From my vantage point high in the main stand of Gdynia's Municipal Stadium, it was fascinating to watch the Republic of Ireland work on their tactical shape today ahead of Sunday's opening Group C game against Croatia.
Conscious of the media's presence, manager Giovanni Trapattoni was understandably cautious about revealing too many trade secrets, yet in the brief window we were given into the Italian's mind, we saw enough to understand how the footballers of 2012 have to be an all-singing, all-dancing amalgam of attack and defence.
These days, being one or the other is no longer an option. A winger is a winger in name only. So when Ireland lose the ball, Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady are converted into full-backs. And when in possession, Stephen Ward, officially a defender, moonlights as an attacker.
"That's modern football," said Trapattoni. "You need flexibility."
There are plenty who consider that 'Trap's' Ireland are not flexible enough and certainly in comparison to Croatia, there is much less interchanging of positions. But is any of this significant? After all, as Sir Alex Ferguson pointed out in his autobiography, it is players, not tactics, that win you matches. Then, earlier this week, Slaven Bilić, in an interview with the Irish Independent, went even further, suggesting formations are becoming redundant. "There's just so much movement," he explained. "Nobody is in the one place for any length of time."
"Slaven's comments are very interesting," stated versatile defender John O'Shea. "The players that play attacking-wise now are given more of a licence to get forward. Those players hurt other teams, win you games, score you goals. They are given a lot more freedom, I suppose. Whereas defensively, the important thing is that the team knows to get back into their shape. And I think that’s what all the teams are working so hard on because the teams that have fantastic shape, attacking-wise and defensively, are the teams that get success.”
Retention of a solid shape has become Ireland's default setting under 'Trap', especially on the nights when ball retention becomes a near impossibility. "Certainly, that's a main asset for us," added O'Shea. "Attacking-wise, we have that fluidity of players changing. But also, defensively, the lads know how quickly they can get back into shape and it's very difficult for teams to break us down then. It's a lot of hard work, but the benefits are there and the results have backed it up and we've got to a major tournament."
Quite how tactics, formations and shape will determine the outcome of Sunday's game will be an intriguing sub-plot to follow. Yet, as O'Shea quite rightly pointed out, "There could be early goals in the game and tactics are soon changed." With that in mind, the team with the better Plan B – rather than the superior Plan A – could be the one to watch.
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