tirsdag den 10. juni 2008

Tactical developments and focus on France

In the coming days I will be touching a great deal upon different tactics for different teams during EURO 2008.
In my last post I was slamming Croatia for their very poor and I think very dated tactics used against Austria.
To see where I'm sort of coming from, before I go into these things even further in future matches, I think it's a good idea, kind of as an introduction, to post some things I wrote that were part of an interesting debate I was having on a sports forum.

What started the discussion was us doing a modern premiership draft. 20 participants would pick one player each round and assemble their dream team so to speak.
Later if I can muster the engergy, we're in the 8th round so far and my team is Petrescu, Stimac, Evra, Essien, Fabregas, Parlour, Defoe and Di Canio, I want to go through, if not all the teams, then certainly the most interesting ones and give my views on them or maybe even rank them all.

But the first thing that came to my mind is how players today generally are better.
Even when going back "only" 10 years I think there is a clear difference.
Now I also think that the true elite players going back as far as 15-20 years, I'm thinking top 5 in the world here at their position, they would still be top players today.
You can even argue that with much more focused training these days and more advanced talent development, that an even larger group could do just fine.
The overall depth and the size of the talent pool is just a lot bigger now.

You'd also have to factor in how the tactics have changed and that's when I started thinking how many truly excellent players from previous years would have a really hard time fitting in on modern teams especially on similar positions to those they actually played at.
Simply because some of those positions don't even exist anymore. There are no classic wings in 4-4-2 systems and the playmaker, the number 10 type of player, has also been removed from the central midfield in a 4-4-2.

That was basically what lead to what I'm about to post, but first there are a few things that I forgot.
Firstly the modern 4-4-2 without classic wingers, without a playmaker in central midfield.
I missed touching upon Sacchi and his late 80s, early 90s Milan team which is very integral to that whole 4-4-2 pressing "revolution"

and how it slowly but gradually developed away from an attacking system to either, like with heyday AC Milan, a very balanced system creating great pressure, or as seen in recent years with a number of teams, a very defensive system where you could avoid taking risks.

Instead because the debate started with the question of how well unique players like David Ginola or Eric Cantona would fit in now, I made France my focus point and rambled on and on about the various tactical factors, there were others as well, leading to the rise of the France national team.

Sort of use that as a red line through various changes in football the last 10-12 years.
AC Milan and their Italian 4-4-2 will have to wait for another post but I think it's really interesting to compare it to, and the battle with, a more classic English 4-4-2 which probably didn't die on the highest level until the late 90s.

But here, pretty much unedited are some long forum posts, the second the most detailed about modern football developments and the specific roles for some well known different players:

Cantona, and Ginola too for that matter, had both long been ruled completely out of that team cause they just didn't fit into a modern system build to win at the very highest level, ALTHOUGH at that time they WERE the best players... and that's the difficult thing when imagining older players playing now, at least for me, because where would they play?
Ginola simply could not play wing in a 4-4-2 now. Just impossible. Same with the young Giggs and every other great wing from the past. Not because they weren't truly great players but because any 4-4-2 with wings, think England during Euro 96 as one of the last dying examples of this, would get destroyed now.
It would have to be 4-3-3, or as we actually see a lot now someone who in the past would have been a wing, now instead playing behind the forward in a 4-4-1-1.

Another thing that happened as the 90s came to an end was the great playmaker being removed from the central midfield and actually out to where the wings used to roam.
It was basically the death of the classic number 10, instead replaced by very allround or just players who were good defensively.
In the central midfield it had always been one creative midfielder paired with one defensive.
Now instead it became two central defensive midfielders and you were able, thanks to the increased skill levels, to effectively attack directly with little risk using just 5 players.

Great number 10s like Laudrup and Hagi were suddenly found playing on the left side for their respective teams
and when trying to find a place for Lothar Matthäus, architect or dynamo of Germany's 1990 world cup win, both country and club positioned him as a good old fashioned German libero!

But back to Cantona. He would need to move around a lot more but with his vision and most importantly not being a player who needs a lot of space, which is so key now, I could see him playing very well for quite a few of the current best teams.
He would definitely fit in like I said at Manchester United with Rooney and Ronaldo but at Arsenal too.
Chelsea and Liverpool much less so but playing a similar role as Totti in Roma's unique striker absent system? I could see it.
Ibrahimovich at this point (note: under Mancini not really playing for Mourinho where he was more of a targetman playmaker) for Inter is a lot like Cantona was for United and there are a few teams in Spain where he would fit in too.

Some other posters rightly point out the unique circumstances playing their part in Cantona and Ginola not being part of the French team anymore come 97-98.

This is my more detailed response:

I guess I'm responding to the both of you and since I find these discussions very interesting this will probably be long.
I just hope it will stay somewhat coherent and maybe even relatively on topic.

Well first of all, when I said long gone from the team I did of course mean what happened in the 94 World cup qualification and the subsequent team and system, France then started building from what was a solid, but also very unspectacular Euro 96 team.

Yes the unique personalities of Cantona and Ginola definitely did play a part in them not being part of the team anymore. Absolutely.
So did the emergence of an amazing talent in Zidane, but who it should be noted did not have a good Euro 96 with many seeing Djorkaeff as the real future of the team. And few people in the immediate aftermath it's my impression saw Zidane as the new Michel Platini that he was being billed as.

This partly because France was playing a system that wasn't very good for someone who rapidly was turning into the ideal modern attacking player.
It actually took the vision of Marcello Lippi at Juventus to create the role where Zidane could show that he was the new best player in the world.

At Bordeaux and in his early national team days he was often misused as one of the front two in a 4-4-2 like system which at this time was still most often a very attacking system (see my ramblings about wingers) and not the emphasized defensive systems we're seeing used by many teams now.
The "new very defensive 4-4-2" emerged, is my theory, not to sidetrack this too much, to counter the flexible possesion based type of systems who had been dominating since France 98 and seen in full flow at Euro 2000 and of course at Real Madrid in club competitions.

But back to Zidane himself.

Don't get me wrong, he was still very good, would be in any system, but the full potential of a player in his prime with the best technique ever seen coupled with a workrate never seen from a supposed classic number 10, PLAYING very often against old fashioned full of holes 4-4-2's employing too many men in attack often generously handing away great amounts of space, having that star "just" play as a forward wasting time among other things making deep forward runs complementing a lone striker and the winger, the players that he very much instead should be the one setting up and USING from further behind, that was just a waste of unlimited potential.

Marcello Lippi being the genius that he is in putting players complementing each other optimally was able to spot that.
Jacquet realized it too and of course in hindsight it's very easy for everyone to see!
But at that particular time it really wasn't.
Instead generally speaking if you were an emerging midfield talent, you were either a very good defensive midfielder or a wing type of player or at least placed there if you were seriously lacking defensively.
Prime Zidane of course was neither a defensive midfielder or someone suited for the wing and thankfully very soon instead he was the centerpiece in 4-2-1-2-1, or 4-2-3-1 if you will, systems for France and 4-3-1-2 or similar for Juventus being a modern day playmaker.
Or sometimes 3-5-2's becoming 5-3-2s when defending.
Lippi combining old style catenaccio with the modern game. Carlos Ancelotti when he took over Juventus also went from formerly being a very conservative manager at Parma to trying new systems because of Zidane and would of course later do a similar thing with the deep-lying tactical role of former forward Andrea Pirlo which in many ways played a huge part in how some results have gone in recent years. But that's for another time.

The overall point being that flexible systems were being created in order to optimally succeed and were working great basically until very all round and (even more so) very fit players and great athletes of the huge global talent pool, more than ever, in new very disciplined 4-4-2s and 4-5-1s and even new 4-3-3s under Jose Mourinho started to make possession football look naive on a regular basis.

I can almost visualize Mourinho spending a few years working under attacking genius Van Gaal at Barca and in his head scheming and steaming and perhaps not least realizing, how to effectively counter superior technical skills and attacking football.

And I should say what he was seeing was "just" Van Gaals modern total football played by a wave of new great athletes in Ajax and then great technical players at Barca.
The Barca fans I remember, were very unhappy about Van Gaals strict systems, and classic dutch speedster wings.
I'm guessing they wanted the emerging possession football. Not this albeit attacking when functioning at least also tightly balanced total football morph.

Ajax style attacking football in many ways in the current game had already been exposed by Capello and Milan in the landmark 1994 Champions Cup final humiliating Johan Cryuff's very much idealistic dream team and when new great athletes in Ajax struck back so to speak, briefly in 95 against a very defensive Milan team, they were put in their place by Lippi's very modern Juventus team the following years and I don't think (if it was in fact that even) we've seen truly successful old style total football with classic wings since.

In Spain Van Gaal did win a couple of league titles but this was still pre 2000 and generally for a good team with good players also a good time for almost any kind of attacking non classic 4-4-2 system featuring very good players.
And of course it had Pep Guardiola left from the dream team still controlling the midfield better than anyone, but as soon as he got older and eventually exited, it was the more flexible possession attacks of Real Madrid and La Coruna that took over and of course the other side, a new school of calculated, coming from Benitez Valencia team as well.

I think recent good examples of flexible possession football the last few years getting exposed by balanced defensive teams has been what Valencia did in Spain, Liverpool in European competition, under Houllier and later Benitez just in from Valencia, South Korea doing as well as they did in the World Cup, Greece with much inferior talent winning Euro 2004, Argentina DESPITE the best talent failing again and again, Brazil UNLIKE Argentina actually MAKING compromises and Chelsea while employing the Mourinho style catching up to the dominating attacking football of Manchester United and Arsenal in England.

Now with that out of the way, back to Ginola and Cantona and how they would or could have fitted into the new France.

You say if they were good enough they could adapt to any system.
Ginola, who is one of my all-time favorite players, and Cantona until his early retirement were at least up to 1998 where new great players emerged, without a doubt top 4-5 players for France.
Ginola was simply sensational for Newcastle and in my opinion even better than later when he finally won player of the year while playing for Tottenham.

Cantona had become a God among United fans and turned from a good forward to a great playmaker sort of player.
Not like Zidane mind you who by 1997 could do it anywhere on the field, but a bit like Ibrahimovic now and to a certain extent someone like Berbatov, meaning very few were better with the ball in the final third.

The point I'm getting at, is that I just don't believe, no matter their personalities and the stories about conflicts with the federation and other players, like Deschamps (the water carrier!), that a team building towards a World Cup which they're hosting, on the surface like you say, desperate for offense following the drought that was Euro 96, IF they thought these great players, still seen by many as their BEST players, could improve their team in any way, would not find a solution, bite the bullet and make them part of that team at almost any cost.

Except that is of course for the very special cost that I'm arguing, them actually making the team worse!
In your post you point to the reason being personality-wise.
I pointed towards them not fitting into a new system and style of play.
It may very well just be a combination of both but as I see it the players that were used in the buildup, and in theory they COULD have brought Cantona back following the ban, were ultimately used because of football reasons and because they were thought of as players who would do a better job. Within that new system.

In that system Cantona could not have played the role of Zidane. Lack of range, fitness and workrate would make that impossible.
Then the alternative would have been a 4-4-2 with Cantona being behind the striker making even an ordinary one a good one.
But that would leave no place for Zidane, except for somewhere where his full potential once again wasn't in use and where Djorkaeff, Henry, Pires and arguably even the ordinary Diomede could do an optimal job, and the whole thing would become very similar to Euro 96 just with Cantona instead of Zidane.
With Zidane at this point in a flexible system showing amazing things at Juventus, this was already an utopian thought.

If it was 6 years earlier Cantona could actually have played as the lone striker in front of Zidane and the wing type players, better than Dugarry or Guivarch anyway, but not better than the emerging Trezequet and of course at this point he had turned into very different player.
A better one but also a slower one ill suited for a striker role.

Then as far as I can see that leaves one option and it's the only realistic one.
Playing Cantona as one of the two midfielders/wings other than the two defensive ones which was always Deschamps coupled with Petit or Vieira.
And it should be said that the two defensive midfielders and the playmaker were untouchable in this system so it would have to be at the expensive of one of the other two. That's just a fact.

Now the problem is that those other two were players creating width and they had to be effective at the wing something which Cantona definitely wasn't a specialist at.
Eventhough it wasn't the most important thing for this type of attack, where would the crosses come from?
Trezequet or Dugarry, if it were one of those playing as striker, were both very good in the air and would need some service. With Cantona that would be a problem.
The players actually used were Henry who at this point was a very good wing and who did a great job.
Pires who was a very good alternative and someone like Karembeu who was having succes at a very similar role in Real Madrid and who actually provided defensive help too again something which neither Cantona or Ginola, who of course would have had to play one of those positions too, could do.

The whole point of this system was to move away from a 4-4-2 system that at this point had either become a system full of holes or the inflexible system they had used in EURO 96 unable, even with Zidane, to create any kind of attack.
Cantona and Ginola (who incidentally could work in a 4-4-2 and did but for any
team with Zidane on it that system had simply become the past) I feel would just create more holes and generally just lack the needed speed or in Ginola's case acceleration because he WAS godspeed WITH the ball, but on a team controlled by Zidane with the advantage that comes with it of making great direct attacks, neither of them could make the runs at the needed speed to make the optimal plays that those playing instead was capable of.
Someone like Ginola very often just slowed things down and then proceeded to just create magic on his own.
That's all good but it's far from ideal in this system.
Who would he create for anyway? There is only one striker and the two defensive midfielders are rarely going forward. Both things very unlike what was taking place at Newcastle at the time.
Making the deep forward run is not exactly number one on Zidane's priority list which then leaves only fullbacks making very selective runs and the other midfielder occupying the other wing.

Far far from ideal compared to what France succeeded in doing in 98 and then in full flow, until the final, at Euro 2000.

Even Djorkaeff the least wing type player of those mentioned, still if you factor all plusses and minuses was a better solution in the french 4-2-1-2-1 than either Ginola or Cantona.
Similar passing to Cantona. Not as good at crossing and creating width as Ginola but still much better at that than Cantona.
Good pace at this point in his career on the first meters and able to make great forward runs into the penalty area where he was also a very good finisher.
AND on top of this he possessed a very good work rate with responsible defensive awareness. Something hammered into his brain in Italy.
Needless to say, neither Ginola or Cantona possessed that.
Just a very all-round, very flexible player who fitted very well into that particular flexible system.
Ginola and Cantona just didn't and that was my original point.

There may have been, no there were, a lot of other causes having to do with them not getting to be a part of this team and its rise but I'm just saying that even though they were great footballers, football reasons played a part too and if France thought they could have helped the team footballwise, not hurt it, they could have made them playing their part actually happen. Made it happen.

My belief is that Jacquet and Lemerre, who later just could not let go of this system even when it was falling apart in Korea, he loved it so much, had realized that within this new, I used the word modern system that they were going to go with, Ginola and Cantona, the country's most famous players just were not optimal.

Like Marcello Lippi says: " The best players don't always make the best team."
The France team was a great example of just that.

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