Today’s football clubs, be it the Colorado Rapids or even European teams, have more in common than fans might initially think. One player who has experience in many different leagues has noticed a distinct shift in the complexity of the game worldwide.
Rapids’ number 9 Kevin Doyle will be the first to admit that playing striker has changed just as much as the rest of the game tactically over the last 15 years. “It’s just sport in general becoming more analyzed, more video, more stats so it’s all getting broke down a lot more,” the veteran Irish international told Burgundy Wave. “Everyone’s got fit players, quick players, so now its finer details. I don’t know if it’s more enjoyable to watch but that’s what you have to do if you want to be successful.”
The basic 4-4-2 formation employed by most, in which players held to their spots on the pitch and waited for the game to come their way, has turned in favor of more versatility required from the forwards and midfielders. “The focus was the center-half that was marking you,” laughs Doyle. He recalled the extent of where his attention lay during match play in the early 2000s when he began his career in Ireland.
“Before, once the ball went past me that was it. You stood there next to the center–half and tried to get loose from him but never worried about dropping in to pick up a midfielder or get back. I miss the days where the two strikers stay right up in the two center-halfs and I’d never even see the midfield,” Doyle admits with that wry smirk on his face. “Everybody played 4-4-2, occasionally 4-3-3, but it was two strikers and two center-halfs. Literally, the two center-halfs dealt with you and you dealt with the two center-halfs and if you had your good day against them - brilliant! You never thought about dropping in, or helping anyone out.”
“That’s changed everywhere,” Doyle said. “I felt, even when I first went to England that was the case. Slowly formations changed, tactics changed, and it became a lot more about when you’re defending and getting everyone behind the ball and everyone not picking anyone up but sort of stopping passing lanes, stopping through-balls, and always having an extra man cover and protecting.”
According to Doyle, tinkering of formations has occurred as teams look for an edge even within the span of 90 minutes on match day. This has required players such as himself to become more involved off the ball, helping out in a “defend all over the pitch” style, and not be focused solely on receiving service to goal. “It’s just all changed. As a striker you’re back in midfield, you’re tracking this guy and this, that, and the other, but that’s every team. The more modern soccer, no matter what team, everybody back-to-front works. I think you have to to be successful.”
Doyle has noticed a tendency for teams and managers to try and emulate success when they see it and adopt many of the same practices to their own side. “I think every team and every coach does badges and they all have the same coaches so everyone sees the same things and do the same courses.”
He talked about Chelsea playing Drogba up top and doing really well with a 4-2-3-1. They were a defensive team that was winning the league and everyone took notice. Doyle believes that “it seemed to be around that time and everyone started to copy it.”
“Again Chelsea changed to three in the back, so that may change again,” Doyle continued. “Every formation, every tactic goes in phases. It seems to be what’s popular at the time. A few teams in MLS are starting to do it. I like that. It’s interesting.”
However, casual fans of MLS sides may not realize there really is much more going on in front of them than what shows on the scoreboard or by following the ball during play. Doyle points out that there are a number of situations players find themselves in that are not as black and white as you might think.
“It’s a lot more tactical than when I first started,” he explained. “People might see us and might think ‘why’s he jogging that way, or why’s he not chasing to close?’ It’s a cat-and-mouse: you’re trying to force him one way, you’re trying to force the center-half who might come forward to play where you want them to play or whatever.
It changes from game to game and then who we are playing. As striker you’re dropping into their number six and close him down. It’s kind of like chess when you don’t have the ball you’re trying to force them into a certain area where you can win it back to goal.”
Colorado, for example, isn’t content with poor results, yet nothing is a quick fix. Because of the scenarios which now start to arise, there may be several different paths of action to be taken and players have to be well drilled in all to know what to do next.
“That’s why we train all week,” says Doyle bluntly. “This week you see a team and you’re going to press them high, and where are you going to press them high, and who might be the best person to press, and who you might press because they’re very good on the ball and they might wriggle out of it. If you just turn up on a Saturday and watch a game you might wonder why.”
“If you come watch us practice, you’ll see Pablo stop us and say you need to get here, show them to here, pressure him when he gets here, and every year it seems to go to another level,” he said. “It still doesn’t make you win games but it gives you a shot and it’s still up to the coach, still up to are we a team that sits and lets them come, or where do we press them, this week are we going to press them high, and all that is evolving and changing every week.”