Tactics. Shape. Formation. Parking the bus. All-out attack. Tiki taka. Lumping it up the park. Plan A, Plan B, plans out the window.
You’ll hear every one of those phrases on a nigh-on daily basis during a football season. Pundits ranging from the sublime Gary Neville to the ridiculous Michael Owen will draw upon them to display their knowledge (or lack thereof). You’ll almost certainly have spent a good amount of your time reading, talking and thinking about many of them since you were aware enough to do so (we all do the press conference in our head when we’re bored, yeah?).
But ultimately, do any of them matter?
Of all the ever-increasing years I’ve supported Rangers, I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much focus on the tactics and formation of our team. I’ll be honest, I was fully on board with how Mark Warburton wanted to approach the game. I believed there was method in what many felt was madness, and debated far too often with many other supporters over a man who, in the end, didn’t fancy it for the long haul. We can blame whoever we like for that, but that’s the way it all concluded.
Now Caixinha is in the hotseat, making a more than promising start both on and off the pitch. Many doubters have already taken those first steps towards becoming dreamers. We hope that the energy, passion and attacking intent on Saturday, a definite improvement on almost every performance this season so far, will be on display as a minimum every week. Saturday felt good, like a real awakening of a squad many (myself included) doubted had very much more than they had displayed so far to offer. The players have been given a chance to prove many people wrong, probably including themselves.
And yet, the main question most were asking before his first game in charge was “what formation does Caixinha play?” Such was the disillusionment many felt towards Warburton’s approach to the game and his oft-repeated “Plan A” that any suggestion we would approach the game differently was eagerly anticipated by a lot of supporters. A read of the match report on this site will show you that the first thing considered was the shape of the team – as said there, it was difficult to pin down. We seemed to range from a (whisper it around John Barnes) 4-2-2-2 to a (whisper it around Jimmy Calderwood) 2-4-4 with everything in-between. Caixinha’s assertions that he wants a different approach depending upon the situation and phase of the game was the only real tangible evidence on display.
But again, does this matter? Regardless of the approach, formation or positioning, it’s all about the players, no? Our discussions should be centered around what our new manager can get out of players like Holt, Tavernier and Waghorn who seemed to offer so much more last season. We should be considering what sort of impact this change will have on McKay, the one player you can say for certain that Warburton helped improve beyond all expectations. We should be asking if the change of goalkeeping coach will see further improvements from Foderingham, probably our player of the season so far. All of that is what counts, because the changes in tactics and shape are all absolutely moot if the players don’t show up. They’re the ones who make the formation work, not the formation making them better.
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I know you can’t just write off these things – a quick look at Chelsea this season shows what a change can do – but neither can you put too much stock into them either. Managers will be criticised consistently for team selection and formations, yet if your best striker misses three chances and his team go on to lose the game, does it logically follow that the manager got it wrong? Was Ranieri really the problem at Leicester, or was it just that the players weren’t giving enough? When you consider there’s been little change in their tactics since he left yet a huge turnaround in their performances, the latter does seem arguable at least.
Maybe it’s a bit too early to really be excited by the prospect of a new manager working with the squad, and the changes in formation are the quickest and (seemingly, at least!) easiest things to identify. My main concern is that we’re attributing a disproportionate amount of responsibility for a performance at the feet of the manager when it’s the feet of the players that make the biggest impact. If Caixinha can get the most out of the players far more often than not, the formation he plays won’t make a huge difference. Yes, we’ll have games where a more defensive approach is required, or we need to be smarter with positional discipline, and we do need better players pretty much all over the pitch in the longer term, but it really does come down to how much the players want to play for our manager.
So I’ve asked the question twice now – do aspects like formation and tactics matter? I believe they do, but they shouldn’t be the first consideration. Even though Mark Warburton didn’t change things up too often, or was seen by many as predictable, there were good performances and enjoyable games when the players were on form. To steal a phrase from him, it has to be about the players, and that’s what the new manager should be judged on. Formations and tactical approaches will only go so far, and what’s to come will be shaped by how much we get out of our squad much more than anything else. It seems certain Caixinha’s going to give them every opportunity to perform well through preparation and hard work on his part – the rest is up to them.