This tactical analysis will take a look into the differing styles of defending in the European top five leagues. Specifically, it will look at the way in which different teams employ tackling and a potential way to quantify this.
It was Paolo Maldini who first mentioned tackling, uttering “If I have to make a tackle I have already made a mistake”. Pep Guardiola then caused furore back in 2016 when he stated that he wasn’t a “coach for the tackles”. Further stating he wouldn’t be coaching his players on how to tackle at all. This led to Stan Collymore’s infamous Guardian column where he described Pep Guardiola as “deluded”. Collymore stated in no uncertain terms that he thought Pep would become a massive failure in the Premier league. In part as a result of his stubbornness to engage in the art of tackling.
Flash forward three years and two titles later, Pep has proven that tackling isn’t a key ingredient for success in his playing style. Manchester City won the league this year and did so while recording the fewest tackles out of all the Premier League teams. As Manchester City spend large proportions of time with the ball, this would definitely have an effect on reducing the amount of tackles made. However, the combination of Pep’s public words and low tackle numbers is a pretty clear indicator of how some styles of coaching don’t put a large emphasis on tackling.
The art of not tackling
But why wouldn’t you want your team to tackle? Well, as even Sam Allardyce himself pointed out, in the modern game it is much easier to receive a yellow card or foul for a tackle. Players with bookings then become a liability throughout the match.
Furthermore, when tackling, at some point the tackling player must make an attempt to win the ball. As a result, they increase the likelihood of being dribbled past and beaten. It then leaves space for the opponent to progress forward into with the ball.
Another reason is that tackling can be quite ineffective in terms of successfully starting the next phase of play. Often tackles can lead to the ball bouncing around. Additionally, the opponent is much closer and can press the tackler immediately in transition.
A favoured approach from coaches such as Pep Guardiola and Lucien Favre is to engage in passing lane oriented pressing. Passing lane oriented pressing refers to closing a player down and shutting off the options surrounding him. Invariably it leads the player to try and force a pass which can then be intercepted. As eluded to before, the interceptor then has slightly more time when receiving the ball to be productive with it in transition. As a result, some defensive midfielders/coaches would prioritise correct positioning in order to cause a turnover instead of tackling.
I believe this is why we are beginning to see and will see an ever-increasing number of teams and players who engage in tackling less and less. However, quantifying this mode of play is quite difficult.
To tackle or not to tackle
This article isn’t an argument for the abolition of tackling as a more successful defensive strategy. Rather it is a view into the fact that certain coaches will employ different defensive systems. These systems include an emphasis on tackling or lack thereof.
Influences on the style that a coach will employ will vary from personal philosophy to the players at hand.
With this in mind, I wanted to see if there was a way to identify both the team and player style in regards to tackling. I collated a range of different statistics from total tackles, tackle percentages and dribbled past to name a few. I also took a variety of mainly defensive minded midfielders from the top five leagues in Europe.
With the results produced I wanted to see if they matched my general feeling on the type of defensive structures that certain teams employ. For example, I would classify teams such as Manchester City as a team that would be more tackle adverse. Differing from say a team like Everton or any of the Red Bull teams.
For the most part, the data seemed to back up the theory. The data showed clear distinctions between midfielders from tackle averse teams and tackle pro teams such as Salzburg.
It makes sense for a team like Everton to allow Idrissa Guana Gueye to roam quite free. Therefore allowing him to win tackles as he has excellent ball-winning capabilities. So it can as much be a team adapting to a player, as it can be a philosophical standpoint.
Tackling increases chances of being dribbled past
Whilst not groundbreaking, my results also seemed to support the theory that tackling increases your chances of being beaten or dribbled past. Hence why some coaches may prefer to refrain from tackling. Of the players who tackled less, they also had a higher percentage of success rate when in fact going for the tackle. Seeming to indicate that these players will only tackle when absolutely necessary and with a high chance of winning the ball.
Individual tackle rates mirror team tackle rates
Comparing these graphics with the tackle rates of the specific teams that these players play for, we also see some similar relationships. Let’s look at the most tackle adverse midfielders such as Nzonzi, Witsel, Fernandinho, Kampl and Carvalho. Most of their respective clubs are either first or second in the league for least total tackles. Kampl, however, being an interesting outlier with RB Leipzig as one of the highest tackling teams in the league.
The use of this data
It would be completely logical to be sitting there thinking that this data doesn’t prove anything special. We already know about 90% of the players mentioned. Whilst that is true, if you can build a process such as this that is fairly accurate in identifying player and team types, it can be potentially used to spot players or teams which may fly under the radar. Furthermore, if you were looking to play a Guardiola type defensive system, you may be more inclined to look at players such as Witsel and Nzonzi. Reason being that they may be more appropriate for your specific system.
The results do seem to be a fairly good way to distinguish between different team and player styles in regards to tackling. However, there are many factors that may reduce the ability of this approach to predict further into the future. Most of the players seen as tackle adverse play in teams with high amounts of possession. Therefore they potentially just have less opportunity to tackle. Furthermore, it may also be depicting defensive midfielders who are just less or more involved in defensive phases in general.
The method used is fairly primitive. However, with some more advanced statistics, there is definitely further potential for development of a reliable way to quantify the elusive defensive midfielder and their team’s style of play.
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