Of Position and Possession


As football shifts towards a focus on passing and possession, what does this mean for players filling traditional and 'out-dated' roles? Today on the blog Daniel Evans takes a look the tactical development of modern football.


Theo Walcott wants to play up front rather than on the wing. Arsene Wenger is less enthused. This has led to stirrings on the message boards and rumblings in the commentary box.

So why the big fuss? Why is the prospect of a player switching his position such a talking point? Didn’t total football require all players to be able to play in all positions if necessary?

Positional Specialisation

Within the amateur game that most of us have experienced, it is extremely common for players to change positions: ageing strikers and midfielders slowly move down the field, usually converting to centre half in the twilight of their careers. The reason this is not generally done in the professional game (on top of reasons like fitness) is because positional discipline is far more vigorous, and the game is played at a far higher speed. One cannot just switch roles without specific tactical training, and the high stakes of each game mean that teams cannot afford to have makeshift players dotted around the park. Since Arsene Wenger invented tactics, players have to be highly attuned to the spatial awareness and specific movements and runs their positions require, and this specialisation is (damagingly, it has to be said) occurring at a very early age within professional academies.

Despite this early specialisation, however, there are countless examples of successful permanent and temporary position-changers: Barry has switched from a decent left back to an uninspiring but competent central midfielder; Ronaldo has created his own position; Mascherano and Busquets frequently play centre half for Barcelona, and so on.

The other salient issue when it comes to switching positions is that understandably, managers will often attempt to crowbar all their best players into the starting line up, even if that means them playing out of position. This frequently leads to creative players being played in wide positions, as Mata, Silva and Van der Vaart have all experienced recently. Their inclusion at the expense of Dirk Kuyt types is often beneficial in an attacking (and aesthetic) sense but costly in the era of attacking full backs.

But Walcott’s infatuation with playing as a striker is mainly interesting because it seems to buck the tactical paradigm shift which has occurred in recent years. Jonathan Wilson has recently illustrated the widespread transition to patient, possession based football, with an overwhelming emphasis on midfield keep ball. Crucially, the emphasis on possession, which frequently translates to slowed, less direct build up, has led to the decline of the striker as we know it.

Wilson cites Spain as the example par excellence of a strikerless formation: their 4-6-0 formation raised eyebrows at the Euros, before they again stuck two fingers up at everyone by successfully playing the former pivote Fabregas as their token ‘striker’, although even then, his role was mainly to hold up the ball and link play around the box. Wilson argues that Fabregas’ midfielders’ mindset allowed him to thrive in this role, whilst the strikers’ brains of Negredo and Llorente were considered unsuitable.

Out Of Fashion

The dramatic decline of players like Fernando Torres and Darren Bent should be understood within this context. These are players used to playing off the last man, far less suited to holding up the ball and linking play. Because of the tactical paradigm shift, strikers have had to adapt or die- to drop deeper and increasingly learn to play like midfielders or number tens.Rooney is the foremost example of this in England, and Jermain Defoe has also recently reinvented himself, demonstrating excellent link up play.

What has also been noticeable within the tactical shift is that on top of the decline of ‘traditional’ strikers, goalscoring midfielders have also fallen out of fashion. Wilshere, Cleverley, Allen, Ericksen, Modric, all fantastic midfielders who very rarely score. These players are the antithesis of players like Lampard and Gerrard- incredibly tactically disciplined, but perhaps overly specialised in their roles as ball retainers, and less inclined to drive into the box. Moussa Dembele and Yaya Toure are so effective and valuable precisely because of their willingness to run at defences from deep, and drive directly into the box, something which marks them out as unusual within a modern passing midfield.

Stale Possession

All this means that whilst the shift to strikerless/midfield heavy formations has benefited some of the more technically gifted teams, it has been less fruitful for the legions of teams who try to emulate them. Arsenal have changed from a team who used to breaking from their box and scoring within five seconds to a team that monopolises possession but frequently fails to break down weaker opposition. Liverpool similarly shifted from a successful, direct team under Benitez to a possession based, goal shy outfit under Rodgers.

Wenger himself has recently acknowledged this ‘stale possession’: essentially a misinterpretation of the Spanish/Catalan model which fails to add goals to possession. Obviously keeping the ball without scoring is not the gameplan, but it nonetheless frequently occurs as teams inevitably react to the passing ‘merry go round’ and simply sit deep and let this possession occur in front of them. Barcelona and Spain have players capable of unpicking these defences, but Liverpool and Arsenal do not.

Concluding Thoughts

The calls for Walcott to be played as a striker therefore seem to overlook that the main aspect of his game which people argue make him suitable for the role- pace - is precisely the attribute which has become superfluous for a striker, as space disappears behind deep defences. It is noticeable how many of Walcott’s goals come late on in games, when the opposition is tired, play is stretched, and he can run in behind.

Football, however, is cyclical, and there may well be hope for Walcott as the current paradigm begins to evolve. Manchester Utd have belligerently ignored the trend for possession based football, at least domestically, relying instead on rapid counter attacking and direct wing play. As Wenger eventually reacts to the shortcomings of his current strategy, Walcott’s pace may well figure in his plans.



Follow Dan on Twitter: @theenverhoxha

And read more of his work on his blog: WittyPlayOnWords.Blogspot