DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 17: FC Porto Head Coach, Andre Villas Boas gives instructions during a FC Porto training session ahead of their UEFA Europa League Final against SC Braga at The Dublin Arena on May 17, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Joern Pollex/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Since we've been hitting on the subject of Andre Villas Boas lately (I wonder why) we've been paying some attention to his tactical acumen. He is, of course, known for being a very intelligent, analytical manager, and we saw glimpses of his ability when he served as chief opposition scout for the Blues under Jose Mourinho and was heavily involved in game planning, compiling reports on the opposition before every match and individualised dossiers for each Chelsea player detailing their assignment and the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of their opponent.
This, I think, we can all agree is a good thing. Being an exceptional tactician can only be helpful as a manager, and we've seen poor tactical ability go punished under Carlo Ancelotti, so having a man on hand who won't be outwitted is important. But how important is the field as a whole? Obviously, managers try to give their team the best chance of winning, but the games, of course, by and large come down to the players on the field.
Traditionally* tactical analysis of the fan-driven kind has focused on shape beyond all else. This is the field in which Michael Cox of Zonal Marking excels, and the sort of thing I try to do half as well in post-game coverage on this site. By looking at the match as a clash of formations, with maybe a key individual battle or two, we can start to peel away some of the variance and look at what a coach is actually trying to do and how their opposite number is countering their plans, opening up a fascinating world of analysis that more and more people are starting to dip their toes in.
*Assuming the field's been around long enough to develop a tradition, which it really hasn't.
However, we shouldn't take tactical analysis as a study of formations and nothing more. If we look at the outcome of a football match as driven by events, said events will lie somewhere on the spectrum of luck vs. design, with one end being a match decided by a random act of god and the other by a superior team being able to execute their plan to perfection. Tactical talk, naturally, shies away from the random, and focuses on the overarching plan. Hence, shape.
Which is all well and good except for the fact that we have a hole in the middle of our spectrum, one which isn't really to do with shape, but certainly isn't random. Here lies the complex world of team interaction and combinations, pre-planned plays that are designed to pick individual opponents apart, defensive movements attempting to mitigate an anticipated threat. Here, then, lie tactics as well. For the sake of giving them a name, let's call them micro-tactics.
By and large, the micro-tactics are ignored, and since that's where most games are played out focusing elsewhere is akin to biology focusing in multi-cellular life while being totally indifferent to our friends the bacteria*. Nothing illustrates the importance of the in-between area better than the scouting reports our once and future friend Mr. Villas Boas provided the club, where you'll find plenty of references to shape but far, far more to combinations and movements used by the opposition. Happily, one of them (a match against Newcastle in the 2004/05 season) has been leaked. Reading through it is instructive - you should give it a go - but I'm going to just take a look at one of the diagrams from the four-page report here.
*Yes, I am a big enough nerd to know that there's a much better, more sciency-accurate way of writing this. It just ruins the flow. Behave.
Figure 1: Alan Shearer drops deep, feeds Michael Owen
There's something deeply pleasing to me about this diagram, and it's definitely not the graphic design (I'll draw it next time, Andre!). It's that Chelsea haven't just identified Newcastle's shape and attacking threats - they've isolated a possible scenario beginning from a specific position, determined the area and movement of the players should they proceed down that path and multiple possible outlets from which they might turn the play into a shot - note that both Nolberto Solano and Michael Owen have shooting opportunities here, but left winger Charles N'Zogbia is completely out of the play.
By and large, the battle of micro-tactics decides matches, and it's exactly what we don't get from the current generation of online analysts. Granted, that's for a very good reason: Analysing football in this much depth is immensely difficult. Villas Boas was a 'chief scout' in his first tenure at Chelsea, and without a team around him, presumably each focusing on a very specific area, there's no way such a detailed report could be generated. One has to have a phenomenal understanding of football, an eagle eye and presumably a DVR and a lot of time to even notice these patterns.
Contrast that with the amateur analyst's favourite subject, formations. Unlike the micro-level tactics, these are easily observed - it's not hard at all to figure out roughly where everyone on the pitch is or where they're supposed to be, and a great deal of narrative can be cleaned from relatively little work. When I write up a post-match analysis, I find it pretty easy to do just from my memories of the game and the stats provided by Opta (this explains why drink-inducing games don't get analysed, in case you were wondering!). That's not to say that an in-depth look at shape is useless - I think done well it can impart a great deal of information. But more than anything else, replaying shape and naught else is efficient analysis; minimum work for a decent return.
Even if we all become formation gurus, we're never going to push our understanding of the sport past a certain level. The in-between is too important to neglect, and my hope is that we'll see more analysis on that sort of level popping up in the near future. Who'll lead the way?