A Tactical History of Football, a Brief Overview

By: Austin M. Gomez, NISOA National Assessor, Missouri

This brief overview, compiled by the author, addresses the development of major changes in team tactics from the 1860s to the modern era.

A NISOA Referee must be prepared not only physically, but also mentally. Therefore, physical fitness is extremely necessary and a vital ingredient in order to properly make, and “sell”, all of the Referee’s decisions via match positioning. During the game mental alertness is also a needed preparatory element in the NISOA Referee’s training regimen as it relates to team tactics. Thus, a brief, conceptual, historic review of team tactics (that spans from the early tactical development in soccer up to the way the modern game is played) might be useful for all NISOA Referees.

The history of team tactics is the story of the attempt to achieve the greatest balance of attacking fluidity and defensive solidarity. By the time of the first Word Cup victory in 1958, Brazil wit Pele and Garrincha, was quite comfortable with the “man-to-man-back 3 of the “W-M” System that was created by an Englishman, Herbert Chapman, of the English Soccer Club Arsenal.

The systematization of soccer, and the knowledge that the game was not simply a matter of individual battles but about the best utilization of all team players, began to take hold. This began in the 1930s in Switzerland when Karl Rappan introduced the “Sweeper” formation. This new tactic provided additional cover for the three defensive markers in the ld formation, and encouraged his team to sit back and allow the opponents to pass the ball in front of them. This later led to the Italian “Catenaccio”, a very defensive tactical formation. (Both systems seemed to lessen the scoring opportunities.)

The solution to some of the tactical problem was the development of “Zonal Marking”, as opposed to the traditional “Man-to-Man-Marking” which was developed by the Brazilian, Zeze Moreira, in the 1950s. The notion that Brazilian soccer was strictly about artistry and free-expression is not true, since this tactical development also favored defensive play.

In the 1960s, with a further knowledge of the benefits of team physical preparation, the Russian Coach Viktor Maslov introduced the concept of pressure to the opposition. This began the birth of modern football tactics. His team would hound an opponent in possession of the ball while, at the same time, covering the defensive gaps in this unique tactical system. This type of tactic was further developed at Dynamo Kiev under the great Coach Valeriy Lobanovskyyi, and also developed further at Ajax, in Holland, under Coach Rinus Michels. His style was named “Total Football”. His concept stressed of universality where the players would take on more than one playing role, both defensively and offensively.

That style of play reached its height with te Italian Coach Arrigo Sacchi of A.C. Milan His system demanded that when his players were not in possession of the ball, there should never be more than thirty yards between his two forwards (i.e., strikers) and the back four of the team.  There were four (dynamic and changing) reference points involved: the ball, space, opponents, and teammates, because there were no actual fixed (i.e., static) positions.

Russian Coach Viktor Maslov conceived the “4-2-2” system of play that is still used in modern football. He stated that football is like an airplane; “as velocities increase, so does air resistance, so you must make the head of the airplane more streamlined.”

Now, with the possible future emergence of the “4-6-0” system of play, the UEFA Technical Director, Andy Roxburgh, explains that six players in midfield could all rotate, from attacking to defending roles as play in the game develops. In other words, there is a need for players who can not only attack (i.e., traditional concept of forwards and strikers), but also make runs and to tackle and cover all over the field. This idea of the “Universal Players” would require a fantastic fitness level. Obviously this would create a challenge for the modern Referee and Referee Team to cover this type of play.

This short overview presents interesting historical thoughts on the system(s) of play that Intercollegiate and Interscholastic teams might use in the future, either knowingly or unknowingly, as the game continues to develop. Therefore, the NISOA Referee should be aware of, and understand, the basic concepts of all tactical systems of play, from the defensive third, to the midfield, on to the attacking third, that Intercollegiate and Interscholastic teams begin, or continue, to use in their modern style of play.