This is something that’s seen in other sports. When kids play baseball, or adults participate in a church-league softball game, the fielding arrangements and even the lineup order – speedy guys who get on base first, heavy hitters in the middle, weakest players toward the end – is more or less the same as it would be at the professional level. It’s a dogma, the right way, the only possible answer.
In basketball it’s something similar. When I played rec league ball at age 9, I was a four-foot-something power forward, an absolute terror on the court (or absolutely terrible on the court, I can’t remember which). I ran plays from the block and the elbow, even though those plays were presumably designed for someone two-and-a-half feet taller than I was. I played forward because we had to have a forward, because all basketball teams have a forward. Magic Johnson played center in that clinching game against the 76ers because all basketball teams have a center, even when that center is really a 6’9” point guard.
It’s not surprising that it’s in American football that we see the most variation in tactics due to age and skill level, since that game has always been as much about the coach’s machinations on the sidelines and in the tape room as it is the players’ efforts on the field.
At the youth level, those machinations may amount to little more than giving the ball to the fastest peewee on the team and let him run sweeps and off-tackle all game, but even up to the college level teams at the service academies and other, smaller schools install triple-option and uber-spread offenses that theoretically let them compete against teams that can actually recruit players who wouldn’t make it through basic training.
Those systems are modern versions of the wishbone offense, which fell out of favor some decades ago only to be revived and reinterpreted by new generations of coaches trying to do it again and do it better. We see similar things in soccer, teams adapting to particular rosters or particular opponents by dredging up old ideas thought to have fallen out of style. Two years ago, Michael Cox wrote about the dwindling number of teams still playing a three-man defense over the last decade, but the since the new decade began we’ve seen a spate of new analyses about the resurgence of that style. (Jonathan Wilson has written no fewer than three pieces about it for the Guardian.)
We see David Luiz or Phil Jones get caught out of position and we say that modern attackers are too smart and too quick to allow for such jaunts by a central defender, and that they should focus their boundless energy into their defense. We see Michael Owen unable to get a game at United and Pippo Inzaghi slowly embalming on the Milan bench with no one to take their place and bemoan the death of poachers due to spaces shrinking in the box and the fact that moving the ball forward is becoming so difficult that everyone has to contribute to it. We see central midfielders turn into either advanced creators or recessed destroyers, then watch as they push each other all over the pitch, heat maps shunting forward and backward as they pursue space or attempt to cut it off. We have it on good authority that these things are true, and once we know to look for them, the various vanishing acts and final extinctions are pretty easy to spot.
Where this all breaks down for me – and, I’d venture to guess, for a significant percentage of the soccer watching public who thinks about such things – is when we take a step or a flight or several stories down. My tactical thinking is all jumbled together, not separated into neat little European and MLS and High School and Adult League and Youth Soccer folders. I assume that any impact on one trickles down to the others, that no one could possibly play a pair of true box-to-box midfielders or three at the back – no matter if it’s pub league or on their kid’s team.
This is absolutely crazy. The conditions that squeeze these positions and tactics out at the professional level simply don’t exist further down the ladder (Sometimes this is even true from league to league.). A talented finisher can still thrive as a poacher in Sunday league. Fullbacks don’t necessarily have to push up into the attack in your intramural game. Legitimate, successful, non-Stoke teams can still be based around a Route 1-style of play.
These things are also true at the youth level, which is where this can get a little tricky. Those of us who aren’t Charles Reep or Tony Pulis can agree that an uber-direct, kick and rush strategy isn’t “the right way” for kids to play the game, that it emphasizes the wrong attributes in young players. So then what is the right way?
U.S. Soccer now has a very specific style of play they’re suggesting coaches use, one designed to teach kids the proactive, possession-based style using a lone center forward and attacking fullbacks that’s pretty much the dominant structure in world soccer right now. It’s a very professional mode of play; none of those things that we said before were fading out at the highest level make an appearance in the new curriculum.
The problem with that is that is, if it ever does come into widespread use, we’ll be raising a generation of players who only know how to play one way, and who will be in deep trouble if tactics evolve to the point where box-to-box midfielders are back in vogue, or more likely, if the next great tactical shift ends up making that style a thing of the past.