The importance of tactics
What determines which football player will become elite? Coaches, scouts and scientists have been trying to answer that question for decades. Football is a very multidimensional sport and therefore it is not easy to say what exactly is needed to reach the top. You don’t necessarily have to be very tall or very strong to excel. There are more ways to the elite level. If you’re not tall or strong, you have to be smart or quick to survive in the often tough youth academies. There are roughly four domains for a football player that are important for their performance level: physical capacities, technical qualities, psychological characteristics and tactical qualities.
Players tend to spend a lot of their time trying to improve their physique and technical skills, often through scientifically proven training methods at their club or at an external party. The use of a mental coach has been widely accepted in the world of sport and has become standard practice in the past few decades. A competent mental coach can help athletes improve their thinking and confidence (among other things) that can assist them in taking the final steps towards excellence. All of these procedures to improve a player’s performance level are designed on an individual level, to optimize the learning curve. The more individualistic the approach is, the faster it can lead to improvements. This makes it even stranger that tactical training for football players is almost exclusively being done on a team level.
Managers and technical staff can prepare their upcoming matches tactically to the smallest details, but this usually applies to team-level tactics only. How the team needs to progress play, in which part of the pitch the team should start pressing, how the team should press, weaknesses in the opposition to exploit, et cetera. The official definition of a tactic is: an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end. In a football context, tactics can been described as how a team manages space, time and individual actions to win a game. So the definition of tactics includes the strategy at team-level that a manager devises to win the next match, but there is also an individual level to tactics. Every single individual action of every player can be important to the agreed-upon tactics. Players’ actions need to be goal-oriented, and that goal should be to win the match. So in order to know which action the player should perform, he has to be aware of the game situation that is going on at that moment, and which action would have the highest chance to lead to the best result in that situation.
This is where we find the core of tactics at an individual level. Only when a player is constantly aware of the situation unfolding around him can he be goal-oriented in all of his actions. If a player bases his actions and decisions solely on intuition, he might make the right call every so often, but the chance of it going wrong the next time will always be there. Making the right decisions and actions might very well be the most important factor in elite football: one wrong move can prove fatal. The tactics on an individual level are also strongly connected to the tactics at team-level. For example, Tony Pulis’ preferred tactics might require a different response to a certain situation than Jürgen Klopp’s in the same situation. Even though managers spend a lot of time contemplating the tactics at team-level, it is difficult to provide enough tactical feedback to all players at an individual level, simply due to a lack of time. There is still a lot of room for improvement in this area of performance in football.
In conclusion, the term tactics encompasses a lot more than simply formations. Tactics is every single goal-oriented action on the pitch during a game. The manager lays out the team-level tactics for the game, but it is the players that have to execute the tactics. And to execute them properly, they need to constantly and actively be aware of the situation they are in. Only when they recognize and understand the situations, they can consequently make the right decisions.
Written by: Mats de Leeuw den Bouter.