While watching Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher's excellent post match tactical breakdown of the Manchester Derby last weekend I couldn't help but be struck by how Louis van Gaal has finally got Manchester United playing this system he had used to such effect in a few of his previous roles.
His system, which is essentially a play on the classic 4-3-3 setup, traditionally favoured by his old club Ajax, calls for compressing the space all over the pitch and for the defenders to never be 25 yards or so away from the midfield and likewise the midfield from the forwards.
This system reduces the open pockets of space around the pitch, allowing his team to reduce passing options and always be good shape to win the ball back. Alternately when Van Gaal's side receives possession they're fairly close to teammates, and when you combine this with quick and intelligent movement off the ball, as his players try to pull the defending side out of position, several passing options become available.
It's not a particularly new tactic, but it's one that takes a lot of discipline, concentration, work rate and of course players with the necessary quality to implement it.
One of the interesting things about football though is the evolution of tactics like the one's being used by Van Gaal, and the following are three innovations that drastically altered the game:
The Combination Game
In football's early years in the United Kingdom the only way supposed gentlemen played the game was by attempting to dribble right through their opponents and score. Tactics were virtually unheard of and passing was almost viewed as cowardice.
That all began to change when early club's like Sheffield FC in England and their Scottish counterparts Queens Park FC began to experiment with players encouraging each other to pass the ball off if they didn't have the option of dribbling through to goal.
An early proponent of what the newspapers of the day referred to as "The Combination Game" was the famous footballer and cricket star Charles W. Alcock who said, "Nothing succeeds better than what I may call a 'combination game'" and is credited with helping to develop what he also referred to as "a scientific way of playing" with passing and support play at his club side Wanderers.
In one of the earliest instances of passing leading to a goal being mentioned in a newspaper, Alcock put his England teammate Robert Walker through to score against Scotland in an unofficial friendly in 1870. The Scottish, for their part, embraced this new way of playing themselves and in the first recognized international between the two nations in 1872, they nearly passed their English counterparts off the pitch in a competitive encounter that ended 0-0.
This setup required three full-backs covered by two half-back, with two inside forwards and three attackers.
Chapman's sides, besides being more defensively sound than most of their opponents, were deadly on the counter attack with the majority of their moves going through their supremely gifted inside forward Alex James.
Building on ideas coaches Jimmy Hogan and Hugo Meisl worked on with great success with sides in Hungary and Austria in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hungarian manager
Gusztáv Sebes would create one of the most exhilarating sides the world had seen in the 1950's.
As manager of Hungary, Sebes set his team's up in a 4-2-4 when defending and then had them move into a 2-3-1-4 formation when on the attack, where the single player behind the four attackers was a deep lying or withdrawn centre forward. Using Nándor Hidegkuti in this withdrawn role, Hungary romped to an Olympic title in 1952 and then obliterated England 6-3 at Wembley the following year.
It was said afterwards that "Billy Wright and the England defence were like a fire brigade rushing to put out the wrong fire."
That brilliant Hungarian side would go on to narrowly lose to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup Final.
Using a similar approach to Hungary, Brazil romped to victory in the 1958 World Cup, but by the time the 1962 World Cup had come around they had morphed into a 4-3-3 setup. This gave them an extra man in midfield for defensive solidity. The middle three players would move as a unit across the pitch establishing cover and then when transitioning into attack the three forwards would split across the attacking third with the two outside forwards providing width.
With Rinus Michels' Ajax side of the early 1970's they were setup in a 4-3-3, but the difference was the players were well drilled in picking up positions left vacated by a teammate making a run. The team shape and the spacing between players was never lost, as players rotated across the pitch. This required players that were tactical adept and very flexible. Of course the physical demands on the players was also high as they moved around the pitch plugging gaps and making intelligent runs.
The role of Ajax's star forward Johan Cruyff was also key to this system, as he would roam across the front line or back into midfield causing damage all over the pitch. Spaces he left open in his side's structure were quickly filled by a teammate.
Spatial awareness, in terms of where players should move and where they should not in relation to their teammates and their opponents was critical to this system.
Ajax certainly reaped the rewards by winning three straight European Cups in the early 1970's, along achieving a staggering 46-0-0 record at home in domestic football during 1971/1972 and 1972/1973.
Cruyff and Michels were also able to bring this style over to the Dutch national side, as they strode to the World Cup Final in 1974.
Although there have been modifications down through the years, this style of play was at the heart of Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, who some consider the best club side ever. What former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson called their "carousel of passing" was only possible by controlling space and always giving each other passing options.
Whenever this side lost the ball, which was rare to begin with, they were setup to quickly win it back.
From Alcock to Chapman, with influence by Hogan and Meisl, input from Sebes and Michels, leading to near perfection from Guardiola, football tactics have come a long way.
(And before you ask, I purposely skipped Catenaccio, as I've watched too many grindingly dull matches as a result of this system.)