Changing the ‘system’ – or our thinking about ‘systems’?
When national coach Ange Postecoglou changed his regular 1-4-3-3 shape and started with a back three, for the matches against Iraq and UAE, he gave the media, coaches, pundits and fans plenty to talk about. The change in his system of play also involved the role of his wide strikers, which created more discussion from a tactical perspective as well as the merits and risks associated with making changes in important matches.
Changing the team shape
The fact is that Ange has often changed the shape of the national team in midfield and upfront while sticking with a back four. He has used a diamond shape in midfield and played with two strikers because that’s what you do from time to time to address the situations you face as a national team manager; a situation often created by availability or non availability of players, by the game time players have had in their clubs or because of the style of play of the opposition.
What Ange has done in my opinion is to show that players can adapt pretty quickly to changes within a system but without changing the playing style of the team; its about application. The players that Ange has in the national team have been exposed to all kinds of playing systems throughout their careers, which probably made it easier for them to make slight changes to what they normally do. What this says to me is that Ange has inadvertently (or maybe intentionally) created a case for exposing players to different systems of play in their formative years. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a basic team shape of 1-4-3-3 but Ange has presented a case for exposing younger players to different team shapes to facilitate adaptability.
How do we produce adaptable players?
My belief is unwavering. We should teach players good fundamentals in terms of how they receive the ball, along with positional play to see opponents and the ball and where they can face, run and pass forwards as often as possible. The most important aspect of attacking play is passing forwards and running forwards with and without the ball. Good positioning where players can see opponents and teammates will enhance decision-making in attack and reduce the number of times possession is lost.
Every team will start with a shape, e.g. 1-4-3-3 but once the basics have been taught and the players are comfortable playing in that formation I would encourage coaches to expose players to different formations, e.g. playing with a back three, or with twin strikers or with a diamond or flat four in midfield. Teaching players how slight changes to the team shape might impact on their role within the team is not difficult, if you are a half decent coach. Players will quickly understand that their basic behaviours do not change and that changes to the system or shape of the team require minimal change by the individual, in attack and defence.
Should we teach players how to play a system or how to play football?
I’m definitely in favour of teaching players how to play football (when and how to make forward runs for example regardless of position) rather than how to play a system (for example, full backs go high and wide regardless of where opponents are). The latter might apply with professional players but the former should be the focal point with developing players, to encourage freedom of expression. Young players continue to develop until the late teenage years so I believe they should be challenged and given opportunities to play in several positions rather than ‘pigeon holed’ as a 2, 6 or 10 at the age of twelve.
Sticking with or changing position
There will always be players who play in the same position throughout their careers; strikers often do this. John Kosmina, Frank Farina, Graham Arnold, Mark Viduka, John Aloisi and Archie Thomson are examples. However, there are examples of players who changed their position in their late teens, and went on to International success. Lucas Neill, for example, was a winger at the age of fifteen, excellent dribbler, good crossing technique and a super athlete; he was converted to play as a full back at the age of nineteen. Lucas went on to play as a central defender and captained the Socceroos, earning 90+ caps along the way. Ned Zelic played most of his junior football as a striker but in his late teenage years he played in midfield or as a central defender where he played for the Socceroos and for top clubs in Europe and Asia. Josip Simunic was an exceptional goal scorer who played as an attacking midfielder. Josip changed his position at 17 years of age and played most of his 108 Internationals for Croatia as a central defender.
Physiological profile and adaptability
When players reach their teenage years their physiological profile is more predictable which may indicate they would be better suited physically to play in a different position to increase their chance of surviving physically at the elite level. Some players will change their position because an opportunity presents itself to play in the first team, which may happen as a result of being adaptable after being exposed to playing in different positions and systems of play in their formative years.
Are systems really important?
The recent discussions have confirmed in my mind that systems of play are not that important; there are more important things to focus on such as the number and quality of forwards runs to threaten the last line of defence, moving the ball quickly towards goal once possession has been gained, being able to press your opponent in their half of the field or deny them opportunities to pass forwards or shoot at goal when you have been forced, or choose to defend deep and how to get most of the team in the opponents half of the field when possession is regained in your back third.
There isn’t a system that prevents you from doing these things but the shape of the team is important if you want to press your opponents high up the field; in short you need to match their shape to some degree or run the risk of being played through. Finally, I am unable to describe an attacking team’s system of play in terms of 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 when the opposition ‘park the bus’ and not afraid to admit it.