What’s more important: players or tactics?

In the wake of Jose Mourinho’s recent extolment as tactical genius following Inter Milan’s Champions League success and the gaining popularity of online tactical analysis websites, it is worth asking a simple, possibly antiquated, question: are players or tactics more important?

It’s fair to say from the outset, as almost every football watcher will know, that a combination of both is the key to any success. But the reason behind my asking the black and white comes from looking at Spain’s World Cup squad. I am still in disbelief at the sheer volume of top class individuals present in one squad. They have also changed, tactically speaking, in the two years since their European Championship victory.

Marcos Senna worked as an anchor man throughout that tournament allowing the five in front of him to create. Spain now operate with Busquets and Alonso sitting deep as the double pivot with Xavi playing ahead of them. The difference has not been pre-thought but a reaction to the changing form and emergence of quality players; Senna’s loss of form and the sustained performances of Busquets have facilitated the tactical tweaking. Busquets is less destructive but an adept passer and Alonso’s abilities as a deep lying playmaker are obvious. Xavi being pushed slightly forward is an interesting change because it would see him, I think, in a less influential position than he’s used to. But Iniesta coming in off the left, Xavi in the centre, Silva on the right and Villa up front is hardly handcuffing players for the sake of a formation.

And herein lays my point about this Spain squad; the players are of such a high calibre that would it really matter what tactics are employed? The short answer would still be yes. Because any national team manager with two players of Villa and Torres’ class would probably send them out together. And any team with Xavi, Fabregas, and Iniesta may try and play them together as often as possible, but then what about Alonso and Silva…and Busquets? The need for a defensive pivot is paramount in the successful working of a 4-2-3-1, thus sacrifices to the starting XI are made.

Del Bosque could easily be tempted to ditch the one striker system in favour of an approach that could see Villa and Torres work together but, tactically, one striker seems their most potent form of attack. But again with so many top class individuals, there are many more options coming off the bench. If Alonso or Busquets aren’t on form, Xavi can drop into the holding role to dictate play more and Fabregas comes on higher up the pitch providing an added dimension. For Silva there’s Jesus Navas. For Villa there’s Torres. And the endless variations persist. So, conversely, tactics also don’t pose too much of a conundrum because if the team is stuttering, the world class substitutes will invariably make the difference.

But just like Spain are an anomalous pool of ridiculous talent that would probably perform brilliantly in a number of formations, we can take a look at the Greece team of Euro 2004 and see just how far tactical nous can get a nation. Under Otto Rehhagel the team switched between four and three man defences during the tournament by reacting to opposition threats. He understood Greece lacked the personnel to proactively impose an attacking, open game so he reacted to the threats of France, the Czechs and Portugal – utilising a sweeper against the French and Czechs. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally depending on your outlook) each goal in their 1-0 victories in the quarters, semi and final was scored via a right side cross and a header. How much of this is due to tactical conditioning and how much is due to a natural pattern of play in the team will only be definitively known by the Greeks. But as a tactician, Rehhagel succeeded: he nullified the threats of the top teams whilst maximising the skills of his own players and, unbelievably, Greece won the tournament.

Spain and Greece are extreme examples. The Spanish have reacted to the talent at their disposal but there remains a preferred system for the stars to fit into. However the importance of the formation is undercut somewhat by the sheer versatility of the squad. Rehhagel’s Greece team shows the differing end of the spectrum, with a highly reactive tactical setup that individually catered for their opposition’s biggest threats. The truth for most teams is a middle ground; players’ skills meeting a formation that sees them best utilised. Just like the successful deployment of ‘false nines’ by Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona, and Roma of recent times (see here) tactical variation is inherently dependent on the players at a manager’s disposal. As with everything to do with the game the two merge and become impossible to quantify in isolation.

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