Wolves – Statistical Review

27 05 2011

This is a chronological look at Wolves’ season, exploring the tactical issues and themes that came up along the way:

Summer Plans

Mick McCarthy’s summer spending appeared to be designed to re-establish a 4-4-2 formation. The decision to spend £7m on Steven Fletcher would not have been made if he was intended to be Kevin Doyle’s deputy – this was a clear statement that a return to two up front was planned.
McCarthy also signed Stephen Hunt, a player he had long admired having named him as one of the best players in the Championship back in 2008-09. Given that Wolves had used Kevin Foley, Adlene Guedioura and David Edwards all out of position on the wing during their first season in the Premier League this could also be regarded as a positive step.
Curiously, Wolves’ defence had been regarded by the national media as a strength in 2009-10, with many citing a lack of ability to score goals as the club’s chief concern. This overlooked the fact that McCarthy had regularly used a 4-5-1 with Karl Henry, Michael Mancienne and Foley in midfield. Put bluntly, Wolves were often attacking with just Doyle and Matt Jarvis and the defensive solidity was due to the protection afforded the back-line rather than the ability of it.
As such, the signings of Steven Mouyokolo and Jelle Van Damme – even without the benefit of hindsight – felt a slightly half-hearted attempt to address the club’s defensive weaknesses.

Ambitions Scaled Back

Wolves finished a respectable 11th in 'short passing' table

A positive start against Stoke City at home seemed to vindicate McCarthy’s decision to revert back to 4-4-2. But the fragility of this more expansive approach was soon exposed. Wolves scored in the first eight games of the season – but conceded in all of them. By the middle of October, the Stoke win remained a one-off and failure to beat West Ham at Molineux left Wolves in 19th place and in need of a change of approach.
The result was a switch to 4-5-1 as McCarthy identified the need to keep the ball. It saw the return of Nenad Milijas to the midfield and the Serbian achieved the desired effect as Wolves outpassed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Incredibly, there followed a run of games in which McCarthy’s men outpassed a number of the biggest clubs in the country. McCarthy is perceived to be a coach who favours a direct approach and so this increased emphasis on short passing appeared to be something of an epiphany for the manager. It didn’t last. The results were not really improving and late goals were starting to undermine Wolves’ season.


Late Goals

Wolves would have been 11th if games finished after 45 mins

By this point, late goals were becoming a theme of the season – and not in a good way. Fulham, Spurs, Villa and Man Utd (twice) had grabbed late winners against Wolves and it was happening too often to be a coincidence. At the end of the season, Wolves finished 11th in the half-time league table – six places above where they ended up after 90 minutes.
There are various reasons for this. The players themselves have admitted they have struggled to keep up the intense play of the first half. Karl Henry said: “We usually run so hard in the first half that you can’t do that for 90 minutes, especially against the top-quality sides. Sometimes you might be drawing 1-1 away from home and you say, ‘OK we’re not getting as close to them anymore, we’ve run out of steam, let’s sit back and soak it up a bit and approach it in a different way.”  
McCarthy himself has also contributed with negative substitutions at key points. For example, against Newcastle at Molineux, he elected to withdraw Van Damme from the right-wing and bring on Ronald Zubar, pushing Foley forward into midfield. Zubar promptly conceded the free-kick from which Andy Carroll equalised. Against Fulham at the opposite end of the season, McCarthy removed Milijas and brought on Mancienne to shore things up – instead he barely got a kick and the visitors soon got a deserved equaliser. They are minor examples but indicative of a negative approach and a desire to merely ‘hang on’ to a lead.

Return to 4-4-2

As the poor results continued, it was Sylvan Ebanks-Blake’s dramatic late winner off the bench against Sunderland in late November that seemed to once again convince McCarthy that 4-4-2 was the way to go.

Wolves worked on winning the ball high up the field and using the wings - playing as much of the game as possible in the opponent's half

Gone were the ambitions to outpass sides and it instead became a typical Mick McCarthy approach. The plan was to win the ball high up the pitch and play from there. With Doyle and now Stephen Ward as attacking options, they certainly had the players willing to battle for the ball and run after lost causes down in the channels.
There were 1-0 wins against Birmingham and Liverpool with Ward and Ebanks-Blake up front and in January this became three 1-0 wins from five games when champions Chelsea were beaten at Molineux. This time it was Fletcher and Doyle as the front two and McCarthy was now revelling in 4-4-2 a la Mike Bassett. Such was his commitment to the system he even asked Milijas to play up front for the last seven minutes against Chelsea when fellow substitute Ebanks-Blake was injured. As McCarthy said: “To go 4-4-2 I asked a lot of the players because it was against the favoured 4-3-3 everybody plays, but they just bought into it.”

Indicative of defensive weakness

The statistics above probably give a good indication of how weak Wolves were defensively this season. They were high on the passing table and had the ball in the opposition half more than every team other than Everton. They also had overall possession stats of 50% – placing them 10th in the table. And yet, they still conceded more than every team except West Brom, Blackpool and West Ham. This is surely a damning indictment of the side’s defensive capabilities. In truth, one only has to look back at the plethora of howlers that marred the season – Zubar at Bolton; Mancienne at Birmingham; Richard Stearman and Ward at Tottenham; Berra at Wigan; Foley against West Ham; Elokobi versus Everton. The list is long and less than distinguished and none of the defenders are exempt from criticism.

Back to 4-5-1

Wolves played through the centre less than any other side - with an extraordinary 40% of their play coming down the left-flank

Despite some successes, a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool proved the final straw for McCarthy. He’d taken enough blows and decided it was time to ‘cover up’ and switch to the 4-5-1 with Doyle ploughing a lone furrow up top once again. This was the tactic that served him so well the previous season. It encouraged Jarvis to get up in support of Doyle as Wolves relied on their width to get behind the opposition – usually utilising the left-flank for their attacks. The return to this tactic brought victory over Manchester United and earned Jarvis his England debut.

Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake

Of course, this 4-5-1 meant that both Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake could not be accommodated in the side. Fletcher’s late run of goals meant that he finished the season with 10 Premier League goals and just 15 starts. Ebanks-Blake’s record was nearly as good with 7 goals and 11 starts. It says much for the imbalance in the squad that these two strikers could finish the season with such impressive goal returns and still remain out the side – while some of the defenders could retain their place despite numerous errors.

Over-reliant on Doyle & Jarvis

No team relied on crosses as much as Wolves - with Matt Jarvis usually the supplier

Meanwhile, the problem with Wolves’ 4-5-1 was perhaps that they became something of a one-trick pony. After his England debut, teams identified Jarvis as the key threat and he struggled to deal with the increased attention. You could almost sense the mantra of opposition coaches – stop Jarvis and you stop Wolves. When this was coupled with the loss of Doyle, the two most important cogs in the 4-5-1 were loose and McCarthy lost faith in the system – abandoning it when 1-0 down at St James Park just 30 minutes into the game. He perhaps felt pressured by the fact that Fletcher and Ebanks-Blake had both been scoring goals but not getting a chance and eventually felt compelled to play them both. A disastrous run of results followed as Wolves picked up just two points from five winnable games.

Last throw of the dice – Hunt and Fletcher

It was ironic that after chopping and changing his line-up and formation so many times in the campaign, McCarthy eventually found salvation in turning to the two men he had identified to improve his side the previous summer. In an incredibly gutsy move, the manager bit the bullet against West Bromwich Albion and dropped Jarvis for Hunt. In recalling the shaggy haired winger, McCarthy was pairing him and Fletcher in the starting XI for only the fourth time all season. They were both pivotal at the death – producing goals and assists galore in the final three matches to see Wolves over the line. It was vindication of sorts for the club’s summer transfer policy.


This was a season in which Wolves never really settled upon a favoured system and were constantly fighting to cope with the defensive problems that were not addressed in the summer. Many of the statistics suggest that Wolves’ playing style befits that of a midtable side and McCarthy will feel he has the attacking threats at the club to achieve this goal. Ultimately, it was these attacking strengths that proved to be just about enough for survival.


Darren Bent – The Truth

19 05 2011

When Darren “The Truth” Bent made his big money move from Sunderland to Aston Villa in January 2011, football fans everywhere were divided. For some, he was a striker who guaranteed the most important commodity in the game – goals. Others were adamant that this was symptomatic of the Anglocentric attitude towards scouting among Premier League clubs.

But what is the truth about Darren Bent?

On the face of it, he is surely one of the unluckiest players in the world today. Yes, I know he had a fair slice of luck with that beach-ball goal against Liverpool but take a look at the bigger picture. Last summer, Bent was the only player in the five major leagues of Europe to score 20 goals for a World Cup nation and not be selected for the tournament. Indeed, only Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristiano Ronaldo and Antonio Di Natale managed more than Bent’s 24 league goals.

It’s a remarkable statistic that might be explained away by suggesting Bent was some sort of one-season-wonder. Of course, that’s not the case. The Villa striker has now scored more Premier League goals in the past three years than any other player. That’s more than Drogba, more than Rooney, more than Carlos Tevez and certainly more than Fernando Torres. And he’s done it in weaker sides than those players have had the opportunity to play in.

The counter-argument to this is that Bent has not done it and never would do it at the highest level. Not against the best defences in Europe anyway. Again, it’s worth examining the stats.


The table above shows Bent’s goalscoring record over the last three seasons against the top six sides in English football. It is quite astonishing. This is not a small sample that has been extrapolated to draw misleading conclusions – this is his record over more than 40 hours of game time against some of the finest sides in Europe. The 2436 minutes equates to a shade over 27 full matches. That’s 20 goals in 27 games against the top six over a three year period.

The key to understanding criticism of Bent is that there is far more to being a top-class centre forward these days than merely scoring goals. Universality is the future, not specialisation. It’s an argument that Stan Collymore articulated when explaining why Bent should not go to the World Cup last summer:

“Even allowing for his fine season, Carlton Cole and Bobby Zamora remain ahead of him. The reason? Well, at international or European club level, touch, awareness of space and an appreciation of team-mates’ positioning are as vital as the ability to score goals.”

The example of Cole was also advanced by Mark Bright and, even if that now feels less appropriate a year on, the issue of bringing others into play is at least a valid one. And besides, Collymore was happy to repeat his criticism of Bent when discussing his impending move to Aston Villa in January of this year:

“It just smacks of desperation. As an instinctive striker he gets a solid A, but as an all-round footballer he gets a D. Holding the ball up, his movement, his awareness, that’s why to me he would be massively overpriced. Being a £20m striker means that you have to be able to score goals but if you’re not scoring goals you can drop off, you can get involved in the play, you can draw other defenders in, you can create from wide positions. There’s a massive question mark about Darren Bent’s ability to fulfil that kind of remit.”

Collymore and – it has to be said – many other pundits were keen to labour the point that Villa should have been looking for a more complete footballer for their money. The Guardian conducted a poll asking if Bent was worth the £18m fee (said to be rising to £24m) and the result showed 76.8% felt the striker was not worth the money.

They were, however, less forthcoming about who this complete footballer might be that would like to come to Aston Villa. Within a couple of weeks of the Bent debate, the agenda had moved on anyway. Edin Dzeko’s arrival at Man City was followed by the £50m move of Fernando Torres and the emergence of £35m man Andy Carroll. The argument that Bent was overpriced was now something of a side issue – and so perhaps it’s better to return to the issue of him ‘just scoring goals’.

This criticism is largely justified. Bent’s technique is rudimentary and his hold-up play ordinary. This is a striker who prefers running onto the ball and, while that does have the advantage of forcing the opposition to play a deeper line, it doesn’t lend itself well to playing an active role in linking the play.

But some context here may help. Comparing Bent to a Rooney or a Messi is ludicrous and irrelevant. Evaluating his record against, say, Jermain Defoe is a more useful exercise. Defoe is also a player who prefers running onto the ball rather than developing the attack with his hold-up play. And yet, he was the man chosen by Fabio Capello, not only to go to the 2010 World Cup, but also to start the vital game against Germany.

It is therefore worthwhile looking at Defoe’s goalscoring record against England’s best teams. His stats over the same three year period against Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham are revealing. Defoe has scored five goals to Bent’s 20. This comes from a total game time of 1774 minutes – a goal every 354.8 minutes. Put simply, Defoe has scored five goals in nearly 20 games against the cream of English football compared to Bent’s 20 in 27. And yet, he was in England’s starting XI and Bent was not on the plane.

Is it possible, therefore, that – even as a £24m man – Bent can be both limited and underrated? Amid the hoopla of his January transfer, as wags everywhere joined in the mockery of Bent, the words of high-profile Norwegian football scout, Tor-Kristian Karlsen, resonated. Karlsen has long bemoaned the premiums paid on English-based talent and so his balanced assessment was revealing:

“For all the criticism he is an established Premier League star who’s proven capable of scoring consistently. The closest you come to an English 20-goals-a-season striker in the top flight. Ideal for any team that plays on the break or employs traditional attacking schemes without sophisticated collective patterns of movement. He has probably found his rightful home at an upper mid-table Premier League side.”

It’s a qualified endorsement but also an acknowledgement that Bent was probably the ideal signing for Aston Villa. The suspicion clearly remains that his limitations would be exposed on the world stage. But, given his record, perhaps Bent – ahead of Defoe and the rest – is a man who has earned the right to find out.

The Owen Coyle Myth

17 05 2011

 “I hate perception. There is far too much of it in the game. I prefer to stick to reality.”
– Sam Allardyce

One of the perceptions in the game right now is that Owen Coyle plays football the right way. Apparently he’s introduced football at the Reebok – and football writers are falling over themselves to lavish praise on him:

“Coyle has won admirers for an attractive style of passing football at Bolton, where predecessors Sam Allardyce and Gary Megson were noted for their direct play.”
– Daily Mirror, Jan 7 2011

“The Trotters have confounded all expectations this term by playing a slick brand of pass-and-move football.”
– BBC, Dec 12 2010

“The team once regarded as schoolyard bullies are now using the Arsenal blueprint for how the game should be played”
– The Guardian, Nov 16 2010

On the basis of such ringing endorsements you’d be expecting something pretty special from Bolton Wanderers. The reality is somewhat different. Kevin Davies remains pivotal to their play and – as you would expect with such a player in the side – the inclination is to hit the ball long to him.

The diagram below shows that only the vilified Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers have played fewer short passes this season. So much for the Arsenal blueprint. While the two sides below them have quite the reputation for the route one stuff, Coyle’s side has been spared this stigma.

data supplied by WhoScored.com


One of the reasons for this is perhaps the presence of Stuart Holden in the Bolton midfield. The American has come to personify ‘new Bolton’ with his technical proficiency and desire to play football. Coyle’s supporters would doubtless point to his injury-enforced absence as a key reason behind Bolton’s lowly position in the passing table.

But the situation is not quite so clear in regard to the much lauded Mark Davies. Former teammate Rohan Ricketts recently claimed Davies was England’s answer to Andres Iniesta and – while that assessment is clearly hyperbole – the former England U16 captain’s progressive midfield displays are certainly easy on the eye. It is curious, therefore, that Coyle has preferred to instead use Johan Elmander in a midfield role. With Holden unavailable one may have thought this was an opportunity to draft in Davies to help pull the strings from the centre of the pitch. It’s a minor point but not exactly a team selection that inspires the notion that Coyle is committed to ‘slick, passing football’.

Perhaps the key to changing the perception of Bolton was not so much to do with their passing style but more about curbing the physical excesses of their game. However, the reality is that Bolton have pretty much continued as they were. Sir Alex Ferguson noted last year that Coyle’s Bolton continue to rely on their physical approach and this is borne out by the statistics. No team in the Premier League has received more bookings for fouls than Coyle’s side. Of course, the presence of perennial offender Kevin Davies is unlikely to help in this regard but there are other sinners. Paul Robinson has picked up seven bookings this season and the likes of Gretar Steinsson, Fabrice Muamba and Zat Knight are clearly no shrinking violets either.

data supplied by WhoScored.com


So if Owen Coyle has not significantly changed the style of play or altered the emphasis on a physical approach, what is the reason for the club’s turnaround in fortunes? As is often the case, much can be learned by seeking the views of the club’s supporters. A Bolton Wanderers forum recently invited readers to outline what Coyle had done to improve the team. Their answers were revealing. There was little talk of passing football. Instead there were multiple references to atmosphere, attitude and belief. These are vital intangibles for any team and of particular concern to a Bolton side that appeared in dire need of inspiration under Gary Megson.

Clearly things were not right under Megson and the team appeared to be going in only one direction. Coyle changed that and has restored Bolton to a healthy midtable position. It’s one they are familiar with. In the four seasons from 2003-04 to 2006-07 the club never finished lower than eighth and showcased the talents of Youri Djorkaeff, Nicolas Anelka, Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro.

Despite their presence, and much to the annoyance of Allardyce, the club was unable to shake off their long-ball reputation.

It’s this reputation that Coyle has had to tackle. He’s succeeded. And, in fairness to him, he has acknowledged this whilst being fairly understated about the changes that have been made:

“There was a perception Bolton played in a certain way and with a certain style. We had to try to change that and in terms of our football philosophy we have made a little transition. I’m not saying we play like Arsenal or Barcelona but we have added other dimensions, although we are still not afraid to go to the strikers early and use the strengths we have always had because forward Kevin Davies is the best at what he does.”

There’s that word perception again. Sam Allardyce hates perception. It’s not hard to see why.

Whatever happened to… The Stanchion?

16 05 2011

Let it never be said that GhostGoal is afraid of tackling the really big issues in football today. Here’s Oli Baker …

English football is almost unrecognisable from 20 years ago. All these changes have been very well documented and argued ad nauseum. One development has been criminally overlooked. Where on earth have all the stanchions gone? In years gone by, the sign of a truly great finish was when the ball hit the stanchion, or even better, got stuck in the stanchion. Witness the below goal from Trevor Brooking. Sure it would have a been a good goal regardless of the type of goalpost, but the fact it got stuck in the stanchion elevates it to something far more memorable. The sight of the Hungarian goalkeeper having to thump the ball to release it is a wonderful image.

Hitting the stanchion was a pretty rare event, which made it all the more enjoyable. Not often then, that it happens twice in the same game, a game I happened to attend. Well worth watching the below for one of the greatest team displays of finishing ever seen. You know when Iain Dowie scores an acrobatic volley against you, it is not going to be your day. 

It’s not just the demise of stanchions that is upsetting. It’s the lack of any idiosyncrasies in goal posts and nets at all in modern football. There seems to have been an epiphany about 15 years ago that every team must have identical nets. The continental style box nets have become the norm. Good as they are, it’s all a bit dull.  In the 90s it seemed everyone’s were different. Liverpool had red nets, Norwich had yellow nets, it all made perfect sense. My favourites growing up were definitely at Ipswich. They were blue nets, obviously, and were half held up by what resembled discarded corner flags. They looked like something the groundsman had knocked up in his shed, and I loved them.

There are a few signs of some individuality creeping back. Everton’s nets have been blue for a while. A few clubs, such as Blackpool and Sunderland pay lip service to the problem with a few colourful stripes in the nets, but this doesn’t go nearly far enough. As football kits are becoming more and more retro, it’s time to bring back the stanchion. Only then will we know for sure that a shot really was right in the top corner.

Saving the FA Cup

13 05 2011

Andrew Benbow remembers when the FA Cup was really important. And asks what we can do to turn the clock back…

‘What would you prefer to win – the Cup or the League?’
Hard to see that being a debate in the playgrounds of today as it was when I was young. And it was a genuine debate. Yes the League proved who was the best team that season, but with the FA Cup came the magic (sorry, I couldn’t avoid the word) of the Final – a special day that would be etched onto collective memories and relived on school fields up and down the country. The FA Cup Final to me is not knowing the words to Abide With Me, a uniquely long build up, dodgy songs and suits, ghosts of games past, and taking a football onto the street at half time to pretend that I was playing. FA Cup winning goals went down in history, the pinnacle of a career unless you were fortunate enough to be a World Cup Winner or Michael Thomas.
And it is hard to see why this changed. Yes there are the eye-catching catastrophes – United not defending their trophy, Wembley semi-finals taking away the unique Cup final feeling, and now Premier League games on the same day – but bit by bit the Cup has lost its lustre without anyone seeming to want it to.
For the money men of a certain five or six teams the big thing is the Champions League. This isn’t romantic but it is to an extent understandable. Qualifying for the competition can now change a club forever – but if the reason is not to change the club in order that it can compete for honours, then what is the point?
And why would the Champions League change things for the majority of fans in England anyway? It is for elite club teams – and will never cross the path of most supporters in the country. For my part I don’t care about the Champions League. I enjoy it as I like good football, but I don’t and will not ever actually care about it. It has nothing to do with my football club and it never will. It’s a different world.
The media often blame the Champions League for changing the priorities of the top clubs. But this is clearly wide of the mark – the winners of the FA Cup in recent seasons are overwhelmingly taken from those teams who participate in European competition (14 of the last 15 in fact). Clearly the Cup is not too much of a distraction that they do not want to win it.
So what went wrong with the FA Cup? Well, to me, the fans have only themselves to blame.
Fans bemoan the loss of the FA Cup while at the same time allowing their managers to rest players ahead of that all important ‘will we be 8th or 14th’ Premier League game. In turn more and more players are rested until bit by bit the Cup is demeaned. Villa at Man City is the most glaring example – they were never realistically going to get relegated, so why not try and win the cup? The nadir for me was when my club, West Brom, were in the hat for the last four of the FA Cup with Portsmouth, Cardiff and Barnsley – and people were saying we should rest players as getting into the Premier League was more important! Why?! At best we will make the Europa League in my lifetime – the FA Cup is the only dream we have. And now seemingly nobody cares.
It is hard to see a change to the status quo as we are in a vicious circle – attendances in the competition are down, hence managers largely believe that the Cup isn’t a priority, play weakened teams, and so fans see the Cup demeaned.

I would like the FA to take action. Put their foot down regarding the staging of the FA Cup Final, lobby for the winner to be given a Champions League spot, and put severe pressure on teams over ticket prices. All FA Cup games should be ‘kids for a quid’. Ticket prices should be capped at £20. Give the Cup back to the fans. If they don’t, then in a few years there may be no Cup worth the name.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AKBenbow

Pelé – A Thoroughly Modern Man

12 05 2011

In a month in which Lionel Messi again demonstrated his genius and the El Clasico series dominated football it was only appropriate that the Greatest Player of All Time was asked his opinion on matters.

Interviewer: “Who is the best, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?”

Pele: “I am the best.”

It’s a brilliant answer and one that gives rise to that most ancient of chestnuts – where would Pele fit into the modern game?

Perhaps a good starting point is to address some of the traditional arguments against players of yesteryear. The standard response of those wishing to question stars of the past is to point out that the game is quicker now and players are fitter.

This is an argument that can easily be turned on its head. Obviously, if you time-warped back to 1958 then the player of today would be physically superior. But modern training methods, increased professionalism and superior medical treatment would only make players of Pele’s era even better. It’s fair to assume a dedicated pro like Pele wouldn’t take too long to get up to speed so any advantage for the modern player would easily be negated.

The reality is that the proverbial goalposts have been moved since Pele retired – and many of the changes would surely work in his favour. Rule changes such as the more lenient interpretation of offside as well as the introduction of the backpass law clearly benefit attacking play.

More specific to Pele, the increased protection afforded modern players would be a huge advantage to him. Speaking about the 1966 World Cup, of which he was brutally kicked out of, Pele said:

“I found the violence and lack of sportsmanship as dispiriting as the weak refereeing that allowed it to go unchecked for so long.”

One can only speculate how many more goals Pele may have scored if savage defences had seen this weapon removed from their arsenal. But you don’t need to look beyond recent events to see the impact that going down to ten men can have – Messi’s vital brace against Real Madrid came only after the opposition had  a man sent off.

Ultimately, I’m more interested in the question of not whether Pele would fit in but how he would fit in.

Brazil 1958 World Cup

To answer that requires us to start at the beginning and take a look at Pele’s role in Brazil’s 1958 World Cup success. Although that side is characterised as playing a 4-2-4 formation, 21st century eyes could easily mistake it for the 4-2-3-1 that is seemingly ubiquitous in the modern game. Pele is – both literally and figuratively – the classical No.10 in this formation.

By 1970, and the Brazil side usually cited as the finest ever, Pele was seen as the complete footballer. He had speed, skill and vision. He was good in the air and better on the ground. And, although he had developed as a player, he was still playing in the No.10 role – and Brazil’s formation could still be interpreted as a 4-2-3-1. Certainly, Tostao was the central forward. Roberto Rivellino enjoyed an advanced role on the left and Jairzinho’s attacking presence on the right is proven by his scoring in every game Brazil played in the tournament.

From a tactical viewpoint therefore, Pele is a man who could seemingly slot into many of the top sides of today. Ironically, for much of the past decade that may well not have been the case. Tactical specialist Michael Cox noted on his website, Zonal Marking, that the 2000s were a decade in which classical No.10s struggled to find a role in the modern game. As Cox said:

“Almost every player that would have expected to spend their career behind the front two has had to redefine their game, generally being stationed out wide.”

This modern challenge has left a talented man like Juan Roman Riquelme looking like a man uncomfortable playing in his own era, and yet one suspects there would be no such difficulties for Pele. He had both the pace to cut in from wide and the physical presence to adapt to the demands of a false 9 role. And besides, there are now indications that a more attacking interpretation of the 4-2-3-1 will be the next tactical advance – and, as Jonathan Wilson points out, that is a role with which Pele is more than familiar:

“It is intriguing too that the emergence of 4-2-1-3 seems to hint at the playmaker/second striker hybrid once again becoming something akin to the playmakers of the 1980s, but operating behind a front three rather than a front two. In that the playmaker is returning to his origins: Scarone, James and Pele, at least in 1958, were similarly creating the play for a central striker and two wingers.”

Such is the cyclical nature of football – Pele, both individually and tactically, remains a thoroughly modern man.