Non-league football, it’s a funny old game. In divisions where there is a collision between the professional and the amateur, a clash of sporting cultures, the standards at which the game is played can swing wildly between the sublime and the ridiculous in the blink of an eye. The semi-professional/amateur leagues – and by that I mean anything from the Blue Square Premier downwards – are the foundations of the impressive footballing structure we have in Britain, but it appears to me that the lower reaches of the football ladder are getting left behind by developments both on and off the field.
On Tuesday evening I went to watch my local side, Salisbury City, play a Blue Square Premier fixture against Hayes & Yeading and, in many ways, it represented something approaching a typical lower league game. There was plenty of spirit from both sides, decent defensive organisation combined with a willingness to get the ball forward, but the most notable aspect of the game was the total lack of anything approaching tactical ingenuity from either team.
Both sides adopted a rigid, apparently inflexible 4-4-2 with a gaping chasm between the defence and the midfield. Such a set-up is conducive to little but aimless long balls and fruitless attempts to squeeze the ball through the highly congested central areas of the field – sometimes bypassing it completely. The long ball method, at least at this level, relies heavily upon the ability of the strikers to control the high ball, bringing it down before feeding the wide players and continuing their runs into the area. The game was crying out for a modicum of creative thinking from one of the two managers, even something as simple as building patiently from the back and playing the ball into the feet of the central midfielders would have changed the face of the tie from a systemic perspective. This would have given one or other of the sides a fighting chance of overcoming the negativity of the opposition.
The game – a 3-1 win for Salisbury – was eventually decided by goals coming courtesy of basic defensive errors, rather than alterations in the tactical pattern of the game by either manager. Clearly, the level of ability of the players in the fifth tier of English football is not that of those in the higher leagues – and so it is unrealistic to expect the proverbial joga bonito – but improvement will only be stunted by the negative, unimaginative tactical policies employed by a good deal of managers in non-league football. Perhaps a managerial academy of sorts, something similar to the Italian technical headquarters at Coverciano, would benefit coaching in Britain and cultivate a new generation of managers in the lower leagues more tactically aware and more willing to experiment with their teams? We live in hope.