Xavi is the top target, for the obvious reason that he fits in well with the tactical identity that is synonymous with Barca’s football philosophy.
However, going beyond Barca and speaking on a macroscopic level, how relevant is a tactical identity and a football philosophy for clubs today? To answer this, the starting point is understanding how tactics in football have evolved.
In the early years of football, one key rule was different to how football is played now – the offside rule. Back then, football players were not allowed to be ahead of the ball.
Hence, when a player is in possession of the ball, he will bring the ball forward, on his own, till he either loses possession or attempts a shot.
Therefore, the formations back then used to be top-heavy with several forwards (1-1-8). The forwards would be big, strong, and powerful to be able to out-muscle the defenders and move the ball forward.
Hence, if your opposition had players that were physically stronger than your players, you were unlikely to win the game. From the need to overcome this was borne the very first tactical innovation – passing the ball.
Players started combining and passing sideways to each other and were able to successfully dribble past stronger opponents. I believe the idea of passing the ball came from rugby, where players try to reach the try line, without being able to pass the ball forward.
I don’t really follow rugby, but I believe even today, the rules in rugby do not allow the ball to be passed forward – only sideways or behind.Passing made the game more entertaining and competitive. Hence passing was widely adopted by other teams.
This resulted in teams playing the 2-3-5 pyramid formation. The rules were also changed to take advantage of passing based tactical approaches by allowing players to be ahead of the ball, with the offside rule now requiring the attacker to have 3 players between himself and the opposition goal.
In a bid to make the game even more attacking, this was further reduced to 2. To compensate for the reduction, one of the midfielders in the 2-3-5 system dropped down to become a CB, and 2 of the inside forwards dropped down to be part of the midfield.
This created the 3-2-2-3 WM formation. While the moves look defensive, the changes ended up making the teams more balanced and allowed for easier vertical progression of the ball. In possession, Pep’s Man City and Bayern Munich operated in the WM formation with fullback inverting into midfield roles.
Like the above, tactics have evolved to negate the strengths of opposition, amplify your own strengths, hide your weakness, or react to rule changes. Some examples of the evolution of tactics include moving players into space by Hungary in 1950s, counter-attacking using sweepers and wing backs by Inter in 1960s, total football by Ajax and Holland in 1970s, Counter Pressing by AC Milan in 1980s, Tiki-Taka in 2010s etc.
As clubs started to have a tactical identity, they started to build a brand identity and cultivate expectations from the fans leading to the rise of football philosophies. For this tactical identity and football philosophy to flourish, the clubs had to recruit and churn players that fit this mould.
To address this, clubs invested in academies to drill in the philosophy and identity. Over the years not only has football tactics evolved and improved significantly, so has everything around sport – fitness, nutrition, health, science, data, technology and even equipment.
With so much improvement in football, the technical and physical differences between players are decreasing regularly. The quality of tactical analysis of opposition is impeccable making it very difficult to have a consistent and sustainably superior tactical system.
Data analytics make it easier to not only scout good players, but at an earlier age from most parts of the world. Based on this, I feel that a rigid tactical identity, especially one that Barca employs, will not help them as football continues to progress.
It’s more important for academies and players to get exposed to different tactical systems and be tactically flexible based on the oppositions and different sections of the game.Clubs should continue to have a philosophy though.
But the philosophy should be more general with flexibility rather than being rigid. Big clubs should favour pro attacking or balanced systems that allow them to maximize the entertainment to the fans and neutrals, in turn maximizing the brand value of the club leading to increased revenue. This helps them to be fiscally viable while being competitive sportingly.
Source|osimpamfm.com|Richard Owusu Tawiah