5 Tactical Trends Of 2012


What were the tactical trends of 2012? With the new year upon us, today on the blog Michael Cox takes a look back at the last 12 months of tactical evolution.


Various strategies succeed

2012 was a difficult year to find common themes amongst the major winners. In the past it’s often been simple – in 2004, for example, Porto and Greece’s underdog successes were based around defensive football and prompted a wave of negativity across the Premier League, while all four European finalists in 2010 – Inter, Bayern, Atletico and Fulham – played with inverted wingers.

Last year saw a much broader range of styles. Of the major league winners, Dortmund were based around transitions, Juventus concentrated on diagonal balls and wing-backs, Manchester City played short passes and depended upon individuals, while Real Madrid were about power, pace and counter-attack. At European level there was a slight similarity between Atletico and Chelsea’s performances – deep defending combined with a reliable number nine, but at international level Spain took tiki-taka to new heights, while Zambia won the Africa Cup of Nations despite the lowest pass completion rate in the competition.

It’s been a year of disparate strategies, and in combination with a broadly attacking phase of football, it’s created some exciting, open matches – but 2012 won’t be remembered as a particularly important stage of modern tactical development.

Goals galore

It might be a trend confined to the Premier League, but the rate of goals throughout 2012 was amazing. It was a trend started towards the end of 2011, certainly, but while the ‘goals per game’ average tends to slow towards the end of each season, the second half of 2011/12 was played in an extremely open, attack-minded fashion, and that continued throughout the calendar year.

Crazy individual matches aren’t always indicative of a wider trend – Arsenal’s 7-5 win over Reading in the Carling Cup was ludicrous, for example, but a contest between Arsenal’s second string and a relegation-threatened side, in the fourth round of an unpopular competition, says little about football as a whole.

That said, we’ve become so used to goalfests, that unquestionably outrageous results don’t seem staggering at the time. Over Christmas, for example, Chelsea’s 8-0 destruction of Aston Villa seemed like a big win, but it was only when you consulted the record books, discovered this was Villa’s worst-ever defeat, and one goal away from being the Premier League’s record win, that you realised the severity of the scoreline. Similarly, Arsenal’s 7-3 win over Newcastle had more goals than you’d expect, certainly, but it didn’t feel so ridiculously unusual that it was one goal away from the most goals the Premier League has ever seen in a single game. Defending is a lost art.

The popularity of the back three

In Serie A, the three-man defence has been returning to the fore in recent years, chiefly because of Udinese and Napoli’s success because of those systems. But 2012 took things further – Juventus coach Antonio Conte experimented with the shape, then ended up adopting it permanently as Juventus won the title unbeaten, and now Serie A is awash with the three-man defence. The majority of sides consider it their first-choice system, and only four clubs – Roma, Lazio, Torino and Cagliari – haven’t started at least one match with a back three in 2012/13.

In Italy it makes sense – that system thrived because it countered the 4-3-1-2 effectively, and coaches have tried to negate that advantage by switching to the system themselves. In combination with Pep Guardiola’s experiment with a three at the back – which was frequently more of a 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield, to allow an extra midfielder to start – it prompted a brief wave of copycat strategies in situations where it made less sense.

Manchester City and Liverpool, for example, have both utilised the shape despite it offering few apparent benefits. It might not be widespread just yet but this is the epitome of a tactical trend: managers doing something because others are, rather than for any specific purpose. The three-man defence is no more effective in English football than it would have been three seasons ago, when it was rightly non-existent.

The unpopularity of the pure holder

21st century tactical development can be assessed through the prism of the central midfielder – the ‘Makelele role’ was surely the least revolutionary revolution in the history of football, yet seemed to convince coaches of the need for a solid, dependable central midfielder who did little other than win the ball, take up good positions, and distribute the ball calmly. It mattered little that Makelele was, in the strictest sense, quite a limited player.

Since then things have progressed – Barcelona’s insistence on filling the midfield with three creators has encouraged others to be more forward-thinking, while Germany’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in 2010 popularised the flexible ‘double pivot’ of Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, neither of whom are natural holders. Deep-lying regista Andrea Pirlo, the absolute antithesis of Makelele, returned from near-extinction to become one of the key players of the year.

Now, it’s extremely difficult to find a player in the Makelele mould at a top European club. Manchester City sold Nigel de Jong and brought in Javi Garcia, more of an all-rounder who can pass beautifully and fill in at centre-back, having looked at Sergio Busquets, Javi Martinez and Daniele De Rossi – who are similarly flexible. Arsenal’s Alex Song was once a strict holder, then became a playmaker and now Arsene Wenger is happy to use passer Mikel Arteta as his deepest midfielder.

Similarly, the likes of Michael Carrick and Xabi Alonso are now stationed in front of the back four, whereas they might once have preferred a more defensive-minded partner. It’s very difficult to find the spirit of Makelele in modern football.

The ‘false nine’ goes mainstream

In reality, no-one has come close to recreating the role Lionel Messi plays at Barcelona, but the subject of whether to play a striker became a genuine debate at the European Championships. Spain started and ended the tournament without a recognised player, having experimented with proper strikers Fernando Torres and Alvaro Negredo (but not the most old-fashioned number nine at Vicente del Bosque’s disposal, Fernando Llorente) throughout the competition. Suddenly, the false nine was an established concept, and everyone was discussing whether Jonjo Shelvey could play that role in Luis Suarez’s absence.

But if the false nine has gone mainstream, how long before the football hipster complains about the term being overused? Well, here goes: Fabregas was a false nine at the start of Spain’s Euro campaign, as he was essentially another central midfielder – Andres Iniesta was generally higher up the pitch. By the end of the tournament, he was just a midfielder playing as a striker – making runs in behind, occupying space in the box. Shelvey, similarly, wasn’t interpreting the striking role differently, he just played out of position in a selection crisis.

2013 started with Harry Redknapp – the notorious chalkboard ignorer, a man who has played Peter Crouch upfront at three separate football clubs, masterminding an unlikely victory at Stamford Bridge by playing Adel Taarabt as a false nine.

When that happens, you know the false nine has sold out.



Follow Michael on Twitter: @Zonal_Marking

And read more of his work at ZonalMarking.net

A firm believer in traditional shirt numbers. I also write for ESPN, The Guardian, FourFourTwo & others.