At least since the 1960s, football has been a game of systems. Even those with supreme individual skills are part of an overall structure.
It’s a truth many seem reluctant to acknowledge, as though they believe that the game at the highest level is played with the abandon of a kick-about in the local park.
The organisation and planning was made clear in a column by the Secret Footballer in The Guardian:
The level of detail that goes into games still, to this day, amazes me.
Every player has his own script, what to do, when to do it, information on the player he's up against...We memorise every single set piece, where we have to stand, run and end up.
We even memorise this for the other players so we know where everyone else will be at any given time. You know that pass when you say to yourself: ‘How did he spot that?’
Often he didn't need to; he knew the player would be there because, the night before in the hotel, he read about the runs he would be making.
It's exactly the same pass after which sometimes you might find yourself saying: ‘Who was that to?’ The receiving player either forgot to be there or was taken out of the game by a tactical manoeuvre by his opposite number. Football at this level is very chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside.
What is significant about the revelation is that it confirms that organisation is essential not only in defending—which most people intuitively accept—but also in attacking; and that explains a number of aspects of modern football.
To take just one example, why has the number of goals per game in the Premier League gone down quite so radically, from between 2.75 and 2.80 in each of the previous three seasons to 2.31 so far this?
It’s a small sample size, admittedly, and it may be that there has been a shift to a more cautious approach, but could it not also be that the unprecedented turmoil of new managers and new signings means those attacking systems are yet to bed in?
Attacking systems, after all, are rather harder to learn than defensive systems. Personnel change and there will be minor variations but one back four is much the same as another; and besides, the logic of building from the back, from firm foundations, means managers are likely to focus first on getting the defence right.
The same logic applies to international football.
Excluding major tournaments, managers have players together for around a week six times a year. In that time it’s simply not possible to create attacking systems as sophisticated as those to be found at club level, where players are playing or training together every day.
That’s why international football can often seem stodgy, and why the best teams often have a core from one or two clubs (as Spain is largely based on Barcelona).
That’s also why the criticism of Roy Hodgson needs to be tempered. The qualifiers are always a muddle, with players drifting in and out of form and fitness over the month between games and continuity of selection almost impossible.
What he has done is create a relatively clear and simple approach: Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill have played together in each of the last five games and are improving as a partnership and there are two options in either full-back slot.
In a three-man midfield of Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere and Frank Lampard, there is energy and snap, while a putative front three, although it will take time to gel, of Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck, all intelligent, versatile players, is potentially hugely exciting.
Until the World Cup, though, (if England get there) when Hodgson gets a protracted period together with the squad (and even then it’s probably only three weeks before the tournament begins), it’s impossible to judge him.
For the next two games, as for so much of international football, it’s a question of just muddling through.
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