In recent years many of the most successful football teams have adopted an attacking style based on quick passing, interchanging of positions and defending through pressing their opponents high up the pitch. The recent World Cup in Brazil highlighted this trend. This way of playing was introduced in futsal a few years before it was seen in football. So why are many of the most successful football teams employing tactics that are used commonly in futsal and why do they lag behind the small sided game? Here I take a look.
The most extreme example of this intricate passing and high pressing style is known as tiki-taka and was famously used by the Barcelona side led by Pep Guardiola. In four years at the club he won an incredible 14 trophies including two Champions Leagues as Barcelona dominated at club level. This success spread to the Spanish national team which included many Barcelona players, winning 3 major tournaments consecutively including the 2010 World Cup. Guardiola is now repeating this success with Bayern Munich and several of their players represented Germany during their 2014 World Cup victory.
In attack Guardiola’s teams employ a short passing style that is founded on several principles. It requires that players provide constant support to the ball carrier through creating triangles, and circulating the ball rapidly to attack the weak side of the defence where they are less compact. His players search for the space between the opponent’s defensive lines to cause confusion in the defensive marking responsibilities.
Another feature is he frequently played without a striker to entice the defence to come forward and leave the space in behind. Legendary Brazilian coach Zego used the same principles when he created the 4-0 system in futsal in the 1990s. His teams employed rapid ball circulation and constant movement off the ball to take advantage of that space, something the Barcelona and Spanish teams have noticeably lacked recently as their performances have deteriorated.
It is not just Guardiola’s teams that are borrowing elements from futsal. We can now see that most players have to be able to be effective in all parts of the field when their team has possession and when they don’t. Neither a defender nor a striker can be a specialist and both must participate in both phases of play. In futsal this has been the case for more than a decade where players continually rotate positions and thus anyone can equally find themselves as the player highest on the court or the furthest back.
The need to be a complete player has even reached the position of the goalkeeper. In futsal the goalkeeper’s distribution is vital to the team’s attacking prowess but also key as the last line of defence, requiring the ability to come out of their area to cover the free space behind the defence. At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil we saw Germany and Bayern’s Neuer taking a similar role, most notably in the last-16 tie against Algeria. It was not just him with many other goalkeepers performing all-encompassing roles, such as Holland’s Cillessen who helped his team keep possession when they were being pressed. The World Cup had many other examples of skills more commonly seen in futsal. Both Oscar and Fernandinho scoring goals with their toe, previously considered bad technique in football but useful in futsal where time is of the essence. Many players used the sole of the foot to have close control of the ball when an opponent was near.
So the question arises as to why we are seeing this trend. My theory is that sports science and training methods are continually evolving, meaning the players’ fitness is better than ever and they can cover more ground. In addition tactical competency is always developing resulting in better organised defences. Whether teams elect to press high up the pitch or drop deep, the defensive systems are designed to keep the spacing between the defenders minimal and the defensive lines close. The outcome of these developments is there is less space in football for the attack.
Football and futsal are games based on the concept of space. In attack the objective is to create space and in defence you attempt to deny it. Space allows you time to decide what to do and then execute your chosen action. In futsal we are masters of thriving in reduced space. It is our natural habitat and we have developed the resources to be effective in this hostile environment. As space continues to reduce in football (and this trend is being replicated in futsal as well) they have had to apply the same principles.
If you think of any of the world’s best footballers they are always very good at playing in tight areas. Futsal will always be ahead of football in dealing with reduced space due to the smaller pitch dimensions, hence the fact football technique and tactics lag those applied in football. One of the key requirements to developing this ability to be effective in reduced space is an appropriate training methodology.
The most successful training methodology has been the Spanish philosophy, adapted from Holland’s model. This is the use of the simplified games in reduced space, rather than unopposed drills, which challenge the players’ decision making and perception in addition to technical and tactical capabilities. This has helped bring success for the Spanish futsal team and Guardiola who implements this philosophy. Further, this is backed up by research which has demonstrated that this is the best way to train, not only in football but all sports (Search TGFU or Game Sense approach for more).
It is already well-known that youth futsal teaches skills that can be useful in football (not forgetting that futsal has it’s own attractive career pathways for youth players) but futsal at the elite level can also be useful for the game of football. In the 5-a-side game tactics are designed for the environment of reduced space, characteristic of the sport. With space becoming more scarce in football, futsal can be a source of ideas for becoming more effective in the modern 11-a-side game.
If you are interested in the links between futsal and football I have previously wrote articles on the relationship between the two and the 4-6-0 formation used in football. Click the links to read them.
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