In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a work that proposed the idea of natural selection and laid the foundation for the theory of evolution. In short, the theory proposes the idea of survival of the fittest; those who adapt will survive. Darwin’s theory, however, is not exclusive to the realm of biology.
The ability to adapt is invaluable in football management. Managers must adapt to the opposition, to their squad, and to the game in a larger respect. However, there is somewhat of a war brewing between tactical idealism and ‘adaptism’ in the modern game.
There is a worrying tendency for managers and the media to claim that a particular tactical style is the best, regardless of any factors other than itself. The most prevalent example of this in recent times is the global love affair with what is known as the ‘tiki-taka’ style of play.
If you believe what you read, the possession obsessed system, championed my managers such as Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Beisla, is the best innovation since cavemen discovered fire.
Controlling the game, pressing high up the pitch, lovely passing combinations…everyone should play like this, shouldn’t they? After all, Tony Pulis was sacked because his direct, outdated, ‘dinosaur’ football wasn’t pleasing to the fans anymore, regardless of their comfortable Premier League standing.
A more pragmatic style is currently frowned upon in the football world; it’s okay to loose as long as the team played ‘the right way’. The right way? The right way is the way that wins.
A tactic is not a sacred queen that a team vehemently represents and dies for in battle; a tactic is a strategy. In war, as in football, a strategy is a specific plan designed to defeat an opposition.
A general wouldn’t enter every battle with the same plan. What works in one situation, against one opposition, does not necessarily work against another. To quote Pep Guardiola, the very man who was the catalyst for this upwelling of tactical idealism, “You wouldn’t attack in the same way from a mountain top as you would from wide open countryside”.
Likewise, in an interview with United legend Gary Neville, Jose Mourinho asserted, “I am not fundamentalist in football. What I mean is that in football you have your ideas, you die with your ideas. No. People ask me: what is your model of play? I say: model of what? Model of play against who? When? With which players?”
Yet, many managers entirely overlook the purpose of a tactic and persist with the stubborn belief that their own ingenious system is the best.
Prior to Southampton’s match against Manchester City, which they lost 3-0, Ronald Koeman said, “We have to prepare and keep our way of playing and I think that’s the most important. We don’t change. We don’t change if the opponent is City or another opponent.”
Prior to their last two games, Southampton were at such an unfamiliar height in the Premier League table that their players likely developed altitude sickness. However, it’s telling of their approach that they have lost to Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Arsenal. With Manchester United next to visit St. Mary’s, Ronald Koeman may begin to question his mantra.
Every team must have a base tactic, a general strategy that they approach most matches with. One manager my favor a possession orientated approach, and another a counter-attacking approach, but while this plan is subject to the preference of the manager, it is not absent of consideration of the opponent.
A teams’ general tactic is relative to their ability level. Manchester United play a more attacking brand of football, as they are better than most teams they face, while Burnley play a more defensive brand of football, as they are lesser than most opponents they encounter.
Thus, it is unsurprising that Southampton’s tactic hasn’t worked against any teams that are better than them. Managers can approach a series of similar mountain tops with the same strategy, but once they find themselves exposed in the wide open countryside, they must adapt.
The best representative for the case of adaptism is Sir Alex Ferguson. The United legend, who sustained unprecedented success for the better part of two decades, was a chameleon.
When Ferguson took charge in Manchester, he presided over a team that played a direct, penetration-focused, 4-4-2. Since then, the Old Trafford faithful have witnessed 4-3-3’s, 4-2-3-1’s, fluid front 4’s, and diamond midfields.
Although he was considered one of the most attacking managers in football, Ferguson routinely adopted a more conservative approach in bigger games. He man-marked opposition playmakers, changed his formation, changed the style. He adapted to his environment.
Following United’s defeat to Real Madrid in the 2003 Champions League quarter final, Ferguson decided it was time for a change in approach. Due to the ability of continental teams to counter-attack, Ferguson reasoned that the team must prioritize ball retention. Rather than creating 15 chances and allowing the opposition 5, he set his teams up to create 5 chances and concede none.
Like a chameleon, as his environment changed, Ferguson changed. Due to changes in football on a larger scale, possession became more important in every game, not just in Europe. The same manager that embodied direct and purposeful football upon his arrival in Manchester in the early 90’s presided over a team that recorded a 90% average pass completion rate in 2013.
He even extended this chameleon-like nature to his players. One of Ferguson’s mentalities was to create ‘thinking footballers’. He wanted his players to adapt to the situation on the pitch and make a decision. He instructed his players to build in a mixed style; he didn’t instruct the players to always pass it short or always pass it long, he trained them to adapt to the environment and choose the best option. This instruction is the pinnacle of an adaptive tactical style.
The list of examples detailing Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability to adapt is endless. He was the first manager in England to champion large squads, the first to keep four strikers happy, and the first to rotate his back line.
In his book, My Autobiography, Ferguson recalls an incident with Roy Keane. “You’ve changed” said a livid Keane. “Roy, I will have changed” Ferguson replied. “Because today is not yesterday. It’s a different world we’re in now. We have players from 20 different countries in here. You say I’ve changed? I hope I have. I never would’ve survived if I hadn’t changed.”
In stark contrast, one of Ferguson’s oldest adversaries paints a picture of a species that didn’t adapt. While I must admit he has changed Arsenal’s style of play since ‘the invicibles’, Arsene Wenger is reluctant to change.
As Manchester United recently discovered, and profited from, regardless of the game, opponent, or score, the Frenchman will not adapt his tactic in any meaningful way. In a sense, it’s admirable that Arsenal approach every game with a high line, an intent to dominate, and a reckless abandonment of any defensive cover. However, there is a fine line between a courage and stupidity.
This tactical stubbornness and refusal to adapt is a large part of the reason that Arsenal haven’t won a single trophy, baring the FA Cup, for nine years. Ferguson adapted, Arsene didn’t. Natural selection.
Many great managers have come and gone because of an arrogant refusal to change. Take Arrigo Sacchi, for example. The football world is forever indebted to this tactician, who championed the idea that a team must move as a unit; a single organism seamlessly manipulating the space of a football pitch. However, a few years after his success with AC Milan, his Italian superstars became tired of the constant pressing and harrying. He refused to adapt to his squad, and subsequently, he is no longer a manager.
Consider yourself in a real-world situation in which you choose idealism over adaptism. You’re in the pub with your mates; you motion to the woman across the room and comment on her favorable physique, you mock your mate’s new haircut, and then make a joke about the football team he supports.
No issues there.
Now you’re in a job interview; you motion to the picture of your prospective bosses wife and inform him she possess a cracking pair of tits, tell him his haircut is absolutely tragic, and ask him if the wife you have just been ever so complementary of is actually his cousin as he supports Norwich City.
A few issues.
Tactics are simply the collective behavior of players on a football pitch, and behavior must change depending on the environment. A singular idealism across multiple environments is nonsensical; managers, like species, must adapt to survive.
Where do you stand on the idealism v. ‘adaptism’ debate? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below.