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Walter Smith: a tactical revolutionary?

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There has been several times last season and this season that I’ve found myself watching Rangers and seen Madjid Bougherra steaming forward and in effect being the most creative and driven Rangers player on the park.

The rebirth of the libero

I’ve often thought that Smith et al are probably standing at the sidelines with their hands to their heads and an internal monologue of “here we go again, lets just hope he doesn’t Amoruso“. More often than not however, he’s been our knight in shining armour though; it’s like there’s a switch in his head and once he’s had enough of what’s happening in front of him he just dashes off like a Viking marauding off to raid a village.

You only need to think about his goal against Stuttgart (“he’s-away-ach-he’s-not-going-to-is-he?pass!go-on-then-big-man-he-won’t-he-is-what-a-strike!GOAL!” were my exact words) and his cross for Miller last week as examples of him getting forward and enforcing his influence on the game.

Is this purely Mr Bougherra having enough of what he see’s infront of him and deciding that he is off to take matters into his own hands, or is it maybe a little more by tactical design of Walter Smith and in football in general?

I believe the latter.

The concept of Walter Smith being a tactical revolutionary or even to be keeping up with the José’s in modern football is something that will have many taking a sharp intake of breath. He’s been branded a dinosaur, a traditionalist and far too stuck in his ways to even think about playing the game the “modern way”. I like to think differently and the role of Madgid Bougherra at Rangers is the perfect example of why I think I am right.

Firstly, it’s important to discuss the current trends in the tactics of modern football. Tactical Svenghali, Jonathan Wilson identifies that even though there has been a general shift back to a general 4-4-2 shape; a lot of teams effectively still play with a singular (main) striker with what he has coined a “false nine” playing behind and alongside the main striker (Kenny Miller of late anyone?).

“Football is like an aeroplane. As velocities increase, so does air resistance, and so you have to make the head more stream-lined.” Viktor Maslov (Dynamo Kyiv manager and the tactical tactical revolutionary credited with inventing the 4-4-2 )

According to Wilson, what this quote means is that whilst the velocity of players increase (think Cristiano Ronaldo, Aiden McGreety) it becomes increasingly harder for them to find any space, so attacking players have to come from deeper positions on the park to force the space; thus making them harder to pick up and more importantly, pulling defenders out of position.

The success of Novo and DeMarcus Beasley of late from wide positions is also an example of this and not a coincidence. As our ‘false nine’ comes deep (Kenny Miller) it creates space for Novo and DMB to cut in from wide positions to bolster the attack. This is especially evident with the wide play of the likes of Lionel Messi who scored over 35 goals last season alone.

Essentially, the primary role of the striker has changed (as has Kris Boyd) from being just about scoring goals to be also about creating space for others.

This is where it gets interesting. Think about table football – if you get to a certain point, the key attacking players are the back two as you have much more time and space to line up a big ol’ spin for a shot and the opposing strikers essentially become blockers of this.

Part of this became evident (again in the football of Smith) when we had Alan Hutton and Steven Smith before him rampaging down the flanks as the most free and attacking players on the pitch. This has quelled in football a little as the wide forwards are now a little more defensive to close them down (think Steven Naismith tracking back).

This is where we are now. At least one forward dropping deeper to create space ( think Wayne Rooney/Zlatan Ibrahimovic/Kenny Miller), full backs getting forward (think Patrice Evra/Alan Hutton/Kirk Broadfoot) to be met by defensive minded wide attackers that like to attack from deep positions.

With the full backs freedom quashed somewhat, it is no longer them that have the most space on the pitch. It is the second centre half that is reaping the rewards of the most space on the pitch. This is starting to herald the return of the libero.

Sweeper/Libero: (Italian: free) is a more versatile type of centre back that, as the name suggests, “sweeps up” the ball if the opponent manages to breach the defensive line. Their position is rather more fluid than other defenders who mark their designated opponents. The catenaccio system of play, used in Italian football in the 1960s, notably employed a defensive libero.

Many centre-backs have the ability to bring the ball out of defence and begin counter-attacks for their own teams, thanks to tactical (game reading, anticipation, positioning, tackling) and technical (passing, vision on the pitch) capabilities.

What? The Wattenaccio?

The much vaunted and chastised system that Walter utilised to get us to our first European final since 1972? Homogenised players playing homogenised football. Stuffy-ness was the order of the day and being the damp squibs of Europe proved fruitful in the long run.

The system was fit for purpose. Contain teams and squeeze a goal wherever possible. Yet the system (and it’s name) obviously has it’s origins in the Italian system of Catenaccio and one of the most important players in that system was the libero. When we think of the libero we think Mattheus, Sammer and Beckenbauer.

Madjid “Libero” Bougherra is the perfect exponent of the tactic.

By the definition of the position above, a libero is the combination of tactical and technical capabilities. Reading further, the more detailed descriptions of each fit Bougherra perfectly: game reading, anticipation, positioning, tackling, passing and vision.

Yet it is obviouslly not only Bougherra that is taking advantage of this extra space and heralding the potential for a return of the libero.

Gerard Pique, is making great strides at Barcelona this season, Lucio did it to great effect at the Confederations Cup for Brazil, Pepe is performing a similar job for Portugal, Vermaelen is flourishing at Arsenal, Ignaschevich was very important for Russia in the side that beat England and Miranda is one of the most saught after defenders on the planet after capturing three Brazillian championships with São Paulo.

This list of course is nowhere near exhaustive as there are players cropping up everywhere that are playing in these kind of roles.

Tactics are in football to answer questions posed by other managers, teams, yet at the same time, importantly from changes in the rules of the game. By this notion they seem to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary in nature. Much as the latest incarnation of the offside rule brought about the insurgance of the poaching striker, the appearance of the ‘false nine’ has aided the resurgence of the libero.

It’s the chicken and egg debate on another level. Did Bougherra make the realisation that he had more space and could flaunt it or did Walter Smith make the realisation and give him the impotice to run into the space (perhaps since Lee McCulloch can drop a little deeper whenever he does go?).

Whether Walter Smith came upon this by accident or by design is further cause for debate and a question we won’t know the answer to.

However in my opinion the current trends in football tactics are very evident in the shapes, players and positions that Smith uses. It seems to all have came together in recent weeks for us. Football, whilst being at the cutting edge with primadonna footballers, bumper television contracts and astronomical debts is far more insular and introspective when it comes to tactics.

“To resurrect an old line, you don’t win games by scoring goals, you score goals by winning games: by playing the game where you want it to be played, thus maximising your team’s strengths and minimising those of your opponent” Jonathan Wilson.

Maximising your teams strengths and minimising those of your opponent. Walter Smith is the master.

Smith a tactical magician and revolutionary? What next? Kris ‘purely poaching’ Boyd being a rounded footballer under his tutelage? Kenny ‘Misser’ scoring goals for fun? Kirk ‘everyman’ Broadfoot being a marauding full back? Twitters DaMarcus Beasley being the most important footballer on the pitch in a Rangers jersey? Smith having a seventeen year old youngster that is ready to replace the possible outgoing libero Bougherra?

It could never happen….could it?

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Written by therabbitt

December 30, 2009 at 2:04 pm