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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?

Written by therabbitt

December 30, 2009 at 2:04 pm

So Walter is the worst manager in the world again is he?

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So Walter Smith is back to being the worst manager in the world again after some of his strongest critics being somewhat quiet of late.

What’s changed? Is it a case of the voice shouting the loudest is often the only one that’s heard? When we have been playing well of late, no one seems to have been quite as vociferous in their support and praise of the manager. Is this because it is the minimum that we are Rangers supporters have came to expect?

Before I start this discourse on the current state of tenure of Walter Smith, I feel like I should make one thing clear. Last night against Stuttgart was not acceptable. Our European distraction this season has not been acceptable. The managers decisions were not up to scratch for me, however more importantly, the performance of the majority of the players was beyond reproach. We have crashed from Europe with nothing but a whimper – a team that has as much potency and commands as much respect in Europe as Herman van Rompuy.

But can all the blame simply be laid at the door of Walter Smith, Ally McCoist and Kenny McDowell?

Sadly, this time there is a very strong argument that Walter Smith has simply gotten it wrong in Europe this year. The defeats at home this season have been nothing short of embarrassing. An embarrassment we’ve not felt since some of the European forays Smith made towards the end of his first term at the helm of Rangers.

I wrote an blog yesterday saying that second guessing Walter Smith in Europe was as frivolous as trying to spell out words by poking a chopstick into a tin of alphabet spaghetti – something that was proven yet again as Smith deployed a very left-field formation (with Miller on “supporting wide” as I had predicted).

News of the tactical shape was leaked to the papers an hour or so prior to kick off with many dismissing it as tabloid rumour. However the rumours were true, Walter was going to shoehorn his squad into what sounded a very attacking 3-4-3 formation. On seeing it on the park though, it clearly wasn’t that.

In practice it was more like five at the back; quite possibly the most defensively that Walter has asked his troops to play since he came back to the club. Yes, much like the debate that 4-3-3/4-5-1 are actually the same thing – one is the shape when attacking, one when defending – the same is true for 3-4-3 and 5-3-2. Similar to the 4-3-3, the shape changed based on game-circumstance, where the wingers dropped into midfield, the two wide players from the four man midfield ended up dropping back into full back positions.

This drew pressure and allowed territory and space to Stuttgart too deep in our own half.

Our three man defence of Wilson, Weir and McCulloch was not up to the task of playing together in that formation. Despite the experience of Weir, he couldn’t help McCulloch through the ordeal and it seemed that Wilson was the most mature head at the back in many occasions. It was the kind of formation that Basile Boli would have revelled in.

We didn’t really challenge Stuttgart at all.

In all fairness they cruised it and had it not been for the inspired form of Allan McGregor we could have faced a much heftier deficit. McGregor, Wilson and Davis being the only players to come out from the debacle with pass marks. Boyd didn’t have as bad a game as many will have you believe. Yes, he missed that chance, but his all round game up front pretty much as a lone Ranger was passable. He didn’t set the heather on fire but he was not the worst player on the park. He would deserve to play against the Spaniards in the final game based on his performance in my opinion.

But I am talking about the players here. Not the manager. Who is to ‘blame’ for the European misadventure? Walter? The players?

If everything is considered with a sensible head then it’s a combination of both. Walter may have judged his tactics wrong last night, but the players didn’t show the fight and desire to win for Rangers that we have the right to demand from our players. We are not European no-marks like Gonnoreah Urziceni. Not one player pulled themselves and the players around him up over the precipice.

As much as the players all seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet within the squad, there is not the level of commitment that is required to play well and win in Europe. Maybe the players in our squad are simply not good enough to compete and perform at that level? However that is a path that leads back to the manager. It was him that signed them and it’s him and his assistants that train them to mould them into the players that they are now.

So I suppose for me there is no direct blame for our European failure, it is a collective failing and everyone associated with the club has recognised that.

Players and management have been quoted last night and today saying that it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t, they recognise that and we recognise that. But for me, the doom and gloom merchants need to get a grip of reality. We may have slipped out of Europe, but two of the sides in our group are filled with magnificent players – some of the best of in the world, especially in the case of Sevilla. We are leading the league and are still on course for the other two domestic cups.

Look at it this way. The money in Europe is from the Champions League; we’ve played in the Champions League, we will receive the money. We are all disappointed to not be in the Champions League after the New Year but let’s face it, our squad is not good enough to be there. Apart from the last sixteen, the best we could have hoped for was a Europa Cup campaign which could have stretched our squad to it’s limits.

The league this year is our bread and butter. Simply, we have to win the league this year. Failure is not an option for the future of Rangers (without intervention from a new buyer). We must ensure Champions League football next season for our debt to be better managed. I know I sound like a bit of a drama queen here, but I genuinely believe that it is that important and I think that belief can be backed up when the figures from the latest financial reports are considered. It’s not the case that the club will cease to exist immediately or vanish like Gretna, but everything that we have came to expect and love could potentially begin to be stripped away.

Put quite plainly, if failure to reach the last sixteen of the Champions League or gain entry to the Europa cup means that our players are galvanised and we can go on to win the league then I’d very happily take that. Not every year, but this year I’d take it. Walter Smith knows that he won’t be the manager of Rangers for the next five years, he knows his time at the helm is coming to an end. Without a new owner there will be no fresh exciting young manager to come in. Who else would offer to work on without a contract as Walter has? He is what a lot of what Rangers should always be – proud, loyal, honest and a Trojan of a worker for the interests of the club. People should remember that before castigating him.

There wasn’t a bad word said in his name when he broke the news that the bank were severely influencing the club. He was lauded for protecting the clubs interests and for making the fans aware of a situation that we needed to know about. So let’s maybe cut him some slack.

Last night was a complete shambles, but we always need to look to the positives in life. This season is by no means over yet. We still have some of the most important months in Rangers history ahead of us. What the club, players and management need right now is us to be behind them in what they are doing. I may not like some of the decisions made by management and some of the performances and attitudes of the players, but I will continue to lend them my unwavering support – this season more importantly than most we need to be a collective unit, fighting for the same cause for the best of the institution that means more than anything to us all.

We might have whimpered out of the battle for Europe but the much more important and telling war is yet to be won.

Written by therabbitt

November 25, 2009 at 8:07 pm