With all the top level soccer going on right now in Champions League, Euros, promotion/regulation games, MLS….the age old question surfaces again: What is the best and most effective system to play? Do you play a 4-3-3, 4-2-2, 3-5-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, 4-1-4-1 or some other variety? The answer is not as simple as putting numbers on the field in the arrangement that a successful team does and expect it to all work out for the better. We all might like to play like Barcelona because it is both effective and enjoyable to watch, but only Barca has the players and developmental system to do that.
To put it simply, the system of play is the arrangement of players on the field. Your style of play is “how you connect the dots.” What is the best of both concepts is always an evolving process. One has to consider many factors to include: what players do you have to work with and what are their abilities? Are there cultural differences to factor into the process? Are there egos to deal with? What are your expectations and that of the organization or club? What are the specific personalities of the players? There are many, many more, but you can see my point.
Every coach is part thief! You see something that works well with another team and then you consider trying to do the same thing with your team. It occurs in all sports. Case in point – some days we would all like to play like Brazil, but we cannot! There is only one Brazil. Taking something that is successful for one team can be very beneficial, and at the same time work well with your own team. But, it can be a mistake when your players don’t have the abilities, knowledge and experience technically and tactically to handle it.
International clubs with age groups across the board work with great developmental systems already in place. I once saw the Ajax U18 team play, and guess what…they looked exactly like the first team – in both their system of play and their style of play, just in younger players. I am confident that the young players at Barca try and play like the first team too, as do most of the top clubs around the world. That is the designed result of their developmental system through the age groups. I see the same philosophy developing here in the USA with Academy teams that are affiliated with MLS teams. This method does develop specific players in roles that easily enable them to move right into the same roles as they move up the ladder to older age groups. It has worked well for decades – in the right environment.
Let’s take a look now at the recent 2012 Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Team selection was restricted mainly via suspensions and injury, but both teams played the same system, in different ways, starting out with high energy and pressing high up the field whenever possible. 4-2-3-1 was the shape of choice, with little tweaks dictated by players abilities and tactical considerations, but as the game developed, it certainly did not look the same, and the match analysis supported this. Bayern dominated most of the meaningful statistical areas: time of possession, shots, shots on target, corner kicks and numbers of penetrations in the attacking third and in the penalty box. As the game went on, Chelsea was forced to defend deeper and deeper with Bayern Munich possessing the ball and developing chance after chance, only to come up empty time and time again.
Now for my most important point! Chelsea had either adopted, developed or was forced by their opponents to fall into a deep defending posture and defend deeper on the field, living more on the counterattack throughout their Champions League run. You saw this against Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona and now Bayern Munich. Hanging around or “riding their luck” and taking advantage of the few good chances they got was a most successful mantra. And, they had Didier Drogba! The big man, on the biggest stage, came up big…twice!! He was instrumental in everything that Chelsea did. He scored the tying goal with a great header off a corner kick, he defended deep on every set play and even in open play. And, he closed the deal on the final PK. Content to, or forced to, sit deeper and defend first and live on their few opportunities saw them through the game, and the penalty shootout is now history. It may have been poetic justice that Drogba sealed the deal on the final PK and was the UEFA “Man of the Match.”
Both teams playing the same basic system, but in two different ways, dictated by the players available and their characteristics, the tactics chosen for the game, the opposition and their qualities and the flow of the game situation. sometimes soccer can be both a funny and hard game to figure out through analysis and statistics. The game does not work that way nearly as often as you think or expect. The team which dominates the critical statistical categories does not always win! As you try and determine the most optimal and best system for your team, there are many areas to think about and consider. But, I strongly feel the most critical point is to both build the system and style of play around the specific qualities of the players, and then tweaking or adapting your system around your opponents and the tactics you select for the game and the specific situations within the game. At the end of the day, it quite well comes down to players! If you have a chance to go back and see the Champions League final again, I think you will see exactly what I mean.
Dr. Tom Martin is the Head Coach of the men’s soccer program at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. Dr. Martin is the second winningest active coach in NCAA Division I, with 440 career victories. Under his leadership, his teams have made eight NCAA tournament appearances and won two national championships, and his squads have recorded 30 winning seasons in his 34 years of coaching.