Saturday, 25 February 2012

Formations and philosophies

I watch a lot of football. I mean, a lot, from the top European and South American leagues down to non-league. By the end of this season, I'll have sampled the atmosphere of the San Mam├ęs in Bilbao as well as the tea at Seel Park, Mossley in Evostik division 1. Given that there are eleven players per side and one of those rooted to his goal, there are a bewildering array of ways that coaches will arrange those ten outfield players.

The W-M formation was blown out of the water by the 1950s Hungarian side. 3-4-3 dominates Italy at the moment, 4-4-2 is the now-traditional English system. Five at the back with wing-backs, lone front man, wide strikers, false 9s, false 10s, false 10s playing as real 9s - there are so many ways to play the game. Nobody is necessaily right, nobody is necessarily wrong. It's all about philosophy and how your vision of how the game should be played fits with the players you have at your disposal. In rugby league however, despite the two additional players over the round ball game, the game has resolutely stuck to what would be described in football as a 1-4-2-3-2-1 formation.

In some ways, the numbering system and roles associated with those numbers could be stifling to innovation, but we've had squad numbers for some time and little has changed. Deviation from the norm only comes with playing an extra front-rower or half-back at loose forward to either add size or creativity or swapping centres and second-rows around with the only difference being where they stand in the defensive line.

More recently some coaches are trying new things. Last night, the Catalan Dragons went to St Helens and won in dramatic circumstances. With new signing Leon Pryce on board in the halves, Trent Robinson has named Thomas Bosc at full-back with regular full-back Clint Greenshields pushed out to the wing. They don't play like that though. Effectively, the Dragons play with two full-backs, one defending either side of the field, a tactic developed perhaps in response to the excellent 40/20 rule. Huddersfield have moved Scott Grix into the half-back role, but in truth he was playing there last season anyway. Nathan Brown is also on a one-man mission to change the roles of all his forwards into mobile, running players, presumably with the aim of running bigger sides off their feet. It's early days yet, but it might just be crazy enough to work.

This is to be encouraged. Innovation drives the game forward and when the rules are tinkered with, it allows for clever coaches to exploit that or force them to defend against it. So bring on the false 7, the extra 13 and the double full-back. Bring on the pub bores (like the author of this piece) harping on about it endlessly and why coach x is a dinosaur for not adapting and coach y is a visionary for doing something outlandish and daring. I want to see the rugby league equivalents of Marcelo Bielsa, Arrigo Sacchi, Rinus Michels and Jurgen Klopp emerge. Versatility of players has been a key issue for some time already. Now let's have versatility of thought. For whoever comes up with that innovation nobody else sees, there's is the world and everything that's in it.

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