How Much Structure, How Much Freedom in Attack?
The anecdotes of Sir Matt Busby when he was Manchester United’s manager included, “Go out and enjoy yourselves lads” and “If you are in trouble, give it (the ball) to George (Best)”. I do not know if the quotes are true but if they are they say something about the freedom the famous manager may have given his players along with a solution if things were not going too well for any of them during the game. He may have said ‘Go out and enjoy yourselves’ because he had a team of great players. The implication may be that the players did not need too much structure in their play because they had the individual qualities to create and finish enough chances to win the majority of games, while keeping opponents at bay at the other end. All teams require structure in defence, but how much structure is required in attack?
Watching Barcelona win the FIFA World Club Cup made me wonder if pre-game the manager, Luis Enrique said the equivalent of, “Go out and enjoy yourselves lads”. He might have done because with Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Alba, Iniesta, and Alvez in the team he had enough talent to warrant giving them total freedom in attack.
He might have also said, “If you are in trouble give it to Leo”. Messi was on form; picking the ball up anywhere on the park, beating one, two or three defenders, playing long balls behind the River Plate defence for the forward runs of Suarez or Neymar, or just keeping possession by passing to any number of team mates within a twenty yard radius of the ball. Neymar and Suarez were very similar to Messi; both had some amazing dribbles to beat opponents but their ability to position themselves where they could see their immediate opponent and the ball was excellent. Their timing to make forward runs to get behind opponents was a pleasure to watch and they both had excellent chances to score.
Do we equate “freedom” in attack with technical ability to cause opponents problems by dribbling or timing of runs to get behind opponents? It made me think about the value of teaching structure, compared with teaching behaviours such as the ability to position your body on the field where you can see opponents and the ball, or when to make a forward run, which is usually a result of facing forwards and being able to “see” if it is “on”. More importantly are players given the freedom within the “structure” to dribble or make a forward run when it is on to do so?. At one point in the game Pique, the central defender, headed the ball out from a River Plate corner and within a few seconds he was in the opposing team’s penalty area to support the counter attack, which showed freedom to make a decision and a willingness to make the long run forwards at high speed.
I thought about the importance of teaching young players what to look at and what to look for so they develop good habits and decision-making ability. Decisions such as when to support behind the ball or make a forward run, when to stand still and wait to see what an opponent will do, when to get level and outside an opponent, how to receive a pass and face forwards in the middle of the park or know when to time a run to receive a pass and be on-side. Nothing will make up for poor passing or receiving techniques and the value of having players who can beat defenders is enormous; so developing players who have sound techniques is a must; techniques are the tools of the trade. The question is how much structure and how much freedom do you encourage in attacking play? How much emphasis do you place on teaching behaviours compared with how to play a position within a system?
If you want to develop creative players they must have the freedom to be creative rather than just doing a ‘job’ in the team. As players mature they know what their strengths and weaknesses are and accept their role in the team; they know what their job is. Younger players should be encouraged to develop as much ability as possible while they are learning to play the game and not restricted to merely doing a job for the team, there will plenty of time for that later. Developing players who are good decision makers with good habits will give them the flexibility to change positions if and when they are required to do so during their careers because habits apply anywhere on the field and in any system of play.
Barcelona had a system against River Plate but it was not about shape or formations. They regularly had six, seven or eight players in the opponents half and usually within the width of the penalty area; the system encouraged total freedom to dribble and make forward runs and their ability to keep possession in the ‘tight’ areas allowed them to keep the ball until an opportunity arose to go forwards. It was great to watch.