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Parma Ham's gone mouldy

Parma's Tactics Masterclass 2

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It seems like an opportune moment to assess the eight block vs the embarrassment of riches.

Recent games - and much of the previous regime - have shown us that pragmatism and entertainment are not always natural bedfellows.

As we have noted in 1, "playing your own game" is a luxury philosophy only available to the superior. It is only a fool or a King that can ignore what the opposition does.

There is nothing inherently clever about stationing eight players within 30 yard of your own defensive third and ensuring that the minimum amount amount of space is available for the opposition to attack. It does however require concentration, discipline and communication. The danger areas to protect from a defensive point of view include the space behind the final line of defenders and the goalkeeper, the space "down the sides" between the centre backs and the full backs, and the area between the central defenders and the two central midfielders (typically the edge of the D and 25 yards out, which emphasises that we are talking about "pockets" not much more than 5 yards square).

That this set up is not wholly attractive at home if you are Manchester United vs Stockport is clear, that it can win European Cups for Inter vs Real Madrid (under the pragmatically watchful eye of Mourinho) or indeed garner points at Carrow Road for inferior opposition, must also be recognised.

As we have seen in 1, what appears to be "attacking" on paper to the man in the pub, may actually be no such thing. Territory may be important in Rugby, but simply "getting the ball up there" may be thoroughly detrimental to your chance of success. The notion that 2 strikers are inherently more attacking than 1 striker is nonsense, it entirely depends on how and where such players receive the ball - or indeed if they do so at all.

Let us place ourselves in the joyous - and not entirely inaccurate - position of being the superior side and looking to break down an opponent defending stubbornly. What can we do to "concretise" our superiority and what must we be wary of in doing so (even though we are superior, we are still going to look at what the opponents game plan and "weapons" are in determining our strategy)?

Firstly a poker lesson, the opponent has 2 outcomes out of 3 that they are happy with ( a draw or a win), we have only 1 out of 3 (a win); so they immediately have a broader scope for "success".

In a football sense (as close Hughton-watchers will know well) in order to score a goal or penetrate an eight block defence in open play, you yourself will have to come out of a "protective" shape and try to create a little attacking "chaos". The opposition - if they are canny and well drilled - almost want you to do this, they are waiting for this moment. This is the "counter-punching" theory from boxing and is entirely distinct from the "you attack, we attack" counterattacking theory, where a game is open and "stretched".

Thus our attack of eight block must be respectful of any clumsy, but effective "we suck you in, you pile on top of us, we nurdle the ball away and bang it early and long to the isolated, but fast chap who nicks a goal "against the run of play". This is not really "against" any run of play, it was precisely what was intended and the "pocket ace" that our eight block friends retained (a further way is a "Crouch" at 9 and - say - a floating "Redmond" at 10, though those who like the eight block might well prefer workhorses at 10 and possibly 9 as well). [Qv: Quite where RVW or Hooper fitted into such a model is unclear to me].

So, we are better and not blind to the dangers and game plan of the opposition, so what do we do?

Well sadly we ignore the clamour from the terraces for multiple big centre forwards up front. In fact we don''t necessarily play our best 11 players, rather we look at how we can best maximise our odds in the way our eight block friends are doing.

Forgive a little indulgence, but let''s go back to what Parma would have done in their heyday. Given our opponents propensity to defend, we will not give them what they want, we will play one forward with a particular repeatable skill - Casiraghi an occupier of multiple defenders and as master at winning free kicks - and a 10 whose job it is to smuggle short 4 yard passes into him from a free position between the midfield 4 and defensive 4 (Zola or indeed Hoolahan).

This fairly simple ploy has created a problem for our defensive friends. Who are they defending against? They cannot leave the game 8 v 2, so they either sit where they intend and allow us to retain possession in our 65% of the field or they loosen their shape.

Forgive me for stating the obvious to the tactically literate amongst you, but up until now we are not really trying to score. If our magical 10 and savvy 9 win us a free kick, we have a well-drilled specialist eager for the chance. It''s a strategic "free hit" so far, as - unless we have made a monumental mistake, we have not been threatened 2 v 8 and have had plenty of - admittedly fairly passive - possession. Which is as intended. We are patient Italians.

We clearly do not need to leave the attacking situation at 2 v 8 for long, and we are in the fortunate position of having two fast running, clever dribbling young players. What we are not going to do is try to match up these players in the wide areas, the eight block will simply see our wonderful weapons briefly excite, perhaps get past one, then run down blind alleys, perhaps getting the occasional corner. Instead we are going to use the defensive eight block as a target, switching the dribbling players inside and encouraging them to dribble between the lines (into the small spaces between the wide midfield of the eand play for free kicks (again) in the space between the wide midfield of the eight and the same-sided centre back of the defensive eight. Instead of attacking outside beyond our dribbler (overlapping) with our full back, we are going to encourage him to take up a regular cover position , slotting alongside our two central midfielders, explicitly to guard against our dribbler losing the ball and a counterattack being sprung. Again our dribbler is not trying to score, he is playing for free kicks. Naturally If a shooting opportunity presents itself, or a ball can be slid beside the centre back for our mobile forward then great, though this space is unlikely to be there.

You will note that We are still not trying very hard to score (by English pub standards), what we are doing is focusing on equally specific, repeated strategies as the defensive side is doing. No individual action is overwhelming likely to lead to a goal, but we are repeatedly getting a 6 or 7 out of 10 result from the action and with limited risk to ourselves. By this time our two central midfield players and - particularly - our central defenders should have seen a great deal of the ball. The crowd have likely moaned that the ball is not getting forward quick enough, that we haven''t created enough goalmouth action, but our players have had plenty of touches and are emotionally positive. The defensive eight block is tiring , somewhat negative and possession passive. This is less fun and one mistake is often costly, as a strategic switch from eight block to possession pressure is not easy.

So I hear you say, we''ve got some free kicks, our dribblers scare them, we are playing reasonably well, though it''s still nil nil and I''m getting nervous, so what now?

Well firstly, I''m not getting nervous. I''ve been brought up under a different culture and all I''m trying to achieve is a tactical superiority that puts the odds of winning in my favour. Whilst the odds (pattern of play) favour me and mean that it is more likely that we will score than the opposition I don''t need to change (whatever the shrieks from the stands). It might be the 70th minute.

What may change now is the opposition. Their manager is also not stupid. Whilst he is pleased with nil nil, he can see that the pattern of play moves against him. He knows that as tiredness creeps in, more errors occur. I can afford errors in my striker, 10 and dribblers, he can''t afford one in his eight block.

My superior side naturally has a superior bench, so I can replace my cunning Casiraghi with a powerful runner. Replacing centre backs, defenders or even central midfield players is a far greater risk, carrying as it does the need for new communication, a period of adjustment and a risk of errors. Tiredness is creeping in though.

If I want to I can exchange one of my central holding players for a breaking player, I can encourage the best ball-playing centre back to start stepping higher into midfield with the ball and playing passes into the dribblers, 10 or new runner. I let my central drop pivot cover this run (strikers track players far less well - and willingly - than midfielders)

What I do not do is unnecessarily shut the space further than the eight block is already doing. Simply piling more strikers into this area will not increase my chances, it will simply serve to eliminate space which makes it harder for me to penetrate and clearly favours the eight block tactic. Should I happen to have a wonderful striker of the ball (Magari Quagliarella?) then I would naturally fashion repeated possession in front of or on the edge of the eight block for repeated shots. These are low odds, but the set up means there is likely to be a volume of them.

At no time have I risked anything other than a clumsy 2D counterattack with inferior numbers. The odds are that this can be dealt with comfortably barring individual error.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted that this has not guaranteed victory. Some of you may even feel it is a little passive. There will be days when it finishes nil nil and "we could have had 3 points if only we''d gone for it". For those of you that play poker, or have visited a casino, the house makes it''s billions on 0 on the roulette wheel (1 in 36). Don''t panic and overplay your winning hand.

England have nearly scored or nearly won for a lifetime. What looks like pressure in England is often the clumsy chess player who nearly gets checkmate early in the game, only to lose later because his pawn structure is weak.

Sometimes not over-attacking IS pressing home the advantage.


Sent from my iPhone

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I have read with interest both the master classes and agree with much, though there are a few points I''d differ on. I personally dislike the 4-4-2 because of its inflexibility, as you rightly argue. A 4-2-3-1 provides far more flexibility to use the limited spaces available against teams defending in depth. Like others I fail to see why NA has abandoned that flexibility for an unbalanced 4-4-2, especially when we have strikers like Grabban, Jerome and Lafferty who suit that flexibility and who seem to be overcrowding the box in a 4-4-2.

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