Football has always been renowned as a working-class sport, which inspires passion and fervour in both fans and players across the globe.
For connoisseurs of the sport, however, the sport’s tactical evolution through the ages has been arguably as fascinating as the action that has unfolded on the pitch, from the birth of the iconic 4-4-2 formation in the late 1950s to Jose Mourinho’s compact diamond shape that helped Porto to win the 2003/04 Champions League.
Of course, more recent innovations have seen the sophistication of the high pressing game, which is deployed consistently by sides like Liverpool and Manchester. But what are football’s evolving tactical trends, and how will they play out in the future?
1. The Rise and Rise of Flexible Defensive Blocks
On the subject of Mourinho’s early Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan sides, there was a clear focus on controlling the space effectively and managing games simply be eschewing possession and counterattacking aggressively.
This leveraged the type of low to medium defensive block that’s scarcely seen in modern football, as sides are increasingly focused on dominating possession in the opposition’s half and utilising a high block to help sustain attacks and prevent the other side from playing out.
Interestingly, this requires a focus on controlling both space and possession, as teams want to dictate the game and sustain constant attacks while simultaneously preventing counterattacks at the other end.
As these two tactical trends continue to meld, we’re also expecting to see teams deploy increasingly flexible block-heights in real-time and during matches. This will certainly allow for a more effective press and the ideal balance between defence and attack, especially when playing against high quality opponents.
However, the compact nature of blocks will remain the same, as sides become increasingly narrow and leave no more than 30 metres between the defensive and attacking lines).
2. The Return of the 4-4-2 Formation with Wingers
Football trends can also be circular in nature, with tactics and trends that have been historically popular more than capable of making a return at a later point in time.
So, if we assume that defensive blocks are likely to become increasingly compact (both vertically and horizontally), this will create more space in the wide areas and could encourage teams to utilise this when looking to gain control in matches and continually switch play.
This could even see a return of the classic 4-4-2, with the use of traditional wingers to hug their respective touchlines and offer constant out balls when in possession. Then, the fullbacks can help to create overloads in wide areas, potentially causing the opposition to become stretched during the course of a game.
This would be an interesting space to watch, and one that could once again revolutionise the game in England.
3. The Age of the Spare Defender
While Antonio Rudiger may have departed Chelsea in the summer for Real Madrid, the German centre half (nicknamed ‘The Tank’) became renowned for his ball carrying skills and willingness to break the opposition’s defensive lines.
This trend is becoming increasingly prevalent in an age of high and aggressive pressing, especially as side’s often have a spare defender who can drive forward with the balls and potentially create space for others higher up the park.
This is certainly an effective way of beating the press, while ability of dribbling and ball carrying defenders to commit midfielders as they break forward may make it easier to construct attacks and expose high defensive lines.
Other examples include Frenkie de Jong, who was often deployed as a deep lying, dribbling centre back under Erik ten Hag at Ajax. This provided a launchpad for attacks, while creating a challenge for the opposition in terms of how and where they press.
This tactic can be deployed in both a two or three-man central defensive line, so long as the defender in question has good acceleration, excellent close control and a reasonable passing range.