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Total Football Journeyman: The English Way

What is the English Way? A rather wholesome moniker, suggestive of hot tea and delicious hobnobs on a chilly autumn morning. It’s also a good name to encompass the bygone football style of the time and place that was 1970s England. It is not as poetic a term as “Total Football”, mainly because some might easily confuse it with the Hoofball “anti-football” that predominated the latter period of 1980s and 90s. But to me the “English Way”, evokes the great teams of the 1970s like Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Paisley’s Liverpool. It was a magnificent period in the history of English football when clubs from England ruled the footballing world. It was also a time when the fluid Pass and Move counter-attacking style was associated with English football. So 1970s England is where Total Football Journeyman is heading next. But not before I finish this cup of tea.

Having a nice old cuppa in the Boot Room… and planning how to destroy their next opponent. (Major bonus points if you can name everyone)

For Liverpool, change came in 1973 when facing Red Star Belgrade in European Cup. Red Star played with slick fluid counter-attack style against Bill Shankly’s gung-ho “lump it towards the front”, very traditional 4-4-2. The long story short, it did not go too well for the Scousers.

Shankly’s Liverpool had no answer to the Yugoslavs’ ability to patiently absorb pressure and maintain possession until a decisive break. Clearly something was not working for Liverpool’s more direct style when facing the possession-focused, collectivist approach. I like to think that the post-game discussion in the Boot Room must have been rather heated. Later that year Shankly left his post as Liverpool’s manager. The transfer of managerial reins to his assistant manager Bob Paisley marked the end of an era. But also the start of something new. It was the beginning of arguably most glorious period in English football. Once again, proving the truth in the old mantra of “if you cannot beat them, join them”. Paisley certainly did.

The Glorious Decade

I can hardly think of another country that dominated world football more than England between 1975 and 1985 (the year of the infamous Ban). It was a dominance, largely manifested through its professional clubs, and not so much at the national team stage unfortunately. But nevertheless world dominance it was.

In the years between 1975 and 1985, English clubs won 7 out of 9 European Cups (present Champions League trophy). The trophies were divided between Liverpool (4), Nottingham Forest (2) and Aston Villa (1) but the record is still amazing. And if not for the 1985 European ban, it might have been even more impressive.

What Tactics?

There’s no plan, just give it to John Robertson. He can play.

Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough in reference to his game plan.

That famously dismissive attitude towards complex tactics was not solely the view of Brian Clough. It was shared by that whole generation schooled in 1970s English football. Thinking too hard about tactics was viewed as the domain of Continental football hipsters. At the same time, the idea that you won matches through hard work alone has been a part of English football mentality since the very inception of the game. And you had to attack and keep on attacking. Because that is what entertained the people. Not to say that managers like Bob Paisley and Brian Clough, did not view the game at a more cerebral level. If anything that is probably the furthest from the truth. Both Clough and Paisley were master tacticians.

In fact, Paisley was quick to borrow latest ideas coming from the Continent, and specifically Netherlands. He modelled his training routines after Total Football ideals to encompassed every area of the game from how to keep possession on the ball to hard pressing (called “countering” by Paisley) when the ball was lost. It may not have been Cruyff’s Barcelona yet, but Liverpool was still ahead of its time.

Fusion Cuisine

So what changed in the 70s? It was likely the influence of the Dutch philosophy that was taking Europe by storm. Red Star played the way they did, collectively as a team, because they saw Ajax’s succeed playing this way. And Liverpool had no choice but to adapt if they ever wanted to capture that elusive European Cup. So Bob Paisley did this by marrying traditional English workrate with a supreme technicality that only a club like Liverpool could afford. So the team he picked could work their socks off just as easily as they could pass their way exquisitely through most opponents.

Even-though Clough’s and Paisley’s sides were so influential in defining English Football, they were actually the outliers of their league. Both managers turned their respective teams into dynamic, passing outfits, at the time when this was far from the case in the rest of English football. And this is probably why they were so successful. Liverpool was playing on a whole different level from their domestic competition. They were like wolves among sheep. Wolves that could pass and move… move and pass. It was like poetry in motion, that was sometimes quite devastating for Liverpool’s opponents. I think the following classic speaks better than a thousand words.

Here what turned into an infamous day for Everton supporters, was a moment of glory for Liverpool’s Ian Rush. His unprecedented haul 4 Merseyside Derby goals in a single match was never repeated.

This video illustrates perfectly how Paisley’s Liverpool could use their possession to lull their opponent, create an overload and then launch a lightning fast counter. Thus in a very short time, the Liverpool side integrated the lesson learned from the Yugoslavs very well. Most importantly Paisley took the old and tested English 4-4-2 formation and started using it in novel ways. So while on paper it still looked like Liverpool lined up in the classic 4-4-2, on the field it turned into a whole other beast, more suggestive of the modern 4-2-3-1. And every player held a key role. As you can see below, in transition, there would not be much difference between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, especially because one of the forwards would always start deeper than Rush or Heighway. While Keegan was the stereotypical Target Man, Dalglish was a different beast, operating more like a shadow striker.

4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1?

Refining the old 4-4-2

Bob Paisley was players’ manager through and through. He would do anything for his team and his players. This fact was immortalized in his statue (and the photo it was based on) outside of Anfield. Not every manager would carry their injured player off the field, as Paisley did with future Reds captain Emlyn Hughes.

He carried this approach into his tactics as well, where he viewed football as the players game. Not an inhumanly mechanical system of tactical instructions pushing the people around like some interchangeable cogs in the machine. Rather he viewed the game as very personal. The exact personnel you had defined how your team would play. Thus firstly you needed to pick a team of highly-technical, determined and hard-working team-players. Then put them in a formation that would allow them to use space to its maximum. It is a very Total Football-like idea that the space liberated by one player should be filled by another one. And when one player passes the ball, the other has to move to receive it. This is how fluidity is created, when you have a team of like-minded individuals acting with one mind.

Once you achieve that by molding the team to your system, anything is possible, and especially beautiful flowing moves like in this clip.

Keeping the above in mind, I will try my best to strip the layers of tactical complexity from this tactic. The goal is really to try to put the highlight on the players in this system. As you can see in the clip above, the aim is to create a fluid style while keeping tactical simplicity. It is by no means meant to be a faithful recreation of that particular Liverpool tactic. Besides, other than its general shape and style, we don’t have much detailed information about specific roles or instructions. Paisley really just put his players in the general formation of two attackers supported by two banks of four. He chose his players painstakingly and then let them do what they were best at.

Thus I would keep the instructions to a minimum, only using those necessary for the disciplined, hard-working, style. Then you need to look at the general player archetypes you will need for each position on the field. The main aim of this tactical experiment is to see whether I could have my players using space more smartly. That is I want every meter of the field, used by one of my players. Also, if a player liberates an area for whatever reason (to attack or to chase the ball) I want another one to fill that space. To achieve this, it’s best to go to the basics and think of how each role typically moves and behaves.

For example lets say you have a traditional winger pushing high and hugging the left side-line. Then it would be perfect to have a mezzala move into the left half-space opened up by your winger’s movement. At the same time you could play an inverted wingback on the same side as that mezzala. Then IWB could move into the space liberated by the mezzala and offer defensive cover. It all seems rather simple. It only gets complicated when you have to do this for all 10 outfield players in your formation. At the same time, we need to keep tactical instructions to an bare minimum allowing the roles to stick to their natural tendencies.

Once a good balance in attack and defence is achieved, some nice things are possible even against the best teams. And while the tactic has been doing rather well in my long-standing Real Sociedad save, it can probably kick on even better with the right set of players. So definitely much more experimentation is in order.

In keeping with minimalist philosophy of 1970s English football, the theme for this tactic is “keeping it simple”. The only instructions I include from the start are the ones absolutely necessary to define the style. The rest will be situational. It is definitively the case of the overall system taking precedence over the tactical details. To achieve the fluid counter-attacks of Liverpool during Paisley’s era, you would need the right set of players. That is most important and I will discuss it at length in this and future articles. But first the System.

The Nitty-Gritty

Here is another example a team play where almost all of our players were involved in passing. The passing is done at speed so it only takes about 20 seconds from our keeper’s initial throw to the attempt at the opposition goal. It really should have resulted in a goal.

So as a short recap of what I want to achieve with my “English style” is a type of fluid counter-attacking football with the emphasis on strategic possession and teamwork. I am not looking for defensive football. That is not really viable with a Top-6 clubs I have been testing this with. Rather I am after a Total Control style that is both strong in attack and defence. It should include:

  1. Limited split block pressing, which is still relatively intense, from 4-5 specific positions. My aim is not for universal geggenpressing. I still want my defenders to keep a structured shape in the back.
  2. Vertical positional play to recreate Liverpool’s “Move and Pass style”. Here is where my role selection comes into play to ensure a good balance of passers, holders and runners. I don’t want the ball to gravitate to a specific side of the field and stay there needlessly. Or for my attack to peter out in its build up phase, allowing the opposition to prepare their defences.
  3. On the other hand creating strategic overloads that attract opposition press are welcome. The goal is always to release my attacking players through direct side-switching passes and one-twos. This is the fast counter-attacking part of the strategy.
  4. In the end I am looking to play quick, attractive football using the classic English 4-4-2 formation. In defensive phase at least. And while possession is welcome, it is not the objective. What I want is to score more goals than the opposition. And to keep a clean sheet as much as possible. I do not care so much if we win by 1 or by 5 goals. I guess my inner Mourinho is finally winning over.

In terms of instructions I selected the ones I thought would help us achieve the proper level of aggression from the whole team. In this, 1970s Liverpool was not all that different from Klopp’s Liverpool. Paisley did not talk about “pressing” but rather “countering”. All the forwards, and even some midfielders, were instructed to heavily pressure the opposition while the defenders mostly kept their disciplined shape. Working hard was not seen as a dirty word. Yet Liverpool were no Wimbledon “Crazy Gang”. Paisley got everybody working hard and channeling their aggression creatively. But they also were very technical and could REALLY play. Again much like Klopp’s current team.

Keeping a clean sheet started with your front men being your first line of defence. And playing attacking football meant your defenders had to be your first line of attack. It’s not rocket science.

Tony Woodcock

In the game, the above can be conveyed easiest by setting up the split block on your 4-5 most advanced players. That is by telling them to press more urgently (via “close down more” PI). Also much higher defensive line and only higher line of engagement contribute to vertical compactness and a closer distance between the defence and attack. This becomes key when trying to play out defence as the passing distance between my DMs and wingers becomes shorter and less risky. To further ensure that we stay compact in both defence and attack, I add defend narrower and attack narrower (or very narrow) instructions.

Similarly, counterpress and higher tempo are needed to define the vertical nature of the tactic. Paisley’s system was probably one of the earliest forms of what we currently call Vertical Tiki-Taka. Or Dutch Total Football if you will. When the ball is regained, the team must not waste possession passing it sideways and backwards endlessly. At the same time I use work ball into box and play out of defence to temper the tactic’s directness somewhat and prevent the attack from becoming too direct and bypassing my free playmaker role. But once the ball is in the final third, the attack must come decisively and precisely. There is no time to lose, particularly when facing a parked bus.

P.S. I should also add offside trap simply because it compliments my high defensive line. Play through the middle is there to make sure that my DLP operates at a higher mentality (Balanced on Defend duty and Positive on Support). It’s generally a good idea to have your playmakers play on a higher mentality to ensure more pro-active and aggressive decisions from them. Again this is to improve our vertical penetration. Mark tighter is a bit tricky and should be used with caution. My general rule of thumb is only to use it if you have players for it. Meaning players who are fast and on average possess good levels of marking attribute. Since my attacker have less than average marking, I will hold off on it.

The Gamechanger – The Free Role

The choice of the club for this step in my Total Football Journey was rather difficult initially, but in the end I settled on Arsenal. It was not because it was an English club, but because they possessed one special player, who I think will become integral to my 4-4-2 Total Football system.

In the two formations above, the instructions (which I already discussed) are exactly the same. The main difference comes in the positioning of my “Free Role” player, Mesut Ozil. While his starting position will differ, the amount of space available for Ozil to exploit is the advantage in both tactics. One of the main objectives in the future testing is to see how this exceptional player performs when the formation is built around giving him ideal room to operate.

And here are a few other things I hope to see during my initial testing:

  • Granit Xhaka will drop deep during the build-up, allowing the left-back (Saka or Kolasinac) to bomb aggressively as a veritable winger in all but name.
  • Playing beside Xhaka is David Luiz, BPD, who should use his great passing range to play long diagonals. Luiz excelled in Antonio Conte’s 5-2-3 at Chelsea before he brought his unique skillset into Arteta’s Arsenal. He is another key element in creating verticality in my tactic.
  • Bellerin’s right-back role might still change from Defend to Support duty as testing continues. IWB on Defend could be a bit too conservative, as I require the Spaniard to provide support in midfield after Xhaka becomes our 3rd centreback.
  • The right-back and a right defensive midfielder (Guendouzi or Ceballos) will contribute to attack build-up by offering passing options and sometimes sending the ball directly to Arsenal’s forwards.
  • Whether we have Aubameyang or Ozil (as Wide Playmaker) cutting inside with or without the ball, their movement should pull the opposition right-back inside, creating space for the Gunners’ left-back to bomb forward.
  • In both tactics, Ozil will operate between the lines and have the full freedom to roam around and create. I am planning to use the Wide Playmaker version for games where the opponent uses one or more Defensive Midfielders to mark Trequartista Ozil out of the game.

Final Note to The Reader

So aside from the half season with mid-level Sociedad (which is going rather well as we are sitting comfortably in 5th place), I have not done real testing with a more reputable club with better players. Arsenal are such a club. The Gunners can be a real contender from the get-go, so it should make for an interesting test. And besides, there has not been a version of Football Manager where I have not had an Arsenal save. If reading this inspired you to try something similar then you are welcome to grab the two tactic downloads below. Just please keep in mind that “Pass and Move” System is still a work in progress. The roles are not set in stone, and I will certainly be tinkering with them. But perhaps you could draw your own conclusions, and adjustments. I would be happy to hear about them.

4-2-2-2 Tactic:

4-2-3-1 Tactic:

Now I am finally signing off to the sound of this great jingle from the Boot Room Boys. Its lyrics say it best: “Pass and move, we are talking Total Football!”

Go Robbie, go Robbie!

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Written by crusadertsar

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