Issue Stuart McCall and Plan Nine from Outer Space

As told by Michael Wood

I have become so tired of hearing the phrases “tactically naive” and “No Plan B” and if life were QI then the siren would be going off around almost every football discussion heard.

These two phrases are banded about by the media with one being used to apply to Kevin Keegan and Sven Goran Eriksson but within months of their uptake they became part of the lexicon of every football supporter.

Any team that has not won are lacking a “Plan B”. Every team that get beaten are managed by someone tactically naive. It is no more sophisticated analysis than saying that a match was a game of two halves but it sounds more analytical and there is is the key to its asinine overuse.

Stuart McCall and his management team was accused of having “No Plan B” this week not a fortnight since we saw a City team struggling to breakdown Exeter and until McCall pulled Paul McLaren further back on the field creating spaces and holes for midfielders to probe and twenty minutes later we had four goals. He either got very lucky, understood the tactics involved in the game or found a “Plan B”. That or he made a change, put some rockets up backsides and reminded the players that they had no little quality.

The whole assumption of “Plan B” in football is flawed. It assumes that every week a manager goes into a game telling his players little more than “Go with Plan A today, boys” which is probably a product of Championship Manager/Pro-Evolution Soccer thinking and almost certainly not based on anything that happens in a real dressing room where other teams are watched, players are singled out, danger-men noted and patterns recognised in the opposition.

Don Revie famously complied dossiers on every team in the First Division and every Referee that his Leeds United team could face in a season each game presenting itself differently to the last or the next, each game requiring individual preparation.

Not “Plan A” or “Plan B”. Nothing so simple.

In truth “Plan B” is one of those football phrases that when translated means little. If a manager’s team is losing then “Plan B” is the term given to his demonstrable actions. If those actions work and his team win then he is judged as “being able to influence the game from the sidelines”, if they do not he “has no Plan B.”

Likewise a manager is “tactically naive” if he does not use uncommon formations or should I say if he does not use uncommon formations and win. Sir Alex Ferguson won the treble using a 442 formation but very few called him naive. He won the double last year using the same formation which Kevin Keegan was using during his brief spell back at Newcastle United but few suggested the two of them as having the same tactical acumen. Too often “tactically naive” means “plays the default formation in FIFA 2009” and the people who generally believe that a Keegan or a McCall is lacking in understanding of how the game is played need a new way of saying what they think.

Tactics are painted in such broad brush strokes that such ham fisted criticism is almost inevitable. Within football tactics are about the jobs that must be performed on a field and who performs them, they are about making the most of combinations on the field, about when to attack and when other players should commit to attacking. They are nuances and subtleties that are simply not addressed in the phone number phrases that are passed off as analysis. “Four-four-two” is a starting point but it is not a tactic and when played with an Owen Hargreaves/Michael Carrick formation it is simply not the same way of playing football as when Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard occupy the middle positions.

These are phrases used as pejorative that have long since lost any meaning. One might as well say Stuart McCall is “player boot naive” that he has no Plan Nine from Outer Space. That or you could – if that is what you think – say that Stuart McCall has a troubling lack of options in his squad when his team is behind other than bringing on Barry Conlon to play a battering ram role and perhaps – as has been said before – that that sort of talk might be more appropriate than randomly firing around criticisms which have no granularity between “slight issue with” and “majorly incompetent at”.

Football management is not about applying single skills – you cannot add a dash of tactics to a team and make them win – it is a combination of mental and emotional skills and not the kind of problem that can be modelled and brought down to such simple mechanics.

It certainly cannot – in the most – be summed up by soundbite phrases. We live in a time when through official message boards and forums, fanzines and websites (such as this one which has given voice to over 125 City fans and only turned away less than half a dozen articles in ten years), blogs and letters to the T&A football fans are more listened to than ever. It is thus important that when they speak they do so with a sense of understanding of how what they say will be perceived and responsibility they have when they say it.