelona – although considering, whenever one does, it is through a similar tactic.

Part 2

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