Well, guys, it’s official. Look at that graphic; we may have saved my job—for now. As long as you keep attending soccer school and I keep convincing my boss I have more lessons on the way, I think I’m safe. I was pretty iffy on the whole pyramid scheme scene a few weeks ago, but this one’s paying off nicely. Maybe I’ve been unfair to the folks over at Mary Kay.
For today’s lesson, I’ve decided that we’re ready to move on from the technical stuff. That’s right, it’s tactics time, people. But before we delve into the nitty-gritty stuff, I want to explore some of the high-level ideas that have shaped tactical thought all around the world. I’m mainly writing this because no one wants to talk about soccer with me anymore, and it’s usually the only thing I want to talk about. Besides, I tend to get a bit emotional, but you can’t see the shine in my eyes through your computer screen.
Style or Substance, You Decide
The way I see it, there are two ends of the soccer spectrum: total rigidity and total fluidity. Everybody plays something in between these two extremes, but we’ve seen some pretty good examples of each side taking the sport by storm throughout history.
The most successful, and perhaps the most recognizable, style in history is undoubtedly Brazil’s affectionately branded Joga Bonito. Every time you watch Brazilian soccer, you’re reminded why this is called the beautiful game. The Seleção Canarinha play a free-flowing, creative, and expressive style, allowing players to take risks and lose themselves in the flow of the game. Chances arise from creative sparks rather than premeditated sequences of play. Quick passes and incredible dribbling help a team keep the ball, forcing the opposition to work extremely hard to get even a sniff at possession.
Brazil’s five World Cup triumphs tell us that there’s nothing better than Joga Bonito in its purest form. It’s unpredictable, displaying otherworldly technical excellence mixed with elite knowledge of the sport itself, but for better or worse, not everyone can, or even should, play this way.
Across the Atlantic and inland a little ways, a different ideology took shape. Since 1904, German soccer has been a force to be reckoned with, though they’ve never been quite as fun as their Brazilian counterparts. Die Mannschaft plays efficiently, hitting opponents with a relentless barrage of tested, predictable patterns. But just because you know what’s coming doesn’t mean you can stop it.
While the Brazilians win games by carving new paths in every match, the Germans prefer to follow a well-established road to success. Their patterns are proven, and they refuse to stop until they succeed. This style requires some impressive physical attributes, including size and speed. They don’t win by being clever or fancy; they win because they’re just better than you. Since 1954, they’ve won a World Cup just about every 20 years, accumulating four titles like clockwork and proving that playing with a plan can work.
While Germany and Brazil are giants of the sport and worth mimicking, every nation adds their own flavor to the game. By sprinkling some local ideas into either framework, new styles have emerged over time to take the soccer world by storm.
The Fluid Side of the Game: Spain and the Netherlands
AFC Richmond fans may be familiar with Total Football, a style that allows players to move freely into almost any position on the field as the game demands it. It’s all about following the flow of the game while filling in the gaps left by your teammates, fusing the freedom of South American soccer with the patterns of the European game. Players aren’t given quite as much creative license as the traditional Brazilian way, but the off-ball movement is quite similar. This signature style brought Dutch soccer to the forefront of the sport, but its architect didn’t stop there.
Following his legendary playing career, which included stops in Los Angeles and Washington DC, the late Johan Cruyff tried his hand at management in 1985. Using the ideas he employed as a player for the Netherlands, he brought Tiki Taka to Spanish giants FC Barcelona three years later, transforming the sport and starting an era of dominance that carried on through the 2010s.
Just say that name out loud for a bit. Tiki Taka. Tiki Taka. Tiki Taka. It looks the way it sounds: a whole lot of fun.
Through constant movement off the ball and almost non-stop short passing, Tiki Taka allows teams to move their opponents at will by making them chase the ball. By constantly shifting the point of attack, Cruyff’s signature strategy opens up cracks in the defense, allowing his side to dismantle any opponent with surgical precision. This is the style that delivered Spain’s first World Cup in 2010 and a long list of club titles to a certain Lionel Messi. It’s beautiful to watch, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
The Rigid Side of the Game: England and Italy
For the old-school curmudgeons of English “football,” Tiki Taka is a bit too fluffy. It’s common to hear old farts derisively call it “tippy tappy,” but I think that’s just because they’re confused and probably a bit tired of it. I mean, Spanish soccer dominated Europe for the better part of the last two decades. I’m sure that’s been a hard pill for the “inventors” of the sport to swallow.
Speaking of lackluster yet effective soccer, let’s touch on one of England’s signature styles. Generally, English teams are impatient and physical. They’ll break you if you aren’t careful, and they’ll fight tooth and nail to put you down once and for all. They often sit in a low block in their own half, absorbing pressure, blocking passing lanes, and waiting to win the ball so they can spring a counterattack with a long ball over the top. Lots of crossing, lots of running. It’s a tad boring, but hey, they invented it, right? Whatever helps you sleep at night, I suppose.
Solid defending isn’t as flashy as graceful attacking, but either one can win you a match. This is one point where Italian and English soccer minds agree. Tied with Germany at four World Cup titles, the Italians have left their mark on more than just the Tigers from Kicking and Screaming.
Through their trademark style, dubbed Catenaccio, Italian soccer has produced some of the greatest defenders of all time. The main objective of this approach is to score early, then pack it in and defend with all you’ve got until the match is over. Kind of like smacking your sibling and then hiding in your room with the door locked until they cool down; they might get you back, but you’re not making it easy. Imagine English soccer with a bit more finesse and style.
Is that enough for you? I’m pretty much spent for today. Besides, I’ve got a practice to run. The girls have free play tonight, and we’ve got a birthday to celebrate. They don’t always like me when I’m trying to teach them about soccer, but when they might get a small gift out of me? That’s when everyone likes Coach Kyle.