By Paul Gardner
In gentler, less clever days, there really wasn't too much to know about soccer tactics. In England, anyway. Team formations were cast in concrete,
immutable, a 3-4-3 with three fullbacks, four midfielders and three forwards. We never called it a 3-4-3 though. It was always a W-M formation.
Within the W-M, marking assignments -- as
well as player numbers -- were rigidly fixed. Left back marks right winger (3 marks 7), right half marks inside left (4 marks 10), and so on. The classic matchup was the center back marking the
opposing center forward (5 marks 9).
Except at we didn't call him a center back, we said he was a center half. This was patently absurd, but we stuck with it and -- incredibly -- the
call center backs "center halves."
All the rigidity, as I say, left little room for tactical adventures. All that happened was that, occasionally, the more astute
among us would notice that one team had switched its wingers - No. 7 was now on the left, No. 11 on the right. What daring! It was often followed by an equally audacious response, when the opposing
coach switched his fullbacks, No. 2 moving over to the left, No. 3 becoming the right back.
While you recover from the excitement of all that, I must tell you that there was one other
tactical move that frequently came up. A ploy, I think, is how it is best described.
First, a reminder: there were no subs in those days -- the 1950s, I mean. So a team that was behind
or desperately needed some punch injected into its offense could not go to the bench. Instead, they would "send the Big Man up front." Which meant, invariably, sending the center half up to play as
the center forward. Not just on set plays, but permanently ... well, for whatever time was left in the game, maybe half-an-hour, maybe just 5 minutes, depending on the level of desperation.
The center half was, invariably, a Big Man -- as he always is to this day. Good in the air. The idea was not necessarily for him to score the goals that were needed -- he was there to be a big
physical presence who would cause problems, mayhem even. In the grand old British way the long, high balls forward would now rain down like a hail storm, the Big Man would win the aerial battles, and
head the ball down to someone who might find the net. Ty Keough, during his MLS television days, once memorably told us that the downward headers were called knock-downs, and that this was "the
Technical? The resultant play is of course anything but technical. More of a panic-stricken mess. Usually ugly, even nasty, chaotic and of doubtful value. For a long time
I have mocked this as the last resort of a frantic coaches. Yet, I'd admit, it can work. In September 2000 I watched on TV as Arsenal, losing 1-2 at home to Shakhtar Donetsk in a UEFA Cup game, sent
center back Martin Keown up front. A Big Man. I chuckled. Not for long. Keown did the business and scored twice in the last five minutes of a memorable 3-2 win. A crude English-style rescue --
engineered by the sophisticated French coach, Arsene Wenger.
But at the top level of soccer, you see very little of this ploy nowadays. The introduction of substitutes has, I think,
pretty well killed it off. Anyway, can you imagine a Brazilian team, at any level, deciding that the way to score goals is to forget about all their forward skills, and have a center back play
striker? I suppose it could happen, though I've never seen it.
But on Sunday, bam! -- there it was again. In MLS! A Brit coach of course. Steve Nicol (and his Brit assistant Paul Mariner)
-- were obviously utterly frustrated by their Revs' inability to even get off a shot against the Dynamo. They had Taylor Twellman on the bench, but no -- they preferred to turn back down memory lane.
They made the switch. The Big Man went up -- not a center back, but the lanky 6-foot-3 midfielder Shalrie Joseph, who played up top for the last 20 minutes or so.
The long balls forward
commenced, but nothing much happened. However good a midfielder Joseph may be, he's lousy in this role of target-man/troublemaker. I think that raises him several notches in my estimation. Joseph was
no more effective than Kenny Mansally, Sainey Nyassi and Kheli Dube had been for most of the game. Imagine -- the Revs with only one shot on goal in the game, a feeble header from Jeff Larentowicz.
Of course, a lot of credit goes to the Dynamo defenders. And they'll get even more credit -- from me, anyway -- if they've managed to squelch at birth the introduction into MLS of yet
another example of outdated soccer crudity imported from Britain.