Welcome back to the footballing season. It’s been an off year for summer football. Or has it?

The German national team won the European Cup in teutonic fashion. Struggling to keep up with the fluidity and nous of other teams they proved able to grow from game to game and found ways to score when it mattered. Only that this description of teutonic football no longer represents the kind of football that spectators expect from a German side.

It was the women’s team, of course, that won the title, in spite of losing their first EC game ever in the group stage. Before the final redemption there was quite a bit of disappointment with the way the German women’s national team presented itself during the European Cup. But it was also quite obvious that many commentators dismissed women’s football altogether.1

I would like to look at this phenomenon from a football philosopher’s perspective and make a point about the game in general.

I firmly believe that if you want to understand the game, you need to appreciate the context in which it is played, and how different circumstances facilitate a different set of rules of what constitutes sound football.

The point is that the difference in context matters. It completely alters the decision making process to arrive at an optimal solution for a given in-game situation. And since football is all about decisions, as are games in general, we are looking at a different sport whenever there are different requirements about what constitutes a good decision, a decision that heightens one’s chance to win the game.

Women play the beautiful game. But they play it differently to what we are used to seeing on TV. And chances are, so do you and your lads and gals. The amateur footballers’ style of playing is a long ways from pro sports. Ridiculously so.

If you ever played a game of pick-up footie, you may have come to the realization that while the laws of the game remain largely the same, the set of footballing decisions available to you differ greatly from when you play organized ball. This may sound trivial, especially if the pitch dimensions are different. But it is an experience that teaches you to appreciate how flexible a term good football is.

A beautifully timed diagonal pass to the wing would be a great pass in pro football. But in pickup football there never is a winger making the sort of run for the pass to work. A sprint down the sideline, away from the ball really takes a toll on a player, both physically and mentally, because more often than not it is in vain. And if you are the Stehgeiger2 attempting hollywood passes to send a wheezing plumber into isolation whenever you touch the ball at a pick-up game, your team mates will make sure you get less and less chance to frustrate them.

The athleticism of players already puts harsh limits on the kind of game they can play. But even when you have well conditioned, highly motivated players in organized football there are differences to pro sports. In league play in the lower divisions you probably won’t find an offside trap to be a prominent feature of a team. That is because relying on the trap is a bad choice in this context. The refereeing is not up for it. When a tactical maneuver is too unreliable because of external factors, you would be unwise to plan your game around it.

So when you have players who are collectively on a different level of athleticism, as is statistically the case with women compared to male footballers, clearly the kind of passes or dribblings that qualify as sound decisions are different. Even if women were to close the gap in professionalism and finances, the very best of their game would still look different from the men’s version of pro football.3

That is because they are playing a different game. One that is enjoyable on its own terms.4 Needless to say, it is also worthy of critique and criticism on its own terms. Since we are tactics buffs, or would like to think so, there is ample opportunity to find fault or praise with the way women’s teams play football. True enough, the level of competition in women’s pro football is often below what it physically and structurally could be, still.

It’s just that the generic term of football is applied without qualifiers that leads to a confusion of categories. Professional men’s football is not just in another league. It is not even the same sport as non-professional-men’s-football.


  1. Needless to say that the discussion was very male centric and in public fora it often is neigh impossible to keep sexist attitudes about how the looks of players are relevant to their watchability out of a genuine football discussion. 

  2. A German term describing footballers who prefer to see as much of the ball and orchestrate a game with as little running involved as they can get away with. 

  3. I find suggestions like shrinking the size of the pitch in women’s football completely baffling. But then tactics aficionados who love a proper midfield standoff are not the people who need frantic, high octane goal-to-goal action to enjoy the beautiful game. Incidentally, amidst many rule changes introduced to slow down the pace, in volleyball it is the women’s game that is actually more accessible to the casual viewer. 

  4. It can be fascinating, even, to observe how and where the run of play of the women’s professional game differs from the men, because the constraints on good footballing decisions are different. And from there we could extrapolate more about the hidden rules that govern football for different levels of play. 

In my last post I waxed poetic about the table stakes for a successful manager: You must not “lose the dressing room.”

Lest I be accused of handwaving, let me acknowledge that this is not a trivial task. Which means that getting buy-in from your team is another problem you have to manage, which is why managers are called just that, I would think.

It should be safe to conclude that another expert role a professional team may benefit from is that of a psychologist. Be it that the club employs one or be it that you follow established practices from the field.

Louis van Gaal for example modeled a framework of player dispositions “gerichtheiden” following Leo van der Burg. Before him, Rinus Michels and Bert Lingen had already established another, less elaborate framework, TIC, techniek, inzicht, communicatie. These frameworks help managers put the individual players into place in the dynamic system that is a football team.

One recent study about the Normative Conflict Model of Dissent is particularly interesting with regard to getting buy-in from players. It followed a German university team and tracked individual goals and team cohesion. The dynamics that arise out of the players’ varying levels of identification with the team and their respective disengagement from group norms that  are detrimental to team success are fascinating.

Surely it would do managers of professional teams a lot of good to find a methodical angle that helps them handle dissent within the team dynamics. The study linked to above presents group psychology directly applied to what happens on the pitch, but only at amateur level. Which means that there is still more room for improvement that professional teams can explore to gain an edge.

It’s starting to become a trend that managers get to be evaluated by public opinion in terms of their tactical acumen. Heck, discussing tactics is what we’re guilty of as much as the next gal. Problems with our outsider’s perspective and lack of insight into the training regimen notwithstanding, it is quite obvious that being a master tactitian is not sufficient for the job description of a manager. If your man managing skills are so poor that you “lose the dressing room” as they say, no amount of cerebral brilliance can make up for it.

Still, being a decent chap with a knack for keeping spirits high and a great idea about positioning on the pitch is not enough. The true test is to manage the knowledge transfer, getting the players not only to buy in to your ideas, but more importantly present your vision in a way that makes the players execute it to the best of their abilities on the pitch.

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Eintracht Frankfurt conceded two almost identical goals during this Bundesliga season, both highlighting what to me is the one weakness when choosing zonal marking to defend set pieces.

I’m a fan of zonal marking during set pieces as it addresses the two biggest issues with man marking. First, defenders need to monitor two things at the same time: the striker they are marking and the ball. No easy feat when the striker is making feinting moves in their back.

Second, when around ten players make runs all across the box, there’s a high risk of defenders losing track of their attackers, defenders falling over each other, or, an important tactics, two attackers running in such way they block one of them free of his marker.

Zonal marking eliminates these problems as each defender simply needs to focus on whether or not the corner will drop into his small zone of two to three meters.

But the danger is that a striker has gathered a lot of pace for his header, while the defender is standing in his zone. The striker inevitably got the head-start to the ball. That’s why its so for defenders to move into the incoming corner by making two or three steps towards the ball.

During this season, Frankfurt defended set pieces with eight players in the box, two marking the posts, five roughly lining up about five to six meters out and one player marking the central zone a bit further out.

In my first example, Gladbach’s Thorben Marx (6) deflects a corner, winning the header against Alexander Meier (14), on the corner of the six-yard-box. Luuk de Jong (9) then nets it, having run into the space just in front of Frankfurt centre-back Carlos Zambrano (2), who reacts too late.

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If the defense loses the initial one-on-one at the near post the likelihood of a goal is probably higher than 30 percent. The reaction span for the defenders is practically zero as anything can happen after the deflection. Here, the defender in front of Zambrano also hardly moves as the information on which to act just came too late.

My second example is more straightforward. Here, Stuttgart’s Niedermeier (6) starts his run from even further away, from outside the box. Zambrano (2) miscalculates the corner, makes a hesitant step back even and as a result again fails to throw himself forward and into the ball. Niedermeier has no problems heading the corner into the back of the net.

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I think that if the net of players defending their respective zones is tight enough, a forceful movement towards the ball of around one to two meters should do the trick.

That doesn’t sound like a lot against strikers who have gathered so much pace but this is less about the horizontal distance on the ground – its about closing the vertical gap in the air between the head of the defender in front and the next defender behind, which would hardly exceed a foot or two.

Which brings me to how to attack zonal marking. One element are the runs of course, where it’s of less importance for attackers’ paths to cross than when the defense uses man marking. The other element is the ball’s trajectory, which may be worth playing around with as well. Having a steeper late-stage trajectory can be efficient as this widens exactly any potential vertical gap between defenders by dropping down between them rather then flying over their heads in a sharper but flatter curve.

Unless the defending team’s goalkeeper is capable enough to clear slow-flying corners of course — in this sense another important element of zonal marking.

Much can be said about the decline of the Serie A; the most prominent victim of its slow pace this year was Andrea Pirlo, whom teams from the bottom of the table still pay incredible tribute that comes in the precious currency of vast space, i.e. time, in build-up play. Which showed when the stingy pressing of Bayern’s Müller, Mandzukic et al. rendered him entirely ineffective during the Champions League quarter-finals, and Antonio Conte was right in his remarks afterwards how the Serie A was holding back his side’s European ambitions.

One strength of Italian football has always been its astute tactics, in particular everything defense, both team tactics but also its defenders on a more granular level.

But there was some odd defending on display in a recent match between Udine and Lazio, allowing di Natale to score a nice volley.

Udine is in possession on its left wing. Marius Stankevicius (34) confronts the player on the ball, Gabriel Antunes da Silva (also 34), while Giuseppe Biava (20) is sort of marking Roberto Pereyra (37), but does not follow him all the way to the edge of the field, which is Stankevicius’ marking zone.

At this point, which Biava seems to try to indicate with his gestures towards the Lithuanian, Stankevicius should have dropped back to mark the attacker deeper in his zone.

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Now, when da Silva passes to Pereyra and runs outside-in towards the box, something even more odd happens; Stankevicius just turns around and follows him. He really should have held his position by following the pass at the edge of the field, but instead his run after da Silva forces Biava to move towards Pereyra thereby opening the door to Silva’s run into the box. He receives the ball back from Pereyra and crosses into the box where di Natale (10) puts the ball into the back of the net with a beautiful volley.

My drawing shows above all that, as a result, the runs of Biava and Stankevicius cross each other, which is something that just should not happen.

Having said that, this situation would also have needed a third defender on the scene from the very beginning, as you don’t want to play two vs two on your wing this deep. A holding midfielder could have shielded the crucial space in front of Biava. Speaking bigger picture, this scene might point to the downside of defending with three, or five defenders respectively, on the back line instead of with a pure back-four.

I’m excited about every single Japanese or South Korean player joining Bundesliga clubs. I’m yet to see one whose technical skills aren’t impeccable.

Shinji Kagawa opened the door for players from the Far East and there are now about half a dozen sides to which they are crucial. Even in last night’s match between two Bavarian provincial clubs they took center stage.

Nuremberg fielded Hiroshi Kiyotake, signed this summer from Cerezo Osaka where he succeeded Kagawa. (Mu Kanazaki, signed just this winter, remained on the bench.) Augsburg fielded two Korean players, Koo Ja-Cheol and Ji Dong-Wong, both on loan from Wolfsburg and Sunderland, respectively.

All three were key to the match, if in very different ways.

Kiyotake played center midfield in Nuremberg’s 4-1-4-1 formation. Koo Ja-Cheol played as one of two holding midfielders in what I thought ended up as a pretty standard 4-4-2 formation. Augsburg has routinely used both 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 this season, but the one-match ban for skipper Daniel Baier probably prompted Augsburg coach Markus Weinzierl to move Koo into a deeper role and change tactics. Ji played in more in a striker role close to Sascha Mölders.

The result looked tighter than the match really was, due to Raphael Schäfer’s once-a-career goalkeeping blunder. Aside from a brief period ahead of its equalizer in the 36th minute, Augsburg never really managed to threaten Nuremberg’s goal. In particular during the entire second half I hardly noticed any goal scoring opportunities for the side.

In build-up play, Augsburg’s holding midfielders Andreas Ottl and Koo dropped deep and moved very close to the full-backs. In particular Koo had plenty of space here to demonstrate his impressive technical skills as Markus Feulner struggled to close him down. Koo to me was the dominating player of the match (84 times on the ball).

But Ottl and Koo consistently failed to then link up with the rest of Augsburg’s midfield and its strikers and as a result the side broke up in two parts when in possession. In between, Nuremberg’s midfield controlled the centre pitch at most times.

This is where Ji disappointed. He was hardly to be seen during the entire match as he failed to drop into the space in the back of Kiyotake and Feulner that invariably opens up when the 4-1-4-1’s centre midfielders press high during the opponent’s build-up play. Koo and Augsburg’s defender were hardly ever able to play vertical passes through Nuremberg’s midfield.

Kiyotake’s impact on the match was less tactical in nature. He impressed with his clinical finishing, his two-feet ball control as well as his dribblings (a bunch of Augsburg defenders had to resort to a foul to prevent him from penetrating the box, and Alexander Esswein netted the resulting free kick).

Augsburg struggled in particular to prevent him from linking up with left-wing Esswein.

I don’t think any of these three players will stay in Bavaria for long. Wolfsburg has already said Koo will return (never quite understood why former Wolfsburg coach Felix Magath sidelined the player last year). Not sure whether Ji would return to Sunderland but it’s difficult to see him play in Germany’s second division where Augsburg will likely end up despite its impressive run lately. And Kiyotake will also be poached next summer at the latest by a club with more financial prowess than Nuremberg.

Two teams many thought would be content to avoid relegation this season are now vying for Bundesliga’s fourth Champions League seat instead.

Both sides boast a tradition of being very comfortable on the ball, but there’s no other commonality.  Freiburg is one of the poorest clubs of the league and mostly has to do with the output of its excellent youth center (supplemented with some African players, a legacy of the passion of long-time coach Volker Finke for the continent’s players). Frankfurt has more money, but in recent history often less than it thought, and has often built its sides around outstanding individual players. Only in recent years the club has managed to move on from its past image as Bundesliga’s moody and chaotic diva.

Their encounter last night saw two very different half-times. Frankfurt clearly dominated the first half and Freiburg was lucky not to concede a goal as Frankfurt’s Austrian striker/winger Stefan Aigner left several chances unused. Frankfurt displayed its excellent passing, with the technically averse Sebastian Jung, Sebastian Rode and Pirmin Schwegler shaping passing triangles Freiburg struggled to get its grip on.

Freiburg did not once manage to threaten Frankfurt’s goal during the first half. It seemed surprised by Frankfurt’s rare diamond in which Meier efficiently worked against Freiburg build-up play. Frankfurt controlled the centre of the pitch and Freiburg’s 4-4-2 constantly looked outnumbered as a result. It works impressively well when Max Kruse and Jan Rosenthal, two midfielders, play upfront but constantly drop deep when in possession, adding numbers in midfield and dragging the opponent’s defenders out of position, making it one of the most interesting formations to watch in Bundesliga.

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But last night it looked like the pure, out-dated 4-4-2. Rosenthal tried to act into midfield but his many unforced errors and weak first touch meant Freiburg struggled to get the ball into Frankfurt’s third of the pitch  second striker Karim Guede from time to time took up positions on the wings, but it wasn’t enough to shake up one of Frankfurt’s key qualities, the excellent organisation of space when not in possession. The side earns a lot of praise this year for its strong offense, but its defense lines again maintained just the right, narrow distance between each other.

When a side is inferior in such a way, change can only come from outside the pitch and early on in the match the only question was what Freiburg’s up-and-coming coach Christian Streich would do about it. The problems were so obvious I thought he would react during half-time, but it took about fifteen minutes longer for his solution, which was excellent. He replaced Guede with Johannes Flum (another graduate of the club’s own youth center), and  allowed Kruse to move into a more central and more flexible role from where he could act more efficiently into midfield and then, off the defense’s radar, move back into strike position.

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This completely changed the match dynamics, Frankfurt was pushed deeper and deeper into its own half. Freiburg finally created goal scoring opportunities, even if most from set pieces, but missed four really excellent ones. During the last 20 to 30 minutes of the match the team managed to create the passing triangles its link-up play desperately needs. Now Frankfurt looked outnumbered at every turn as it suddenly failed to get a grasp on the very agile Kruse and Flum.

Where is all this going to end up? Frankfurt ranks fourth and Freiburg fifth. At first glance, Freiburg’s run looks less sustainable. The side has recently put in some unusually poor performances with very few goal scoring opportunities in particular at home, where the opponent is content defending in deeper positions. Bundesliga’s mid-section is very balanced and tight this season, with teams shuffling between rank six and twelve almost every week. But then again it’s easy to underestimate a side whose strength is based on team work and tactics, and with no individual players standing out.