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The 90 Minute Incentive

A game of football spans 90 minutes – two halves of 45. The ultimate objective is to outscore your opponent which constitutes a victory. When both teams score (or sometimes don’t) an equal amount of times it is deemed a draw – at times welcomed, other times detrimental. Knock-out football may warrant extra-time which is made up of two 15 minute intervals and potentially penalty kicks if necessary.

Of course you know the fundamental basics of a football match but what so few understand is how to tactically maneuver through 90 minutes (perhaps extra-time) and ultimately be successful.

First, the tactical philosophy of a football club is an imperative building block for the mastery of 90. With the dynamism of football in the 21st century, the philosophies of most clubs are ever-changing dependent on the manager and player personnel however, some supporters demand a particular brand. For example, Arsenal Football Club deploys a fluid passing game with the ability to be devastating on the counter-attack – the ideology is often coined Wengerball after their long-term leader Arsene Wenger and his belief that football is a form of art. He emphasizes that his players be expressive and confident with the ball as the conclusive mission is five-star entertainment which the supporters have now grown accustomed to - it's the Arsenal way.

Wengerball - this is football.

Stemming from a philosophy is a formation – 3-5-2; 4-4-2; 3-4-3; 4-4-1-1 and the list goes on. A formation evolves from the philosophy that the manager wants his players to incorporate. It can be dynamic however, over time most managers settle on a consistent formation to establish an understandable and identifiable method of play. For example, 4-3-3 is the formation which Barcelona used to establish greatness under Pep Guardiola. Ultimately, this allowed interchangeability between players and a sustainable attacking onslaught on their opposition.

Their defence was strong through the middle while the flanks in Dani Alves and Eric Abidal were free to bomb forward at will. The deep lying central midfielder, Sergio Busquets, was mandated to patrol in front of the defence as a holding midfielder. This allowed the mercurial talents of Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta to move the ball forward through their triangle passing termed tika-taka, where the genius that is Lionel Messi and two other attackers would join. Barcelona's dominance is unparalleled in footballing terms having won 14 titles in four years under Guardiola. Their ever-growing confidence and familiarity to their system became unplayable for opposing teams nationally, continentally and globally.  

If we lose, we will continue to be the best team in the world. If we win, we will be eternal.
— Guardiola's words before the Club World Cup final against Estudiantes in 2009

Notice the diamonds and triangles which form and disperse as the play progresses.

Finally, a proactive and reactive approach must be incorporated into the 90. The determining factor of this, in addition to the above, is the desired outcome of the match at hand. For explanation sake, let’s say the game is in the regular season where 3 points are preferred to maintain standing at the top of the table. A manager can break a game up into 15 minute intervals.

For a tactically astute team such as FC Barcelona or Arsenal FC, the first 15 minutes may be a high press to attain possession and encourage distribution of the football around the pitch to ensure each player gets a touch. The tempo has been set. The next 15 minutes can be high intensity with an objective of earning the first goal. The spine of the team maintains shape to deny the opposition scoring opportunities while the flanks and attack-mandated players flow forward, interchanging positions and searching for paths to goal. If the objective of scoring is achieved, the last 15 minutes of the first half can revert to ball control, slowing the pace and searching for a second goal. However, players must understand that sitting deeper to avoid giving up a late goal is integral in order to avoid transferring momentum to the opposition going into the second half.

The above is a high level example of an approach that may be taken within the confines of a 90-minute match however, as per the unpredictability of football, a manager must be more reactive than proactive. Not reactive to the opposition but reactive to the situation. For example, a crucial mistake which Mauro Biello, the manager of the Montreal Impact, made in the first leg play-off versus Toronto Football Club (TFC) was to bring Didier Drogba onto the pitch. There was 19 minutes remaining and the Impact had a 3-1 lead – it was crucial not to surrender another away goal considering the away goals rule in two-legged play-offs. With the final 15 minute interval approaching the canny reactive approach was to bring on a defensive minded player to assist in holding the advantage. Instead, Biello brought on a 38 year old striker whose first instinct is and has always been to attack. It led to a 2nd goal for TFC and perhaps what may be a nail in the coffin of Montreal’s MLS Cup chances. There may be several reasons for the thinking of Biello such as Drogba’s ability to win aerial battles or that he wanted to put the tie well and truly out of sight with a fourth goal. It may have also been a sentimental touch considering it was Drogba’s last home game as an Impact player – if so, he chose the wrong time for sentimentality. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the substitution and I haven’t changed my opinion after reflection.

Football is a game of tactics and while the astuteness of every individual player may be sublime, it is the coach’s mission to accomplish a collaboration of player's abilities and establish an effective systemic methodology - this will evolve into the long-term philosophy. Once intertwined within the player’s psyche, the deployment of formation and tactics becomes much more easily absorbed and implemented.

Football tactics are rapidly becoming as complicated as the chemical formula for splitting the atom.
— Jimmy Greaves
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