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Is the ability to influence the spaces on the pitch key to winning this FIFA World Cup? Football Studies Course Leader, Kevin Braybrook, takes a closer look

28th November 2022
Sport and fitness

The initial group games at this year’s World Cup in Qatar are providing some concerns for many of the leading football nations of the past.

Although some will highlight the timing of the tournament, the availability of players capable of being selected and those special talents that are nearing the twilight of their illustrious careers - like Messi, Ronaldo, Muller, Hazard, Pepe, Alves and Silva - expectations will still be high for each Country in the tournament.

Underneath the fans excitement and the usual belief that ‘football is coming home’ an interesting narrative is forming, which for many inside the game has been a topic of discussion over the last few years.

So often managers, coaches and formal coaching courses have framed playing systems as the framework a team operates within, with the aim to enable a style of play to be devised.

At club level this will be part of a game model, but at international level the best players traditionally get selected into a style the manager or head coach prefers, players suit, or variables associated to the fixture.

We are comfortable recognising formations like,, or currently England's approach as a, but are their adaptions now impacting the design and application of the systems of play?

There has always been the thought that players make systems but now it appears the vertical direction from which we regard a system of play is being explored with different opinions and adaptions.

What we are seeing in this World Cup is - regardless of vertical or horizontal terms referenced for the system and how a team deploy this system in possession, out of possession or in the transitional phases between those moments - the appreciation of how space influences how teams engineer a fluid approach from which the team play within and adjust accordingly. The capacity to influence spaces and a quick appreciation to recognise how their system can be adjusted to find space, manipulate space or disturb the opposition shape, by creating rotation and fluidity in the possession patterns to 'free up' spaces, is now critical.

These elements were evident in the Germany v Japan game and influenced parts of the England v USA performance. Recognising how you create, exploit and deny space in every area of the pitch is more important than just a generic name for a perceived system or framework. It is the starting point from which future formations/systems could become referenced, and how this can influence future trends in the game.

Since the introduction of the World Cup, we have become fascinated with the evolution of systems and styles. For many growing up with a passion for football, we revelled with how nations achieving success were eulogized with such status. Brazil playing with ‘freedom in possession’ in the iconic samba 70s period; Dutch ‘total football’ under Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels’ leadership; Italy’s catenaccio’ (door bolt/chain) defensive masterclass; and in recent times, Spain’s possession ‘tikka – taka’ technical dominance of the ball, were all eras that impacted coaches and changed the direction of football.

There is no denying that great players win games - and we have seen those moments from players like Charlton, Eusebio, Maradona, Pele, Scifo and Gerd Muller - but it is the greater appreciation of how a team’s system of play allows those great players to operate within while providing a platform to impact tournaments, that makes for more interesting review. This tournament is about how teams operating with an appreciation of a system capable to manage spaces around the pitch are outperforming that one individual talent.

Will this year’s winning team have the honour of having a system, formation or style of play named after them in the same way others in the past have allowed that to shape their identity? If so, the ability to influence the spaces on the pitch - quickly in adjustment and fluid in the rotation and execution - will be far more important than a reference to a simple or formation. Could this acknowledgement be key to those eventual winners being crowned and how this tournament could be remembered by those students of the game capable to change the tactical progression of the game moving forward?

Kevin Braybrook is the Course Leader for Football Studies at Solent University. Upon completion of a professional playing career, Kevin has been employed full-time in a variety of coaching, scouting and recruitment roles at premiership level for clubs ranging from Southampton FC, Liverpool FC, Newcastle United FC, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC and Stockport County FC. He achieved the highest coaching award in world football, the UEFA Pro licence diploma. Kevin is an active researcher and author with publications focused on coaching, talent Identification and the barriers, challenges and opportunities of female coaches within football. Kevin continues to be a consultant and industry expert, presenting at conferences and across media where he discusses his research interests around female coaches and football coaching across the player pathway from academy to professional.