The essence of tactical development — the space principle

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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. Either way, the essence of controlling the space Barcelona abandoned, was the key to success, and pretty much Bayern’s default system last season. Moving on, a 4-4-2 is the most balanced formation there is, right? So, using a 4-4-2 or a variant of the kind, you’re able to defensively manipulate the space using a zonal marking system and shifting from defence to attack with everyone in their correct position. A prime example of this was Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in the 2003/2004 season, ‘the invincibles’. Arsene deployed a particularly advanced attacking 4-4-2 with potential wingers, as wide midfielders. Now, the difference isn’t torential, but there are key aspects within it. Wingers are evidently attacking forwards, wide of the striker, used to draw open the defence and create a validated width. Wide midfielders tend to be much more lateral and centralised, defensively and attackingly so, they give a 50/50 take in both aspects (although Arsenal’s was somewhat 75/25 to attack). Anyway, with this Arsene also had attacking full-backs, Cole and Lauren. Cole originally being a winger, had the intelligence to attack with regular glee, but Lauren was more of a genuine full-back, sturdy and efficient.  The entire system was on the basis of a unified, but adapted presence of space witheld and stabilised by a 4-4-2. Arsenal, although often dominating in possession, scored a hell of a lot of counter-attacking goals that season, due to the aforementioned 4-4-2 system shift. The bottom line being, it worked to an extent no one could have imagined.

Last, but most definitely, undoubtedly, not least – the attacking analogy of the spatial principle. As stated before, many teams have become advocates to this technique: the 70’s Ajax, the Arsenal of 2004 and most recently the Bavarian beasts that are Bayern Munich. Evidently, the awareness and manipulation of space on a football field has been sought after in attacking systems by managers for decades, and truly from the beginning of tactics within the sport.

Having described ‘Total Football’, the foundations to the system are clear and hopefully understandable at this point… So, elaborating it in the manner of the pursuit of space, ‘Total Football’ was an eye-opener to many teams, managers, pundits and fans alike that the technical grace of a footballer hadn’t been truly tested until the unveiling of this very tactic. Cruyff the conductor of ‘Total Football’ when on the field said, “Speed is often confused with insight. When I start running earlier than the others, I appear faster.” A relevant quote to the principle, space, is all about finding it first, seeing it before the opponent and being one step ahead of them. Cruyff was a legitimate master of the technique and many have now become acquainted with the tactic he once was feared for.

As describing the defensive mannerisms of this principle, I had to dip into the attacking bearings, probably not as much as I did, but what can I say, I get carried away. Nonetheless, in an attacking system, the creation and finding that ever-chased pocket of space cannot be spoken of enough. The invention of wingers is something that dates back to the invention of football, when it was considered normal to have 3 or 4 and maybe even 5, rather than 1 or 2. Wingers and wide-midfielders are designed for the flanks, designed to give that essence of width, to create the space for either themselves or other teammates. Wingers have evolved over the years, from traditional, to defensive, to inverted, to playmaking, back to traditional and to inside-forwards – there will always be a new brand of winger, and the most recent one has become ‘the space interpreter’, as Thomas Müller so graciously labelled himself. Space interpreter is the English translation of ‘raumdeuter’ a German word, best translated as precisely that. With this new branded winger that Müller is, joining a long list of other substances and styles of such, his is directly involved in the creation and direct infuence of space. For a large part of Bayern Munich’s record-breaking season, Müller was a key asset in attack, due to his frame of mind in prioritising the grasp to manipulating space as his own; diverting runs, backwards, forwards, sideways, anyway and waiting till the right moment, drifting off his marker, before making the run behind and being played through. As from that last sentence, you can see finding the pocket of space is more than a one man job, it requires an effort from the entire attacking system of a team, drifting, moving as one. Say Müller was on the right-side, Ribery on the left, Kroos in the middle, Mandzukic upfront and Martinez in midfield, all of which have a part to play. Starting from the left, Ribery and Mandzukic have to occupy other defenders concentration, focus and attention on themselves, for Müller to do magic. While Kroos or Martinez are in possession, Müller is out of the game, unnoticed, until the right moment when a ball over the top is played and before the defender can look around and begin to go after it, Müller is through. That is the ideology of a ‘raumdeuter’, of a winger, of finding space.

The space principle isn’t one that is easily thought of by a manager, it’s not a simple logistic that anyone can master within their team and deploy as fluent and successful as others have. It is a testament to managers of overwhelming tactical intelligence and can truly only be successful with players of an esteemed tactical intelligence. Space isn’t always something found, space is something created.