No Plan B
by Peter Prickett - Follow Peter https://twitter.com/PeterPrickett
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A football team is playing reasonably attractive football.
This team is winning matches but not every match. There are even some unexpected losses.
The team seems to score goals of a relatively similar type but during the unexpected loses these goals are not scored, chances not taken.
The team finish the season in a top six position but the fans and media believe that the team are capable of a higher placement than they achieved.
Fans, pundits and social media all cry out, in unison, “No plan B”.
The phrase is great for those who wish to talk about the game but not do so in any real detail.
“Their problem is there is no plan B. They only play one way.”
Anyone who follows the game will have heard those words regularly. Less regularly will have heard suggestions as to what Plan B might then look like. Beyond get the ball wide and try to land balls on the head of a powerful, six foot plus centre forward or two.
What is really meant by no plan B? Is it that they truly believe that a team only has one plan? Is it that the multiple nuances of football tactics are too subtle for the observers to pick up? Or do observers see these but are looking for a larger departure from the established playing structure?
When it comes to attacking play there are only three ways to breach a defence. Over, round or through. Three possible plans. Plan A, B and C in the most simplified terms. If a team is consistently trying to play over the top to get in behind that would be very clear to see. If a team is trying to play the ball wide put high crosses in to get over the opposition that is clear to see. Playing round and through may be less obvious. There are varying ways in which to do this. If we move from simplified terms to more nuanced terms the amount of plans grows. There become plans within plans. Plan A might then include Plan A1, A2, A3….. If there are that many sub plans in Plan A do teams really need to consider Plan B?
One of the coaches who has been accused of having no Plan B is Pep Guardiola. This accusation probably has more to do with a stylistic Plan B than a tactical Plan B. None of Pep’s plans include raining in a stream of crosses. All maintain loyal to a short and sharp possession based style, in keeping with his footballing philosophies. Towards the end of Guardiola’s time at Barcelona he displayed how fundamentally aware of a necessity alter plans he was. Switching from between 4-3-3 that had served him so well and a 3-3-4 in an effort to further boost Barcelona’s intense pressing game and also make Barcelona harder for opponents to prepare for. A change of system surely represents a different plan? Tottenham Hotspur under Pochettino have switched between a 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 as needed. During the run in of the 2016/17 Jurgen Klopp switched the Liverpool shape to a diamond midfield with two strikers. Still Klopp’s Liverpool pressed, still they looked to attack quickly, but they had an extra player in forward positions.
It is possible to have multiple plans without any change to the formation. For instance the initial plan might be to play with a 4-3-3 shape and have the two wingers pushed wide and the centre forward playing within the width of the box only, pushed up against the central defenders. The wingers may be traditional, left footer on the left and right footer on the right, trying to deliver balls across the area for the striker and the opposite winger to attack. Simply inverting the wingers changes the plan. They are no longer likely to looking to put in crosses but looking for opportunities to take shots themselves or feed the ball into the feet of the striker. They might possibly look to pass short through balls into runs being made by the striker or the opposite winger. Their cutting in with the ball might also create more space for an overlapping full back. Finally the centre forward or striker may look to drop short to receive the ball and draw the central defenders in with him, thus creating space in behind for the wingers to run into. There are three plans within the same formation, but the intention of the players has changed. Simply moving personnel can change the plan. A system with Andy Carroll as the central striker and Stewart Downing wide left with David Beckham wide right will not operate in the same way as Andy Cole as the centre forward, David Beckham wide left and Stewart Downing wide right, let alone Thomas Muller central, Arjen Robben wide right and Franck Ribery wide left.
Plan B doesn’t just have to be in attack. It might be the way that a team defends. Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino defend from the front by pressing high. There can be subtle changes within this. One press is not the same as another. The pressing tactic might involve blocking passing lines first and then waiting for the correct trigger to apply pressure. Or it might be that a specific player or zone is pressed. Or it could simply be that at any given opportunity players swarm the ball. Even then the plan might change. The number of individuals committed to the press could adjust. Barcelona’s 3-3-4 with rapid front players was designed to allow more players to hunt the ball while still allowing a defensive structure behind to cover. These plans may all happen within a single half, let alone a single game but be too subtle for most observers to pick up on. Even the most educated viewer might need several sittings to work out what, if anything has changed. The great thing about such subtle changes is that they are much harder for the opposition to pick up on as well. Watching Benteke enter the pitch to replace Firmino is a clear indicator to the opposition what is about to happen. Cue another central defender warming up.
Maybe the best offensive Plan B is to not have one. Nor to have a Plan A either. Nor any other plans. The hardest thing to defend against is unpredictability (aside from Robben cutting in from the right. Thiery Henry drifting out to the left, Frank Lampard arriving somewhere between the penalty spot and six yard box). Freedom of expression at it’s very best is impossible to deal with. The Brazil side of 1982 may be the best example of this, but Arsenal at their best under Wenger play with freedom and are hard to stop. The problem with these teams is what happens when they are not at their best? When nothing clicks? When Andre Vilas-Boas was at Tottenham the plan was to get their best attacking players in dangerous positions and let them play. When they were not on form Spurs looked like they had no plan as to how they would they would score, because they didn’t.
Players need security. Within the swirling mass of decisions and ever changing pictures even the best players can get lost sometimes. When the freedom of choice is overwhelming and all that can be seen is a melee of bodies, or a wall of gigantic defenders, at this point the comfort of knowing that all I have to do is pass the ball to my full back and run forward could be the spark that gets the flow moving again. The option of pressing the button, returning to the factory settings and starting over.
All of which is superbly sophisticated until the following scenario emerges.
Big cup game.
Ten minutes to go.
One or more goals behind.
This is where subtlety and sophistication leave the stadium. However philosophically advanced a manager believes himself to be the answer to this situation is Plan Z. Put the big defenders up at centre forward and hit as many balls as possible into the penalty area. The Plan of the desperate man. This change of plan can certainly be picked up by all, as can Plan Z1, send the goalkeeper forward on set pieces. Barcelona used Plan Z1 brilliantly to come back against Paris St Germain in their Champions League tie. It is not just a plan for Sunday morning sluggers but also for the likes of Messi, Suarez, Neymar and Iniesta. If they are desperate enough.
When looked at with a degree of depth it is quite easy to see that teams will have different plans. To outright state that they have no Plan B is very likely to be incorrect. However, if we are looking for a team to have a dramatically different plan then there are very few options to choose from. Added to this is the distinct possibility that a team has no real plans at all to attack but could score a header from a corner and deflected 25 yard speculative shot for a 2-0 win. Or happens to have one outstanding individual that produces a moment of inspiration beating three or four players before finishing. Or…
The possibilities in football are endless, which is why it is so fascinating.
Whatever your Plan.