My friend V and I recently discussed what was going on with Juventus this summer: they appear to have feelers out for at least two offensive players in addition to Llorente, who they’ve already signed on a free transfer from Bilbao. They’re all high-profile players- the team seems to be serious about overcoming their current shortcomings in finishing. But it’s a bit strange to see such a front-heavy wishlist, and they’re apparently also tinkering with the defense. Conte might be contemplating switching from a quintessentially Italian back-3 to a 4-2-3-1, the current tactical trend across Europe.
V isn’t entirely happy with how it’s unfolding, and I thought his insight was interesting:
“My sense is that because tactical trends change over time, it’s not usually wise to chase the pack. There’s an analogy to financial markets. When everyone else is hot on gold, you want to be selling. When enthusiasm dampens, it’s time to buy. It’s called being counter-cyclical. There are a select number of people out there who fit really well in a 4-2-3-1 system; they’ll be highly valued if a lot of sides are trying to play that formation. That means there are people you can get at value who fit better in another system. For this to work full-stop, you have to believe that trends in formation are cyclical; but I think they are.”
I was thinking that a simple (probably simplistic) way of looking at soccer tactics is that it’s the art of deciding where to overload the pitch. You decide where your players need the maximum number of choices available to play the ball. Because you’re dealing with a finite number of players in a finite space, this comes down to where you try to produce one temporarily unmarked man. Since the opposing team is equipped to deal with you man-to-man it’s a kind of sleight of hand: momentarily one team has one more man than the other.
When a tactical trend becomes pervasive, the easiest or maybe just most conservative way to combat it is to buy in. This way, very roughly, your players will inhabit similar parts of the pitch as your opponents, and will be faced with similar challenges and choices. You win, then, by small tweaks: not via revolution or daring strategy or idiosyncrasy. A team as domestically dominant as Juventus might find the tactical traditions of its league burdensome when playing other continental teams: they don’t want their genius to have a big Italian asterisk. Maybe their current system, built around the aging Pirlo, is going to have be changed anyhow, and as it would be impossible to find a like-for-like replacement for magisterial Andrea, it’s come time to transition to what has recently worked tactically for other big teams.
I think the most interesting question here, however, is whether tactics are cyclical. It would be difficult to argue that they have been historically, at least in any macro way: there have been massive and irreversible changes in how the sport is played in the past century. But much of the difference between the modern game and the not-so-distant past is due to sports medicine, and before that, changes in the offside rule. I don’t think we’ll see any holistic shifts as large as these, and it doesn’t seem crazy to say that the game as a whole has stabilized. In “Inverting the Pyramid,” Jonathan Wilson says the sport has reached a “mature” stage, and that tactical innovation will likely be incremental from now on out. Maybe it will be cyclical. Maybe Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan will be like Hypercolor shirts.
Hypercolor is coming back, right?
Juve will be great again, but it’ll take some time. For the time being, everyone is making way for the Spanish and the Germans. The flux of influence and lack of any truly perennial winners is one my favorite things about the Champion’s League and its precursors. Nobody wins constantly; everyone loses most of the time. Glory comes in bursts.