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De Bruyne, Salah and other stars are crucial to the most structured attacking systems

Occasionally, football is associated with chess.

Tactical matches are sometimes labelled as ‘a game of chess’, and there are parallels between them as the five-time world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, pointed out during his discussion with Manchester City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, last month.

“In chess and football, the important thing is to control the middle,” said Carlsen. “If you control the middle, you control the pitch or the board.

“Another thing is that often in chess you attack on one side, force the opponent to overload, and then you switch, and you have an advantage on the other side.”

Guardiola agreed with the Norwegian grandmaster on these points.

Despite the parallels, football is not identical to chess. The knight does not wake up with a troubled stomach and have a poor game, the bishop does not perform better if it is high on confidence, and the pawn does not evolve its skills and understanding of the game over time.

A more suitable simile is that “football is like chess, but with dice” as Liverpool’s assistant manager, Peter Krawietz, put it. The variables of football and the dynamic nature of the game make it completely unpredictable — which is a big part of why people love it.

One of those variables is the players, whose performances could be affected by external factors that might trouble their physiological, psychological or emotional state.

“The system by itself is not really important in football. The point of coaching is to try to make football — a game based on many random events — less random, to force your luck in a sense,” said Krawietz in Raphael Honigstein’s book, Bring The Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story.

“Every coach spends an incredible amount of time pondering about all the different factors, about the opponent, the weather, and so on, knowing full well that total control of the ball is unattainable.

“All you can really do then is find a general order, a system of orientation for your own players that brings out the best of your specific squad.”


Salah combines his brilliance with work rate for Klopp’s team (John Powell/Getty Images)

It is why next to the team’s principles and the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, the profiles of the available players are taken into the equation when the coaching staff is formulating tactics and strategies.

The eventual goal is to put the players in advantageous situations that suit their profiles and maximise the team’s strengths — all while attacking the opponent’s weaknesses.

Offensively, breaking down defensive blocks requires structured attacks that not only aim to create goalscoring opportunities but also maintain some organisation in case the ball is lost. Another solution is to rely on individual brilliance to give you an advantage in the final third — that is, if you have the players who can do that. Not every team in the world can afford Mohamed Salah, Kylian Mbappe or Harry Kane.

Balancing the constraints of the attacking structure and the individual brilliance of the star player is crucial to maximising the strengths of the individual and the collective.

Solely depending on the individual in the final third could win you two, five, 10 games a season, or even carry your attack for a season. However, it’s not a sustainable approach because the defensive structures are not only about defending as individuals. Moreover, the forward’s performance could vary due to external uncontrollable factors, or just because he is merely human.

Last season, Kane’s impressive performances and 30-goal haul in the Premier League were not enough to earn Tottenham Hotspur a European spot as they finished in eighth place. There were multiple issues at the club, and one of them was the lack of solutions in the attacking third of the pitch. While Kane scored 25 non-penalty goals from a non-penalty expected goals (xG) number of 16.7, Tottenham were seventh in terms of total non-penalty xG (53.1).

Another example is Manchester United’s weak attacking structure in the final third, which has meant that they have depended on flashes of brilliance from Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and others for the last couple of years. It is an approach that has proven to be unsustainable, especially when United have faced deeper blocks.

Fielding too many of those superstars, who may not be contributing off the ball, could backfire. The prime example is Paris Saint-Germain during the Lionel Messi, Mbappe and Neymar period, when the lack of any defensive work from the trio hindered the team’s out-of-possession phase.


Messi, Mbappe and Neymar’s lack of defensive work affected PSG’s press (Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Salah and Kevin De Bruyne’s individual talent has won Liverpool and City many games in the last six and a half seasons, while still contributing to their sides’ functional attacking structures. Their talent is amplified by the attacking structure involving them, and their efforts off the ball — in terms of pressing and counter-pressing — only increase their value to the team.

“The way we play was quite similar without him, but to win games we need types of players like Kevin or Erling Haaland,” said Guardiola after De Bruyne’s brilliant assist to Oscar Bobb that snatched the victory against Newcastle United on January 13. “The vision, the quality to see something special — that isn’t tactics, it’s talent, and Kevin… what can I say.”

Even without carte blanche in the attacking third, the moments of magic from these players are still important — no wonder that Guardiola allows De Bruyne a bit of breathing room. “He has a little bit more space and freedom to move where his nose or guts feel in that moment,” said the City manager.

When solutions are lacking for the most organised teams, individual moments could make the difference: a 90th-minute winner from outside the box, a curved free kick into the top corner, an acrobatic finish, or a mazy dribble inside the penalty area.

In a low-scoring sport such as football, these moments matter even for organised attacking units. Individual talent brings an X factor, and the most structured attacking teams still need them.

(Top image: De Bruyne after his late brilliance in City’s win away to Newcastle. Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)



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