Getting tactics right by Ian French

I often describe myself as a tactical agnostic. I don’t believe that there’s one way of playing that’s better than all the others, and I also don’t believe that any way of playing is inherently bad. For me, tactics are tools. Picking the right tool for the right task is my job - I prioritise flexibility

Are tactics overrated?

People tend to overrate the inherent value of a specific tactic.

To break that down further:

  1. It’s quite trendy across lots of sports these days for coaches to have a philosophy and style of play they are completely wedded to. This approach makes the same tactic the solution to all problems. I disagree.
  2. On a similar note it is common to explain a team’s success in term of some tactical innovation or approach. I disagree less vehemently with this, but I do disagree. Explaining success (or failure) through a tactical lens ignores too many factors to be worthwhile. A tactic doesn’t succeed or fail through some inherent merits or demerits of that tactic.

For example, you could have been one of the many teams that read Ultiworld’s breakdown of Revolver’s sidestack in 2014 and thought – “If WE do that then we’ll be better”. As a lot of teams discovered, having one cutter in all that space makes a lot of sense when that cutter is Beau Kittredge and there is Ashlin Joye to throw to him. If you don’t have players like that, maybe it’s not so effective.

Or – you could play a team that runs a vertical stack and decide you’re going to bracket the stack on defence, only to discover that brackets are simple on a whiteboard or in a drill. Not so easy on the field unless you’ve really committed to practicing them.

Not that these ideas are bad- but the thought process is too simplistic

There is not a single solution that you can copy/paste from one situation to another and have it work exactly the same. A tactics’ success or failure depends on far more factors than how logical it is on a whiteboard.

North et al (2015) in their UEFA study of 7 top football nations warned against the uncritical application of practice ideas from other successful countries and clubs. It was argued that an approach which works in one socio-cultural context may be distracting or event detrimental in another

So let’s dive a bit deeper into this.

What are tactics/what is the point of tactics?

Tactics are a way of coordinating the actions of your team to improve your chances of success.

On offence that might mean:

  • Where the free spaces to attack will be
  • What type of attack you prefer
  • How to react to different situations that come up

On defence that might mean:

  • Aiming to deny specific offensive options
  • How to prevent specific areas of the field, or passes that particular players like to throw
  • How to react to different situations that come up

Tactics are not shapes. Using a horizontal or vertical or side stack or any other shape isn’t enough on it’s own. Shapes just help to define areas of the field you want to exploit.

Are tactics important?

Yes. People overrate the inherent value of specific tactics (“vertical/horizontal/brackets etc are the best”).

For a competitive team they are incredibly important. The right tactics at the right moment can allow your players the freedom to win tight games.

For a development team or a youth team it is not so important that you have tactics that immediately maximise your team’s performance at that moment in time. You want to maximise your players’ enjoyment of the game and maximise their growth potential. Even competitive teams might have different objectives during the pre-season, so winning might take a back seat to getting more pitch time for certain players or trying out a new tactic.

I have worked with too many players that only want to play one way because it’s the way they were told was the best when starting the sport – don’t do this to your players please.

What makes a successful tactic?

A tactic needs to:

  • fit the players available
  • be an appropriate solution to the game situation

I’ll go through this in detail below.

It’s important to note that they don’t have to be complex or revolutionary thoughts. For example, a common tactical approach during windy college ultimate is to throw the disc as far down the pitch as you can and then play a zone. It may not be innovative or pretty to watch or good for long term development but it’s definitely a coherent plan!

(As an aside – What isn’t necessary is secrecy. Knowing what a team is going to do and knowing how, or having the ability to, stop it is not the same. Novelty is worth a single point at most.)

1 – Tactics should be based on the players you have

Players make tactics work, tactics don’t make players work.

I have been very fortunate over the past few years to coach incredible players. High up the list are Aine Gilheany (Ultiworld’s Offensive Player of Year 2021) and Ferdia Rogers (OPOTY also in 2021). An unbelievable luxury to have them operating as central handling figures for my teams. However, despite playing a similar role in similar tactical frameworks the way they operate is completely different. As a result, the teams I have coached play the “same tactic” in a very different manner.

I could have easily tried to take the approach that I was joining Ranelagh as a European championship winning coach, so Ferdia should try and replicate what Aine brought to that team to make Ranelagh better. This is something you see all the time across sports, successful coaches going to a new situation and trying to replicate the exact same system again. It doesn’t work.

Obviously in Ultimate, as a small amateur sport, you don’t really get a lot of choice in the players you work with so it’s really imperative that you make the best of what you have available.

2 – The tactic should be an expression of the approach you want to take in the game situation

To go back to the Irish Women’s team from 2019, we had a variety of different playstyles practiced. Whether we wanted to isolate our lane cutters, work the disc through the breakside, attack deep through our receivers, play fast through handlers – a number of different offensive looks that we could pick and choose from as needed.

Towards the end of the tournament we shifted into primarily looking to play our deep game. A few factors that played into that decision:

  • Aine Gilheany was playing out of her mind. Best deep thrower in Europe that year without question in my mind. With the quality of the receivers we had on the team we would be stupid NOT to look for that at every opportunity
  • It was windy and every pitch was pure upwind/downwind. Huck turnovers were still not ideal but it gave us more chances to earn the disc back
  • It was REALLY hot. Every time we successfully threw a quick score on offence was a big boost for us – allied with playing defensive strategies that kept the opposition O lines on the field for significantly longer resulted in us finishing games strongly in the bracket

Let your best players do what they do best; Aine Gilheany throws deep to Fiona Mernagh

To reinforce this switch in mentality we primarily played aHorizontal Stack

Tactical shapes can reinforce the way you want to play. A vertical stack leaves a lot of lateral space available. A horizontal stack leaves a lot of vertical space available. For this reason I often switch between shapes to effect a mentality shift in the team, or as a reason to switch in players that better support the way I want the team to play. But really it’s the players that are changing how the game is played, not the switch in shape.

As a tightly contested game at the elite level will present many different problems in the game environment, my preference is to train my team with many different tactical options so we can adapt. I’m too paranoid to trust that one single solution will hold up.

I read this earlier today from Carlo Ancelotti, probably the best and most successful practitioner of adapting tactics to the situation at hand in modern football – talking about the development of tactical ideas for one of his most successful sides. I find this instructive – the intention and the circumstances result in the shape. This is the best way to go through the tactical choice process.

You often have to change formation to work around injured players or to accommodate new ones.

Sometimes this is where the best ideas come from – from constaints.

At Milan, we had a lot of quality players arrive and at first I was struggling to fit them all in the team and keep them happy, but then we stumbled upon a beautiful accident (where a player was injured and another moved to a different position to compensate for a critical Champions League match).

We ended up inventing the Christmas tree formation. It came about as a practice necessity, but it worked perfectly. As they say in England, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.

You could say that the whole idea was, in fact, born of thinking not offensively, but defensively, which you might say is typically Italian. “How could we stop the opposition?’ was first in my thoughts. We won the match 4-0.

For another example, I highly encourage you to listen to Rowan McDonnell and Jonny Malks talk about Truck Stop’s 2022 offence on their podcast (starting around 15th minute). It’s clear from the discussion that the starting point in the development of the offence was a clear vision of how they wanted to approach offence. Structure, sets, shapes all blended in to complement the intended approach.

Summary

Here’s a good exercise: write out your team’s tactical approach in different scenarios without mentioning positions or shapes.

The two key points I hope I conveyed:

1 – The best tactic is the one that is the best fit for your environment

  • The players you have available
  • The goals of the team
  • The opposition you are playing
  • The conditions
  • The mental condition of your players

The last one is important. The players on the pitch are the only thing that matters. They are the ones who will succeed or fail. There have been numerous occasions where I have made a tactical switch that I didn’t feel was theoretically the best, but it was the one the players were most comfortable and confident with.

2 – Having a single tactical approach is overrated

Promote:

  • Tactical Flexibility (ability to change how you are playing)
  • Tactical Awareness (ability to recognise where a different approach would suit)

Most importantly: stay open to ideas. New ideas. Old ideas. You can learn from the best team in 2023 and the best team in 1993. If you stop to plant your flag in the ground of a particular philosophy you have to stand still to do it, and in the words of Carlo Ancelotti:

In football, as in anything, you must never stand still. Never believe that the tactics you deploy today and that have brought you great success will continue to be effective tomorrow. Your opponents will not be sitting back and letting it happen again.

Look at the Chelsea team in the 2015-16 season. The season before, they were champions and all but invulnerable; then, suddenly, they can hardly win a game. It’s the same players, tactics and system, so what’s changed?

The difference is that other teams have moved on and worked out how to play the Chelsea system.

To stand still can actually mean to go backwards.

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