Why tactics say a lot about humanity

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In theory there are no tactics when you play Sunday league football, or five-a-side, or any type of football that involves normal men for whom the basic nuts and bolts of being able to run and kick and occasionally even head a football are usually enough.

This is because of the nature of tactics. Tactics are something you do when you have already achieved physical and technical parity. They presuppose a certain level of reliability; patterns of play that can be predicted and rearranged.

Basically, tactics happen when the problem is that there aren’t enough mistakes happening. So really there is no need for tactical refinement in amateur football because of the huge acreage of physical and organisational slack that still needs to be taken up.

There is a flaw in this theory. Mainly, nobody seems to have told amateur footballers. Because tactics are everywhere. Team talks abound. Coaches and captains frown and point on the touchline.

I have witnessed stand-up arguments about tactics, deep theory stuff about the precise manner in which a team of 11 overweight and fearful men should approach falling over, getting a stitch, hacking at the ball and eventually losing 11-3.

I played in a team with an ex-captain who constantly shouted “on the carpet” and “Keep it!" and “Time!” whenever anybody punted the ball in the air. He saw himself as waging a lone crusade against insufficiently Barcelona-like football in the park leagues of south-east London: an aesthete, a scholar, a bit of a nob.


This is the real meat of amateur tactics. Anybody who has grown up playing organised football will understand why the game is played the way it is in this country, or any other country where it’s cold and it often drizzles shamelessly for days at a time.

The tactics that have flourished in British football – the punt, the chase, the jostle, the push – get a bad press. But every park footballer knows these are first tactics, site-specific tactics based around weather and pitch quality and early-years height disparities. They make sense.

You do win at kids' football, and later in full-size park football, by relying on strength and the big kid/bloke/21-year-old mate of a mate who once had trials with Gillingham and is now only a little bit of an alcoholic. Hoofing it long and chasing the ball downfield like the park-based final scene in a George Romero zombie film does still count as a tactic.

It only starts to look silly when you get into proper football, and the pitches become hard and smooth, and when tournaments are played in hot places where less weather-based tactics are required.

"Switch! Switch! SWIIIIIIIITChohforgetit"

That the park football tactic is innate becomes clear when you play with people from another countries. In the cosmopolitan amateur kickabout, all the clichés are true. It just works out like this. Mexican accountants favour short sideways passes. Norwegian exchange students play it long and early. Brazilian waiters have a sublime touch and like to overlap. Uruguayan primary school teachers are cloggers.

I once spent six months playing football on a kibbutz in a shifting team of up to 20 different nationalities. The tactical melting pot was a fascinating thing, but over time the distinctions did break down. Our Peruvian central defender would look for the head of our Scottish centre-forward. The Danes, who fancied themselves a bit, developed into a version of the current Spain midfield, all nifty touches and sharp ball rotation.

This is often the nature of tactics in amateur football. They are instinctive and unspoken. You might spray the same toe-poked long diagonal pass out to your left-winger at least five times every game, but only in the first half, because you know he’s likely to be dry-retching or pretending to be injured within the next half hour or so.

I once played a few games up front and discovered I was weirdly good at headed flick-ons. I could flick on. Who knew? There I was, flicking on as though I’d always flicked on. Abruptly and without explanation I stopped being good at flick-ons. Suddenly, I couldn’t flick on to save my life. And that was that. But we had had a tactic for a while.


Sometimes amateur tactics are more considered. I once watched a women’s match where the coach had drilled three formidable American centre-halves to hold a position 10 metres apart and march up and down the pitch as though they were manacled together in a set of over-sized stocks. It was awesome. The other team simply couldn’t cope.

Of course, television has had an effect too. Football tactics are now “out there”. They exist in the public domain as something to be debated hotly, in the way left-wing politics might once have been, or the doctrinal niceties of the Lutheran church. The new vocabulary of banks of four, third men runs, pressing people all over the pitch and “parking the bus” has trickled down.

Men will discuss their formation in all earnestness, as though anyone actually keeps to a formation, or there is any meaningful distinction between 4-4-2 and 4-1-3-1-1, or playing “on the counter-attack” when your centre forward wears a scarf for most of the game and spends the half time interval eating a sausage bap from the van.

Really the existence of tactics is an example of how amateur football is, above all, a game of the imagination, a grown-up version of pretending to be Spiderman, or a cowboy. Of course we have tactics, and lots of them, because tactics are a cerebral business. And the game we play, or imagine we might one day play, exists mainly inside our heads.

Elsewhere on The Sharp End:
Football: fighting minus the fists (mostly)
What your kit says about you (and others)
Why shouting and swearing is park football's birdsong
Why winning means nothing and everything
The manager – parent, pastor, secretary, dictator

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