“He’s been tactically outclassed. His tactics are bull-crap. We need a manager with better tactics. His game was tactically weak, he didn’t make any tactical changes at half-time. He doesn’t have the tactical genius. Even I’m a better tactician. We need elite tacticians. Even I have better tactics. He’s absolutely clueless.”
How often have fans, on Twitter, claimed to be “better tactically” than the manager in place? How often do Twitter users critique, incite an imminent sack on the basis of what they had seen during the match? The answer, unsurprisingly, is a lot. If anything, not a day passes without this type of comments on Twitter[.]com. But, what is really the meaning of the word “tactics”?
By now overused, the term tactic can be referred to a set of preparations during the week in order to help players understand what to expect and therefore react: The wished ideal are the coach’s instructions, destined to give the players freedom in a system that would benefit the collective and the individual in order to meet situations they like to face with a likely positive outcome.
Tactics, therefore, are a set of non-restrictive preparations. A manager, in most cases, cannot teach Lionel Messi, Sergio Canales or Bernardo Silva how to control the ball. They all do it better than Valverde, Pellegrini or Pep Guardiola. However, a manager, with a wider spectrum of perspective, will be able to indicate a player in what situations his skill-set can be best exploited to ensure he’ll meet his favored scenarios in real-time during the match. A player shouldn’t face complex orders: A manager’s job is to ensure that the player has to think as little as possible upon ball reception, therefore helping clear the player’s mind to secure clear thoughts to let the player play in the simplest yet most efficient way possible.
Footballers face two type of decisions: The critical and the positional decisions. Certain actions can be combined in both categories: Critical decisions are made on the ball, such as whether to dribble left or right, to place the pass long or short. They only allow a limited amount of time, often under 5'’ and their outcome will determine the end of the transition or an extension of it. Positional decisions are mostly made without the ball, and include to press or to not press, to make a run in space off the ball, or to move further or closer to a teammate out and in possession. Though both decisions will determine the outcome of the present action, critical decision tend to be more tangible by the human eye and their consequence tend to be visible within 3'’; this is not the case for positional decisions, as their consequences might only be visible at the end of a certain sequence, and might last until 30'’ for the human eye to see its real consequences.
Where football is a complex game full of branches of decisions, it suddenly becomes hard for a player to decide. It is no longer a “A or B” type of decision, but an “A, a-bis, B, b-bis, C, c-bis, D, d-bis, E, e-bis, F, f-bis” type of decision. A player is required to choose between multiple branches of foreseeable sequences while running with or without the ball within a few seconds. Needless to say that football doesn’t give time for playing to think, especially in the modern era where the game has only become faster.
“The smartest thing a player can do is interpret when to keep the ball for a bit longer and when to release it. Only a handful are able to decipher those moments. I always try to interpret what the game demands but many times I do it wrong.”
A common misconception, following this statement, is believing that a manager should restrict players to those “A” or “B” choices to help players decide. However, a manager should never restrict a player unless it serves distinctly to the collective advantage: Instead, a manager should always develop his players’ cognitive abilities, before, during, and after the match.
In other terms, a manager’s job is reduced to teach his players how to learn.
Managers will come and go: Rare are those that survive more than 2–3 years in the same club. Managers, however, can have career up to twenty years long, and it’s only extending thanks to modern medicine. Therefore, a manager’s intent should *always* be to teach players independence. Players are judged upon matches, the only situation where managers have very limited influence on them. A manager cannot influence whether a player would dribble, pass back or stand still: But a manager can influence a player’s perception of present actions. In turn, that will influence the player’s decision-making. Players, like managers, always act upon their interest: They take the decision they seem best at the moment of events; every action reveals the thinking process of the individual, and to a certain extent.
Where most players know what to do in familiar scenarios, it’s in unfamiliar scenarios that a player’s true instincts are revealed: it’s in high press that the player’s base nature is revealed: It’s where they stand naked in front of the angry crows, ready to boo, ultras or simple-minded fans. A lot of decisions are not only condoned according to the preparation, but the mutual trust. Every pass has a psychological dimension: Does Player A trust Player B to make the run when passing? Is one comfortable enough to delegate acres of spaces to his teammate? A lot of decision in real-time betray relationships between players, and they often coincide with relations off the pitch, or in other words, the healthiness of the dressing room.
It is rare that a match preparation is as rigid as many fans portray it. A lot of it are just a set of distinct recommendation, aiming to help players understand how to overcome or minimize their weaknesses: The goal of the set XI players is to complement as much as possible: If that succeeds, a player’s individual ability will be best exploited within a collective realm that will complement each other’s action. Rigidity shouldn’t exist, only freedom through the collective: a player’s freedom shouldn’t restrain his teammates’: For each action is connected, a dispossession will force the team back, where a change of rhythm will aid set a collective familiar situation.
Managers are teachers: They take responsibility when a player is hurt, physically or mentally, and they will only teacher certain subjects as other colleagues will teach others: All of that to continue to develop a players’ cognitive process, on and off the pitch. There is no good team without a good dressing room: Football is a game of numerical superiority, but it’s foremost a psychological game of relationships.