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Tactical Innovations in Soccer That Have Changed How the Game Is Played

| December 26, 2018 12:00 am PDT
Tactical Innovations in Soccer

The game of soccer has been around forever. The first rules of soccer were written as early as 1863, which means we have now over 150 years in which the game has evolved.

As you could imagine, a lot of stuff has changed through the years.

All aspects of the sport have developed, from the preparation of the players to the rules and the tactics. One of the things I love about soccer is that there is always something new waiting just around the corner.

Some coaches and players find new ways to improve, but there’s always someone else that finds a counter to them.

Still, there are certain tactical innovations that have changed the sport forever and will remain a part of the soccer folklore. This post is dedicated to the most important among them.

Herbert Chapman’s WM or 3-4-3

One of the most influential managers in the game of soccer certainly was Herbert Chapman. The Huddersfield Town and Arsenal legend was an innovator on many levels.

For example, he demanded that his players use more short passes and quick movement instead of the traditional crosses. On top of that, he was among the first managers to insist that the second team and the youth formations of his club play the same style so that the transition to the first team would be seamless.

There are many other examples that showcase the genius and professionalism of Herbert Chapman, but one stands above them all.

Up to the 1920s, most soccer teams played in a system that would seem very weird to the modern-day supporters. The 2-3-5 was the preferred tactic by the majority of the clubs, but this was bound to change.

Two important events happened in 1925, and they were the basis of Chapman’s ideas. First of all, he joined Arsenal and started building a new team. On top of that, the offside rule was changed. It now took only two players from the defense to cover the attackers instead of three.

The new offside rules meant the offensive side of the game changed drastically.

Chapman was the first manager to react in a brilliant fashion. With the help of the experienced Charlie Buchan, who was the first player bought by Chapman in Arsenal, he completely changed the system of the team.

He moved one of the midfielders to play as a stopper at the back, while the two wingers were now part of the midfield. This resulted in a 3-4-3 system that is still preferred by many teams and managers today.

It allowed Chapman’s Arsenal to become solid at the back and transition to offense quickly. In essence, that was the first true counter-attacking style in soccer. It transformed the struggling London club into the best team in England.

As a result, Arsenal won two titles and an FA Cup with Chapman at the wheel before his untimely death in 1934. Even when the great manager was gone, the club continued to dominate English soccer until World War II.

The new 3-4-3 system was called WM, and many other teams adopted it. Chapman’s legacy lives on to this day, as he was an excellent manager who was well ahead of his time.

It must be added that he was among the first coaches to work hard on the condition of his players with physiotherapy. This helped them execute his ideas on the pitch.

The Deep-Lying Forward of Gusztav Sebes

Not many have heard of the Hungarian legend Gusztav Sebes. He didn’t have an impressive career at a club level, but he led the absolutely stunning Hungarian national team of the 1950s.

The side was dominating the soccer world and was a huge favorite to win the 1954 World Cup. Despite failing in the final against Germany, Sebes’ Hungary remains one of the most beloved teams to this day and is considered among the strongest to somehow fail at the World Cup.

One of the main reasons for the country’s success was an exciting tactical decision by the coach. He used a deep-lying forward to play behind the strikers, and this was most often Ferenc Puskas.

This approach allowed him to find space behind the lines of the other team and link the midfield with the attackers. As a result, the Hungarian team was as fluid as the world has ever seen up to this point and was able to create chances almost at will.

A quick look at the 1954 World Cup shows that Hungary scored 27 goals in only five games. This probably is the biggest testimony to the genius decision by Sebes.

To an extent, this is not exactly an innovation, as other teams have tried to use a deep-lying forward before. However, none came close to making it work in the way Sebes did with his Hungarian side that went unbeaten for over 20 games in the 1950s.

I think it’s safe to say that the main idea of the coach is still going strong today. We often see attacking players deployed in a deeper position with the idea of finding space between the lines of the opponent.

The Catenaccio

There are some arguments about who was the one to invent the Catenaccio, but I feel they are somewhat pointless.

The first to use something similar was the Swiss coach Karl Rappan, but the legendary Inter Milan coach Helenio Herrera was the one to develop the system in a way that influenced European soccer in the 1960s.

The main idea of the Catenaccio was to introduce the so-called “sweeper.” That’s a defender that plays a bit deeper than the other parts of the back line and is always there to clean up any mistakes. This is why the position is called a sweeper.

Helenio Herrera employed the Catenaccio with great success, and his Inter was one of the most dominant teams in Europe in the 1960s.

Inter Milan won three Serie A titles, two European Cups, and two Intercontinental Cups under Herrera’s management.

The defensive stability brought by the sweeper became a blueprint that many other clubs tried to replicate. The world was at the Argentinian’s feet, and his contribution to the game of soccer is immortal.

However, this tactical innovation didn’t last to the present day, and we currently see no sweepers. You never know, though, as the game is constantly evolving. One day, we might witness the return of the Catenaccio in some form.

The Total Football

I’m not going to lie, I’m not a big fan of the Catenaccio. This is why I’m so glad the next tactical innovation on this list basically destroyed the system Herrera made so popular.

Of course, I’m talking about the Total Football that was developed by the Dutch coach Rinus Michels. He wasn’t the one who came up with the original idea, as the roots of the approach can be traced to England and Hungary before that.

However, no one managed to reach the heights of the teams led by Michels. For a start, he deployed Total Football in his club Ajax Amsterdam. The main concept behind the system is that the players can switch their positions and create a huge advantage in any part of the pitch.

The defenders attack, the attackers defend, and pretty much everyone does everything required on the pitch.

Of course, the Total Football required some great players that would be capable to execute properly. None of the players who were managed by Michels proves that better than Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff was the cornerstone of the Dutch Total Football. His coach used him as a playmaker, and with those two, Ajax won a bunch of trophies in the 1970s, including plenty of domestic titles and a couple of European Cups.

Michels was also appointed as the coach of the Netherlands and used many of the Ajax players to create the legendary Dutch team of the 1974 soccer World Cup.

Similarly to Hungary from 1954, the Netherlands lost against Germany in the final, but it is still considered one of the best national sides in the history of the sport.

The Dutch demolished their opponents and were one of the most dominant teams the world has ever seen. Cruyff was the one pulling the strings, but the Total Football of Michels made it possible.

It’s interesting that Johan Cruyff became a manager after that and was heavily influenced by his mentor. He created the modern-day Barcelona, and one could say that the ideas of Michels still live.

This piece is a great example of how the Dutch tactical innovations of the 1970s were an inspiration for legends like Arsene Wenger, Guus Hiddink, and Pep Guardiola.

The Tiki-Taka

The most recent tactical change that dominated the soccer world is the tiki-taka, employed by Barcelona and Spain somewhere around 2010. Pep Guardiola also took it with him when he managed Bayern Munich and is the coach who used the system the most.

This system doesn’t apply that much to the starting positions of the players but to their movement and behavior on the pitch.

The main concept is to keep the possession of the ball for as long as possible and try to instantly win it back when lost. For that purpose, the players are trained to use short passing in all areas of the pitch that allows them to retain the ball with ease.

One of the main requirements is that the whole team moves a lot with and without the ball. This creates enough passing opportunities when the side is in possession and advantage in numbers when the ball is lost.

You could often see Spain and Barcelona keep a possession of 70% or more against many other teams. As a result, it was extremely tough to create chances, and the main positive of tiki-taka was the defensive solidity it provided. After all, it is hard to score when you don’t have the ball.

From an attacking perspective, the idea of the tiki-taka style was to patiently look for opportunities. By keeping the ball and moving a number of players around, you would force your opponent to overcommit at some point.

As a result, Barcelona and Spain would quickly move the ball to another side of the pitch and find space. This style brought the country a European and World Championship, while Barcelona won everything in soccer, including the Champions League and the Spanish title several times.

One of the inspirations for Guardiola was Johan Cruyff and the changes he employed in La Masia, the famous Barcelona academy. Of course, the club was lucky to have a generational talent like Lionel Messi in its ranks.

Still, the amazing success of the Spanish national side shows that it was not only about the personnel.

It’s interesting that the tiki-taka is no longer working, as many teams have found ways to counter the system. For example, they are using the gegenpress invented by Jurgen Klopp or are using a typical target man that is capable of relieving the pressure.

As a result, even the likes of Barcelona and Spain have deployed a style that’s way more direct.

Final Words

One of the best things about soccer is the constant evolution of the sport, and I love that. I’m eager to see what other systems and tactical changes will be invented in the near future, as this is the essence of the sport.

Sure, the individual skill of the players remains an important part of the sport, but I’ve always believed the managers are the people who affect the game the most.

What’s your take on that? Do you have a favorite tactical innovation that I missed? Let me know in the comments section below.

Jerry Summer

Jerry Summer has a wide-ranging interest in gambling and the gambling industry. He's made a living out of both playing poker and betting on sports.

The English Premier League and the NBA are among Jerry's primary areas of expertise. He's knowledgeable about many other sports, too, along with poker and several casino games.

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