Monday, July 5, 2010

Germany's victory exemplifies the relevance of Sacchi's methods

I have had a lot of time to dwell over Germany’s emphatic victory against Argentina and yet my amazement at the beauty of their defensive showing fails to cease. Of course they notched up four goals for the third time in the tournament and were highly enterprising going forward, but all of that was built on the bedrock of a marvellous defensive performance.

In adopting a method of zonal-marking in its most conventional form, not only did Germany’s organisation prove hugely effective, it also served as wonderful vindication of the timelessness of Ariggo Sacchi’s tactical advancements.

In the epilogue to his comprehensive and insightful book on the evolution of football tactics, Jonathan Wilson quotes Sacchi as worrying about the lack of a significant tactical development since the ones that he had masterminded during his time at AC Milan in the 1980s. The correctness of the analysis may be debatable, especially considering the increasing importance of players that look to operate between the bands of midfield and defence as previously understood, but the relevance of Sacchi's tactical thinking to modern day football is unquestionable.

Although several teams had trialled a system incorporating an element of zonal marking, the tactic found its perfect synthesis for the first time through the organisational skills of Sacchi at AC Milan. Luis Vincio at Napoli in the mid 1970s and Nils Liedholm at Roma in the early to mid 1980s had tested a system involving zonal marking, albeit with varying degrees of success, but up until the time when Sacchi took over at Milan, man to man marking with a customary libero/sweeper in place had been the preferred mode of defending for all Italian teams.

Appointed in 1986, soon after Silvio Berlusconi had acquired control of Milan, Sacchi undoubtedly had a wealth of resources at his disposal, including players of the calibre of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Roberto Donadoni, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, so much so that some sceptics believe that the team would have been successful regardless of the adopted tactics. But largely, Sacchi has been accorded universal credit for remodelling a tactical system that had embodied the ethos of Italian football culture and in the process not only setting Milan towards a path of extraordinary success, but also laying out a plan that has remained at the forefront of football till date.

Sacchi’s system essentially entailed pressing in zones and concentrating on marking space as opposed to marking in relation to the position of individual players. In many ways the structure was comparable to the ones adopted earlier by Rinus Michels at Ajax and Barcelona and by Valery Lobanovskyi at Dynamo Kyiv, but the development of the tactic in its most systemised manner was indisputably pioneered by the Italian.

In marking zones there is never an established defensive pattern. Attackers with or without the ball are passed from zone to zone and from player to player and resultantly the team without the ball is in a position to compress the space available to the attacking team.

Practically, zonal marking isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. As Alessandro Zauli emphasises in his book on Modern Tactics, it is necessary that no more than a short distance be maintained between the player who moves to mark the opponent in possession of the ball and the players in the zones closest to the area of possession. Also of primary importance is the cover that needs to be provided by the defender diagonally behind the first defender, in the event that the attacker manages to free himself from the defender in his zone. All of this requires tremendous focus and discipline, as was personified beautifully by the Germans on Saturday.

Teams generally have a tendency to assign a specific player/s to mark Lionel Messi, if not throughout the length and breadth of the entire pitch, at least in specific zones, as Mexico had done in the round of 16 where Rafael Marquez was handed the unenviable task. But Germany chose to treat Messi on par with the other Argentineans and passed him from zone to zone and from player to player. Every time Messi moved to a different zone by beating his direct marker, he was confronted by a marker in the new zone and as a result, he failed to find space regardless of how deep or how central he had drifted.

Germany also ensured that they made the pitch as narrow as possible when Argentina had the ball, thereby managing to compress space, making it more and more difficult for the South Americans to break through the bands of four that had been installed both in defence and in midfield.

It’s quite conceivable that had Argentina possessed a more penetrative passer in the middle of midfield, breaking past the German bands may have been more achievable, but as it stood, every time Germany won the ball back, either Lukas Podolski on the left wing or one of Thomas Mueller or Phillip Lahm on the other flank, made themselves available in as wide a position as possible, enabling their team to stretch the play both quickly and incisively. Consequently, not only were Germany able to maintain their organisation at the back, but were also able to forcefully attack Argentina every time an opportunity presented itself.

Germany’s disciplined adherence to shape meant that the terrifically talented Argentine front-line was rendered virtually futile, but it must be said that Spain, who they face in the semi-finals, are likely to offer a test of different class. Considering that Spain like Argentina are lacking in width, with both David Villa and Andres Iniesta tending to glide inwards, it should be predominantly unproblematic for Germany to narrow the field of play when Spain are in possession of the ball. But the fluidity and the interchanging of the Spanish forwards together with the ingenuity entrenched in their midfield make it paramount that Germany remains at their organised best, which should ensure a thoroughly fascinating contest.


ayan said...

Fantastic post. Spain may play Silva to try and stretch the German defense.

Suhrith said...

Thanks Ayan. I'd like to see Navas play from the start. I thought he equipped himself well against Honduras and could give Boateng a torrid time.

roswitha said...

Excellent post, Suhrith! Thanks for linking me to it. A very good read, and pretty acute.

Suhrith said...

Thank you.