Future of Football: How will tactics evolve?

Coaches from across the game give an inside view on the tactics of tomorrow

Goalkeepers as outfielders? Formations as we've never seen them before? The rise of virtual reality training technology and ''all-rounder" players who can slot into different roles?

As part of Sky Sports' Future of Football series, we asked a range of coaches, including some of the brightest tactical minds in the game, for their expert views on how men's football is evolving tactically - and where it goes next.

Introducing: Our coaches profiled

Before we look to the future, how far have tactics already come?

Andoni Iraola: "Twenty years ago, as a player, you were just trying to solve your own problems and win your duel with your marker, you weren’t thinking so collectively. Now, players ask tactical questions you would expect from a manager. First phase, second phase. They understand it all and they ask for little details. That makes it easier for us as coaches."

Matthias Jaissle: "These days the players are more and more involved in tactical things. Every coach and every club works with principles, so every player has to know a lot of things, tactically, in each phase of the game. I think that’s a big change."

Robert Moreno: "For me, the biggest difference is the time you have to decide on the pitch. Back then, you had four or five seconds to decide because it was a low rhythm, a different style. Now you have one second, at most. This is a big difference. A player has to decide before receiving the ball."

Rene Maric: "There is a higher frequency of actions now. If you watch a game from the 1970s, you have a lot of space. Now, the space is very small and you are not being defended by one player but by two, three or four. I think that has developed massively."

David Nielsen: "It's completely different and the major aspect is time and space. In the old days, strikers used to practice getting one on one with the goalkeeper. But if you look at the Premier League now, how many times do strikers get one on one from, let’s say, two-thirds inside the opponent’s half? It doesn't happen. Time and space has reduced."

Joao Nuno Fonseca: "It has been an evolution, especially in England. It is not only kicking long balls anymore."

Ruben de la Barrera: "We cannot compare the needs of the game now to in the past. I remember Edwin van der Sar starting the play in goal, but not in the way we see Ederson or Jason Steele do it. It is not the same. Football evolves. It is a different era."

Ederson's playing style typifies that of the modern goalkeeper

Ederson's playing style typifies that of the modern goalkeeper

Where are formations going and what will they look like in the future?

Des Buckingham: "Tactics and formations just keep coming full circle."

Chris Davies: "In the game now, you can see these trends like the 2-3-5 shape that a lot of teams are getting into or the 3-2-5. The idea seems to be to have five connecting quite closely on the ball and then five who are higher to threaten the defensive line. That is quite common."

Joaquin Gomez: "It is a cycle. We are talking about a three in defence and a two in midfield. That was happening almost a century ago and it is coming back."

Chris Davies: "What is fascinating is that if you go back to the Herbert Chapman days of the WM formation, that is basically the three-box-three that you see now in football. It is really interesting how that cycle has come around again even though the game has evolved in style."

David Nielsen: "I think, since 2014 or 2015, 4-4-2 has not been a good formation. To play with two strikers has been difficult. But now, if you have a midfield who are great athletes and can run even more, and a back four that can shift, then probably 4-4-2 has a chance to come back. Maybe a different variation, because you might need an extra player, so it might be a back-line of three with a player switching up into midfield, but something like that is possible."

Will we see more teams using completely different formations in and out of possession?

Andoni Iraola: "The systems and structures are changing a lot. They are much more dynamic. Probably, some years ago, it was, ‘OK, they play with three at the back, 3-5-2, so we’ll mark like this.’ But now, every player changes, every system changes, every small rotation... You have to be much more prepared as a manager now."

Joaquin Gomez: "We have different structures. If we are losing momentum, we adjust it. There are different trigger words to change it. It might take a player to go down, needing treatment. That is a trigger for us to morph into something else. It is very doable and we are seeing it very often."

Rene Maric: "There is more flexibility between approaches. Teams will press man-to-man and then go into a low block if that is not successful. But also there will be teams disguising their press, jumping out of zones and staying in a different position to the one they started the press with."

Chris Davies: "You can really see a team’s shape out of possession but it is a very different shape when they are in possession. Before it was 4-4-1-1 and you could see where everyone was."

Gabriele Cioffi: "Pep Guardiola plays a 4-4-2 in a defensive phase. Liquid in offensive phase but solid in defensive phase to prevent the other team being liquid."

Pep Guardiola is viewed as a pioneering influence tactically

Pep Guardiola is viewed as a pioneering influence tactically

Joaquin Gomez: "With Pep Guardiola, it is not just a formation or system of play, it is not about that. It is the flexibility. Football is moving into having a deeper understanding and to be a lot more flexible. It is normal now to have teams who attack and defend in a different system."

Chris Davies: "That seems to be a big thing. You will see teams pressing in a 4-4-2 – Arrigo Sacchi’s shape seems to be back in fashion again now. But when they have the ball it is completely different with options to rotate in a 2-3-5. Two different shapes seems to be the future."

Joaquin Gomez: "When Manchester City played against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final, within 20 minutes, it was not working and they changed into a different type of press, a middle block, and it worked really well. We are going to see more and more of that."

Matthias Jaissle: "It is not about formations that much. It is more how you want to play, how you want to attack, how you want to defend. If you understand that and the players understand that, tactically you are much more flexible and the formation is not that important. That could be a trend for the future."

Which teams or coaches do you expect to dictate the tactics of the future?

Robert Moreno: "History repeats. If a team wins, everybody wants to imitate that team. If Manchester City win, teams want to play in the same way. When Liverpool won with a different way, a lot of teams tried to imitate that. The future of football is in the hands of the teams that win."

Matthias Jaissle: "The best teams are obviously often interesting. They always have some principles you can see which make sense to include in your philosophy. It’s not about copying, exactly, but seeing interesting things, creating your thoughts about it, and then, if it fits, you can bring it into your way of playing."

Joaquin Gomez: "Pep Guardiola has been the reference for the last 15 years. I am not sure you can get any closer to perfection of an idea of football."

David Nielsen: "I love to watch Manchester City. They are fantastic. But they are unicorn players and a unicorn coach. If we are talking about the game in general, we can't just look at the teams able to pick the best players in every position. They are not evolving the game. I prefer to look at games in the mid-table of the Premier League or the Bundesliga, where you see equal teams who don’t have these unicorns. That’s where you really need tactics to create superiority."

Ruben de la Barrera: "Roberto De Zerbi is curious if we are talking tactics and the evolution of this sport. The distances, the positions, the body shape, the intentions that each player has in possession. They play narrow but it is how they manage the rhythms and how they manage the space."

Rene Maric: "The biggest thing in the build-up is the control of rhythm. If you look at Guardiola, he does it with the speed of the passes and then they carry the ball when they don’t have pressure. De Zerbi does it more with the moment of the pass, the lure, the sole on the ball, opening space with the pass rather than the carry. How you control the rhythm and progress through space will be big in the future. That development has already started."

Roberto De Zerbi's tactical approach transformed Brighton last season

Roberto De Zerbi's tactical approach transformed Brighton last season

How important is it for coaches to evolve tactically in the modern game?

Robert Moreno: "That is one of the best things about Pep Guardiola. When Barcelona started to build up from the goalkeeper in 2008, nobody else did it so nobody had the capacity to press this build-up in a good way. Now, after 15 years, everyone can press high so you have to evolve."

Rene Maric: "When the press of the opposition changes, he thinks about it. How to break a low block, how to break a high block. Just the solutions he comes up with. That is why they are continually evolving. The principles are the same but they are changing the details."

Paul Hall: "Pep Guardiola has definitely changed. I think Mikel Arteta has changed. If you are not open, you have a very short shelf life in this game."

Joao Nuno Fonseca: "Tactics always evolve. There is a trend in football. It is like fashion. If someone wears a certain shoe, it becomes a trend. Look at the teams of Pep. At Bayern Munich, it was different. At Manchester City, he adapts it to the players. That is what coaches have to do."

Matthias Jaissle: "I think new inputs are always more than welcome because you have to develop your game, you have to always make progress. That is why we love football."

Robert Moreno: "People have criticised Pep for using Erling Haaland with direct balls but for me it is smart. If you have the other team pressing high and you have space behind, why not use it?"

Des Buckingham: "There are great examples of teams trying to press Manchester City and leaving three on three at the back but when you have a goalkeeper who can hit it to the opposition’s 18-yard box with a drive, teams are not just playing over the press, they are playing over it with purpose."

Chris Davies: "The use of Haaland as a reference against Arsenal when they went to man-to-man pressing, that was Pep being pragmatic. He decided that when there was pressure, with Ederson, you could drill the ball 70 yards behind the defensive line and create a new dynamic to build up."

David Nielsen: "The problem is that most coaches get caught up in needing to win the next game. I saw a Norwegian manager, Martin Andresen, take over Valerenga in 2008 and do exactly what Pep Guardiola is doing now with John Stones, but he got the sack because they couldn’t win games. Then Guardiola does it and it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, can you believe what he did with Stones?’ Yes, it's amazing, but he's got the perfect players to do it. For other coaches, it's more difficult."

“It is really important to have players with game intelligence. Playing as a winger is not the same as playing as a holding midfielder, but there are players who are capable of doing that"

- Rafael Benitez

Could goalkeepers effectively become additional outfield players?

Carlos Carvalhal: "Where do you have space to play now? The players with the space to play are the centre-backs and the goalkeeper. Of course, the evolution of the game changes the characteristics of the centre-backs and the goalkeepers. It was important to start the game where you have more spaces to play and it was important that these players could bring more to the game. They must be good defenders but they must know how to play, how to change the direction of the game. The goalkeeper must be able to join the line of four now. This is football."

Paul Hall: "Teams are trying to gain that numerical advantage. For some managers, it is their number one thing. They want their goalkeepers to be just as good with their feet as their outfield players."

Matthias Jaissle: "Goalkeeper is not a position by itself anymore. It is completely included with the other guys. A goalkeeper has to have an understanding of all phases of the game. I wouldn’t say he has to play in different positions, but at least he has to understand what the centre-back has to do, what the full-back has to do, what the idea of our playing style is, and what principles are important to our game."

Des Buckingham: "Some of the distribution from the goalkeepers now is like that of a quarterback. They can really dictate. You are starting to see goalkeepers find the spare player."

Ruben de la Barrera: "In my opinion, we need to attack with 11 players not 10 or nine or even three or two. For that reason, the cleaner our build-up, the more advantage we will have up front."

Joao Nuno Fonseca: "I really believe in the involvement of the goalkeeper in the offensive process. We cannot forget that the goalkeeper can also play with the feet as well as the hands. It is one of the biggest evolutions that football is having and it is happening around the world."

Ruben de la Barrera: "Other teams are using the goalkeeper this way. For example, Girona create the first line of four players with their goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga. It is not the same to use the goalkeeper as a support to clear the ball and to use the goalkeeper to actually provoke something."

Joao Nuno Fonseca: "Brighton, Napoli, Al-Sadd from Qatar, Niigata from Japan. These teams have something in common that I love – they play with 11, they do not play only with 10. Sometimes there are teams who do not have this philosophy that forget they have the goalkeeper too."

Gabriele Cioffi: "In future, it will become more similar to handball and futsal. There is a space. It has to be filled. It does not matter if that player is the goalkeeper. We will see more and more, the goalkeeper being involved in the build-up, as in futsal when you are down two or three goals."

Andre Onana showed his modern playing style in the Champions League final

Andre Onana showed his modern playing style in the Champions League final

Will we see more positional fluidity all over the pitch?

Rafael Benitez: "When we [Real Madrid] played against Barcelona, [Lionel] Messi, [Samuel] Eto’o and Ronaldinho were the strikers, with Messi playing on the left, so we put [Alvaro] Arbeloa, our right-back, on the left to make sure he had more chances [to win the ball off Messi]. To move players around is fine, but they have to be clever enough and someone else has to fill in."

Carlos Carvalhal: "We do not care so much about systems. That is the beginning point. After this, it is about the dynamic. If they give you the spaces, you must exploit the spaces. If they do not give you the spaces, you must create the spaces. In time, the players who are free must go forward to the opponent and open the spaces. It sounds easy but the most important thing now is that players keep their position and keep looking at each other because the rotation we are talking about cannot be chaos because chaos means disorganisation and that means you concede goals."

Des Buckingham: "There are probably going to be three specialised positions going forward. That is goalkeeper, centre-back and centre-forward. The other positions with the rotations and movement and understanding of the game need to be comfortable in most positions."

Gabriele Cioffi: "You can see full-backs play inside but you can see full-backs play as wingers or attacking midfielders. It is about rotation. The way we are going to end is that we are going to have a more liquid way of playing football in the offensive phase, while being solid in the defensive phase."

Des Buckingham: "Xavi’s Barcelona are certainly one team that I look at. There are things they do in terms of the imbalance, keeping the width on the right, while overloading the middle by having the wide player on the left rolling inside. There are just these different rotations."

Joaquin Gomez: "The type of players that are being produced now are completely different to 20 or 30 years ago. The flexibility, the understanding, the awareness of the game, it has developed because they are being coached differently because they are demanding more."

Could versatility therefore become a key attribute for the players of the future?

Rafael Benitez: "It is really important to have players with game intelligence. Playing as a winger is not the same as playing as a holding midfielder, but there are players that are capable of doing that. These are the good players because, at the same time, they save you money. If you have one player who can play in three positions, you don’t need to bring three players for each position."

Paul Hall: "The game is getting quicker all the time so you have to be more intelligent, you have to be coachable."

Rene Maric: "You have coaches with more complex tactical demands than 30 years ago. The players capable of dealing with that are the ones who will play at the highest level. Some who would have been successful 30 years ago, are not able to adapt."

David Nielsen: "There will need to be total education for players. In the end, I think they will be just as clever as coaches were 10 years ago. I look at the NFL, where the players sit in meetings, analysing things, for four hours a day. In football, players struggle to sit through an hour. That’s where there is room for evolution, for players to understand more and then be able to adjust on the pitch."

Matthias Jaissle: "Probably, in the future, there will be more and more so-called all-rounders, players who are able to play in more positions, which makes total sense and makes it easier for the manager to change within the game or alter the formation. That is quite easy if the players understand it and know how to live your principles on the pitch."

Andoni Iraola: "I think the players have to be very complete. We cannot allow players now not to defend. Now, everyone defends, everyone attacks; everyone has to make the runs to the space, everyone has to come back. Also, sometimes, the players are the ones who come to the coaches and say, ‘OK, here we are having problems. He is receiving the ball too low and I cannot go too far, so we have to change something.’ That is the way I think the game is already evolving."

David Nielsen: "From George Best, to Ryan Giggs, to Cristiano Ronaldo, wingers used to influence the game in an immense way. The stars of every team were wingers because if you got them one-on-one, beating their opponents, all the good stuff followed. But this is getting more difficult. You need to create better and better all-round players."

Will the game become quicker?

Rene Maric: "The demands are getting higher every year. If you look at the statistics, the sprinting numbers, the intense metres, how those numbers have changed over the last 20 years, it is insane, a crazy development."

Paul Hall: "In 10 years, we will definitely see the game get quicker.  It will keep creeping up."

Des Buckingham: "There is evidence to show the game is 10 to 15 per cent quicker than 10 years ago. With sports science, I can only see it getting quicker. It puts greater focus on decision-making."

Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior is known for his explosive acceleration

Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior is known for his explosive acceleration

Andoni Iraola: "Physically, the players have to be very fit. Everyone needs to run a lot. High-speed running for me will be key."

Matthias Jaissle: "I think in the future it could be more dynamic, and more physical also. I’m pretty sure the standards will increase. Only the most professional players will survive at the top, top level, I would say."

David Nielsen: "The increase in the speed and physicality of players means the pitch is becoming too small. There is less space, so we need what they have in basketball and American football - really advanced attacking plays with more than just one, two or three simultaneous movements happening, and with players screening defenders when their team is in possession."

What about teams like Brighton, who try to slow the game down to invite pressure when they are building from the back?

Chris Davies: "What has come into the Premier League just recently is the idea of the pause and Brighton are very good at it. Previously, everyone was trained to play fast, flowing football. They wait. In moments, the game is completely static. And then, they will accelerate to break the press."

Rene Maric: "If it is going faster and faster and you can slow it down to the rhythm that you want, I think that is the difference between teams that have the ball and teams that do something good with the ball. It is the difference between possession and possession with intent."

Joao Nuno Fonseca: "Roberto De Zerbi is a very interesting coach who is producing something that is maybe unique in football right now because the team is playing very short in the build-up."

Paul Hall: "The way De Zerbi asks his central defenders and goalkeeper to be really brave and provoke the press has been really impressive. He has probably given Pep Guardiola his biggest headache of the year because of how his team builds."

Chris Davies: "They are very intentional in trying to attract pressure. They know what they are doing rather than just passing the ball across the back line quickly because it feels quick. That is not the way to gain an advantage because it is not necessarily helping to break past an opponent."

Joao Nuno Fonseca: "It is more and more important because with this you attract the opponent near to your goal and far from their goal. This creates spaces. When you try to press, it leaves half of the pitch. Imagine if you conquer this space in between? These are really important developments."

"The standards will increase. Only the most professional players will survive at the top, top level"

- Matthias Jaissle

Which teams do you find most interesting tactically at the moment?

Des Buckingham: “I like watching Barcelona and always have. It is interesting to see what happens when a new coach goes in there and how they take it on.”

Robert Moreno: “In Spain, I like Villarreal and Real Sociedad. They have been incredible. I love the way they have developed their projects. How they sign players but overall how they play.”

Chris Davies: “Real Sociedad are an interesting team, stylistically. They are the only team in the big five leagues to qualify for the Champions League playing a 4-4-2 diamond. It is a possession-based idea. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Union Berlin are overachieving on the counter-attack.”

Gabriele Cioffi: “Ruben Amorim at Sporting because he plays a 3-4-3 but in a smart way. He plays a mid-transition. He waits for the opponent. Tim Walter at Hamburg is interesting in how he fills the gaps with players, how he plays in the half spaces, there are a lot of rotations.”

Ruben Amorim's Sporting Lisbon knocked Arsenal out of last season's Europa League

Ruben Amorim's Sporting Lisbon knocked Arsenal out of last season's Europa League

Rene Maric: "The German second division is interesting. Paderborn are playing asymmetrically with a lot of dribblers. Hamburg have the goalkeeper high. Magdeburg use the goalkeeper in a fairly extreme way. St Pauli are like the Swansea of Germany with a clean build-up."

Robert Moreno: “In England, I have to say Brighton, Arsenal and Manchester City. In France, the way that Stade Reims have signed players in recent years with no money is incredible. I loved Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli in Italy. Braga are doing incredible things in Portugal.”

Carlos Carvalhal: “Brighton play a little differently. Manchester City play differently. In LaLiga, Girona do different things. Fluminense in Brazil play with a kind of chaos under Fernando Diniz. That is very interesting to see.”

Rene Maric: "There is this discussion between relationism and positionism. At Fluminense, Mamelodi Sundowns and Malmo, they have these extreme overloads. They try to keep the ball but they are less focused on space."

David Nielsen: "I’ve been fortunate to follow Will Still at Reims very closely. He is creating something that is more about communication. He is playing a classic system, but there are a lot of things going on. These young managers coming in and doing well with teams at the bottom of the league who don't have top talents, that’s what I think is interesting."

Joaquin Gomez: “Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton are remarkable for their man-to-man pressing and the intensity, the discipline, of how they do that. A lot of people focus on the attacking phase but I think their defending is probably one of the best, if not the best, in Europe at the moment.”

Paul Hall: “Mikel Arteta is Pep 2.0 and he has managed to get Arsenal to be that position-based team. Marcelo Bielsa has pushed the envelope of what we can do. All of these coaches have been affected by Bielsa in the way that he coaches.”

Andoni Iraola: “When I started coaching, I loved how German teams played because they all defend, they all attack. They play the way I like to play. That was probably my first reference. From there, you learn from every team but there are a lot of teams doing things really well in the Premier League.”

Item 1 of 3

How important will technology be in shaping the tactics of the future?

Andoni Iraola: "I think, right now, you cannot live without data. It is evolving a lot. It is much more precise than some years ago. Normally, I start with this. I say, before I start watching the games of my next opponent, ‘let’s go to the data, so we know what we are looking at’. It is something that has a lot of importance."

Des Buckingham: "I think there are things being built that will give us more in-game data in future."

Joaquin Gomez: "You watch All or Nothing, the series about American Football and see how long the days are for them, the planning meetings, the managers of specific positions. They carry books that they need to learn. I think we still have a lot of catching up to do."

Matthias Jaissle: "Here in Salzburg, we have the approach to always be innovative and work with new technologies. We also have a specialist in every department. But in the end, you really have to take care that you don’t have too much information. This is a big challenge. As a manager or coach, you know so much about tactics, but you cannot just give everything to the players. You have to really take care not to overwhelm them."

Ruben de la Barrera: "Football is evolving and you have to use new technology like virtual reality and artificial intelligence to increase the level of your performance. It is about updating and growing."

Paul Hall: "I am sure that in the future we will see artificial intelligence refereeing games."

Gabriele Cioffi: "Virtual reality could be the next step because of the better understanding of how our brains work. You can train a player without training him, just by showing him."

David Nielsen: "I think we have more or less adopted enough of the NFL, American football-style analysis into European football. The last thing we need to do now is stick a pair of virtual reality glasses on a player and make him play a full game."

Joao Nuno Fonseca: "If you had the opportunity instead of static mannequins on the football pitch, imagine that they are moving. I predict in the next 10 or 20 years, because the technology is making a massive evolution, holograms on the training pitch will be something common in the future."

Joaquin Gomez: "It is important to keep on top of it because the technology moves very fast. If you do not, someone else will."

For all the talk of technology, how important is it to keep the human at the heart of the game?

Andoni Iraola: "In the end, for a coach, I think the feeling and what you see in training every day is the No 1 for now."

Joao Nuno Fonseca: "As coaches, we cannot lose the real essence of us as human beings. We are dealing with people who have problems in their own lives. They might have children who are having problems at school or with health problems. We need to be sensitive to this as coaches."

Des Buckingham: "I think the eye of the coach, the experience of the coach, the gut of the coach, will always be important. The data is there for support."

Carlos Carvalhal: "I can choose to give importance or not to the numbers. Players are human beings. They have football in their head, in their legs. Football is a collective game and the players depend on each other. These movements and the timings of them are hard to explain through technology. It is intuition. It is why some players are better than others and I am convinced it will always make the difference in football."

Ruben de la Barrera: "Before the technology, there is the human being."

Matthias Jaissle: "I think the communication and the connection with the players is always the base for leadership and being a good coach. Here in Salzburg, we have so many young players, of over 10 different nationalities, so you really have to take care of that. I would always prioritise one-on-ones and face-to-face conversation."