Wed | Jan 23, 2019

Football coaches, formations and styles

Published:Friday | September 5, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Orville Higgins

Orville Higgins

It's an argument that I have long had with my friends in football. Some have called me crazy. Others dismiss me as merely a football dunce. I have not been daunted. The more I watch football both locally and internationally, the more my belief is strengthened.

What's my position? Coaching, in so far as formation and style is concerned, is overrated in football. Certainly at the senior level. What wins football games is quality players who are motivated to do well.

This thing about formations and style is quite often something that coaches discuss at length to convince some of us how bright they are. Quite often, I am confused. Quite often, they overcomplicate the thing. Football is simple. As far as formations are concerned, you need defenders, midfielders and forwards. From this very basic fact, the modern game is now littered with all kinds of confusing formations. Among the more interesting are things like 4-1-4-1. Recently, I heard of 5-1-2-2. We hear of the more conventional ones like 4-3-3, 5-3-2, or 4-4-2. Quite often, these are just numbers splashed out on a drawing board, and quite often, mean nothing. One term which is gaining traction in the modern game is the "false nine", which is, simply put, a person who plays a little behind the main striker.

Football is too dynamic, too fluid a sport for these formations to really matter too much in the long run. It's not as if players are stuck in any one place on the field for too long. Formations don't win football games, players do. When all is said and done, football can be brought down to this. When your side has the ball, the person on the ball must have at least two or three attacking passing options, which means teammates must be all running off into space. The quicker, the better. You pass around the ball this way until you or your teammate is in a position to shoot at goal. When your side loses the ball, then you should try to win back the ball by closing down passing lanes, which simply means finding a man and trying to stop him from getting the ball. In a nutshell, this is what football is about. When I go to watch a game, I don't look at formations. I look at those simple things. The side that does them better will win every time.

What style?

I keep hearing about "styles" of teams. It's a very overworked term. Very few football teams in history had any clearly discernable 'style'. The difference between how two teams play is not as wide apart as some coaches would want us to believe.

If teams in football were to wear similar jerseys, say they all played in full black, very few of us would know which team is which team. We have to depend on their jerseys or know which team is playing before we identify this thing called style.

If any two World Cup teams take the field now, or two English Premier League teams, or even two Manning Cup or daCosta Cup teams, and they don't announce who are playing, the only way we would know who is playing is the jersey, or if we recognise individual players. Put the players in masks and make them wear another jersey from the one for which they are known and we wouldn't know who is playing. The coach who claims he has a particular unique style is almost always dead wrong. There are very few exceptions. Barcelona's 'tika taka' style in the modern game and the smooth rhythmic 'samba' of Brazil in the '70s and '80s would probably be the only real exceptions.

Good players needed

So I'm not impressed with coaches or so-called football 'experts' who endlessly discuss formation and style and tactics. Give me four or five quality defenders, three or so quality midfielders, and two good strikers. Give me the ability to get them to pass around the ball quickly, get them shooting accurately at goal, and I am prepared to take on the most tactical coach in the world. All these things about formation and style are quite often much ado about nothing.

In the English game, the coaches are called managers, which, for me, is quite appropriate. At that level, it's about managing players, getting them to work together for a common good. Coaching is really for lower levels. Give me the man who is good at managing people, who can get them to want to jump through hoops for him, who understands just the basics of football, and he will get better results than some of these coaches with all these coaching certificates who overcomplicate the game with endless talk about formations and style.

Orville Higgins is a sports journalist and talk-show host at KLAS. Email feedback to