The Evolution of Football Tactics: From Past to Present

Take a walk down the history lane of football tactics!

Although the basics of the game date all the way back to 200 BC during the Han dynasty of China, the modern invention of football is often traced back to nineteenth-century England. This is when the sport started to take shape and became recognizable as the football we know and love today. But that leaves hundreds of years between now and then! So, how have football tactics evolved through the years from past to present?

Just how differently do managers line their teams up now compared to their 19th-century predecessors? Let’s take a trip down memory lane and find out!

Historical Changes in Football Tactics

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, football formations were rather simple. The sport was still in its infancy and a lot of the rules we have grown used to in the modern game had not even been invented yet.

This early brand of football revolved around offensive play more than defensive stability. As such, there were usually only two out-and-out defenders in each starting XI. This is where we get the term full-back. There were then five forwards to attack the other team’s goal and three midfielders in between attack and defence called the halfbacks. Fast forward to modern day and we don’t really use the term halfbacks anymore. The basic formation used by most teams during the early stages of football was, therefore, like a 2-3-5 formation. That seems completely alien to how teams play now!

  • Did you know that the penalty spot was not introduced until 1902? Before that, a penalty kick could be taken from anywhere along a 12-yard line.
  • Did you know that the current offside rule was not introduced until 1925?
  • Did you know that passbacks were not a thing until as recently as 1992? Before that, defenders could roll the ball back to their keeper and have him pick the ball up!

The Evolution of Football Formations

The W-M Football Formation

Of course, even back in the early days, teams would chop and change their formation during matches in order to take advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses and defend against their strengths. However, the modern advent of the football formation really came about in the 1920s thanks to a man called Herbert Chapman.

Chapman managed Arsenal in the 1920s and was the first known person to use the W-M formation on the pitch. As the name suggests, the W-M formation created a W shape in attack and an M shape in defence. Chapman would usually name three defenders in a line across the back, with a couple of wing-halves in the middle (creating an M when you connect the dots). He would then play five in attack, with two inside forwards followed by two wingers and a centre-forward higher up the pitch (creating the W when you connect the dots).

The W-M formation was not only a more fluid system in attack, exploiting the pockets across the pitch far better than earlier formations, but it was also more well-rounded. Not only would the five forwards cause a host of problems for the opposition defence, but the five more defensive players would provide far more solidity. Football managers were starting to come up with more unique and varied strategies to give their team the upper hand.

Catenaccio – The Stubborn Italian Defence

In the 1960s, a new Italian tactic rose to the forefront of football, thanks to its sheer stubborn solidity. Catenaccio translates to ‘door bolt’ which goes some way to describing the thought behind the system. Catenaccio was essentially designed to keep the other team out at all costs. Lock the door, slide the bolt across, and pile the furniture up against it. It is often credited to Karl Rappan, an Austrian coach who managed Switzerland multiple times throughout his career. However, it was later used by Helenio Herrera at Inter Milan, who won three Serie A titles between 1962 and 1966 using the system. While it was known to be extremely rigid, it certainly got the job done. It goes some way to explaining why Italian football still has a strong emphasis on solid defending to this day, when compared with some of the other top five European leagues.

Total Football – The Dutch Revolution of the 1970s

In the 1970s, a new tactical system pioneered in the Netherlands started to take the world by storm. It was soon dubbed ‘total football’. The concept was simple, but the reality was difficult to coach. In a total football system, any outfield player should be able to take over the role of any other outfield player.

For example, if a full-back made a burst down the pitch then they would be replaced by another teammate to retain the original structure. That way, the formation is always retained, no matter what kind of attack is being mounted. Any outfield player could play as a defender, midfielder, or forward throughout the 90 minutes. The only exception is, of course, the goalkeeper.

The invention and adaptation of total football is usually credited to Vic Buckingham and Rinus Michels with Ajax and the Dutch national team. Others argue that total football dates back to the 1930s Austrian Wunderteam or the 1950s Golden Team of Hungary.

Whatever the case, total football requires ten well-rounded players who are able to adapt to almost every position on the pitch. Being able to seamlessly switch from position to position made it extremely difficult for the opposition to mark players and defend against attacks.

The 4-4-2 Formation

Arguably the single most famous formation in football history. The 4-4-2 formation was inspired by the 4-2-4 formation of the mid-20th century. Brazil famously used the 4-2-4 to win their very first World Cup in 1958. Once again, it was used by the likes of Pele in 1970 to lift the Jules Rimet trophy under Mario Zagallo.

This inspired Russian coach, Viktor Maslov, to tweak the formation over in the Soviet game. He took the 4-2-4 and asked his wingers to drop back into midfield to support the two central players. Thus, a 4-2-4 became a 4-4-2. The idea was to completely overwhelm the opposition midfield and take control of the game. It is certainly no surprise that Maslov managed to win three straight Russian League titles with Dynamo Kyiv during this time.

Sir Alex Ferguson – The Manchester United Years

Although Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge in Manchester for 27 years and used a vast array of formations during that time, one of his tried-and-tested favourites was indeed the 4-4-2. It was a common formation in England at the time thanks to the solidity and rigidity it provided in defence. However, more expansive managers at bigger teams, like Fergie and Man United, were able to tweak it to their advantage.

Let’s take a look at the 2008 Champions League Final between Manchester United and Chelsea as an example. That day, Sir Alex named Van der Sar between the sticks, with a flat back four of Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, and Brown. In the two central midfield positions, he chose Carrick and Scholes. Ronaldo was played wide left and Hargreaves wide right, with Rooney and Tevez up front as a two.

What made this Man United team particularly potent was their ability to not only use the 4-4-2 formation to get wide and put crosses into the box, but to also drift inside and attack the opposition box that way too. Remember how Cristiano Ronaldo used to cut inside and whip devilish crosses and shots with that right foot from the left wing?

The full-backs were allowed to get forward and make overlapping runs to keep the width, thus leaving space for the wide players to drift inside and combine with the box-to-box midfielders. Meanwhile, having two up top allowed one to drop into the pocket and one to stay high on the shoulder.

Defensively, the bread and butter of the 4-4-2 is to sit off in a mid-to-low block and invite pressure before breaking away on the counterattack. This Manchester United team was an absolute master of the counter in that respect.

Diego Simeone – The Atletico Madrid Wall

It is worth mentioning that Diego Simeone has often taken a completely different approach to the 4-4-2 formation in Spain. He has always preferred to set his team up to be compact in a low block, controlling the game by making it near-impossible to score against his team. And when they do inevitably recover possession, the wide players come inside to make room for overlapping full-backs on fast counterattacks. Simeone has won La Liga titles against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid playing this way.

Tika Taka Football

Tika Taka football was the elite footballing tactic in Europe around 2010. It was most famously seen in the Spain national team and the Barcelona squads of that time. Spain managed to win three major tournaments in a row using Tika Taka, two European Championships in 2008 and 2012, with a 2010 World Cup in between.

Tika Taka is essentially a super-fast and super technical way of building up an attack and controlling possession. It revolves around pass-and-move football with one-touch passing. Moving the ball around with such speed not only opens up gaps to exploit, but also becomes extremely tiring for the opposition to constantly chase and defend against.

Barcelona, with the likes of Lionel Messi, Andreas Iniesta and Xavi, won the Champions League three times between 2005 and 2011 using this style, as well as four La Liga titles during the same time period.

Gegenpressing – The Jurgen Klopp Way

Gegenpressing is a fast and intense way of playing on the front foot, pressing your opponent as high up the pitch as possible. It was arguably made most famous by Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, and later with Liverpool. Gegenpressing is designed to win the ball back as fast as possible once possession is lost.

In the peak years of Liverpool under Klopp, it was common to see the likes of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firminho intensely pressing in their opponent’s own third in order to turn over possession and launch a fast counterattack. It is still being used as a popular tactic to this day.

Flying Wing-Backs

Fullbacks have come a long way even since the Sir Alex Furguson years of Gary Neville and Patrice Evra. These days, fullbacks are used more as attacking outlets by the big teams, rather than solid and dependable defenders. Under Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham enjoyed their greatest success when Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were regulars in the starting XI. In possession, the two fullbacks would become wing-backs and bomb into the opposition half as fast as they could to provide an outlet for crosses into the box. This eventually earned Walker a big-money move to Man City. Jurgen Klopp also utilized his fullbacks as wingbacks in attack during his peak years with Liverpool, which saw Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold lead the way for assists in the Premier League.

Pep Guardiola – Inverted Fullbacks

The most recent major tactical overhaul has come from Pep Guardiola over the years with Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and now Manchester City. Particularly of late with the Citizens, Guardiola has opted to have his fullbacks step into midfield in possession, thus freeing the attacking players to flood the attacking third. The tactic has even been taken to a new extreme by Ange Postecoglou with Celtic and Tottenham, with the fullbacks actually becoming inside-attackers or number tens at times.

The Dawn of Data Analytics

With the modern game governed by data analytics, we are sure to see some unique and interesting tactical innovations over the years to come. As technology is used to measure and push the boundaries of what a player can do, what will they think of next?!

Last updated: 15.04.2024