Ian Cathro – A Tactical Profile

By Gary Mulraney (@MulraneyGary)

My objective is to focus on the lesser known youth of our beautiful national game, and combined it with a little tactical outlook meant for the football enthusiast, after lots of time and effort I have found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-report thus focuses on young manager who mostly work or have worked in Scottish football and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go.


As most people have been made aware, Ian Cathro never played football at any significant level, but was drawn to coaching at an early age. By 23, he was coaching youth players at Tannadice, after Craig Levein was impressed with his work in developing the likes of Ryan Gauld and the Souttar brothers – John and Harry.

Cathro spent four years at Dundee United, and also worked for the Scottish Football Association’s regional coaching set-up, before a chance encounter moved his career onto a different path. He met Nuno Espirito Santo when they were earning their coaching qualifications with the SFA at Largs, and Santo was impressed with the young Scot’s work.

When Santo was appointed manager of Rio Ave, he asked Cathro to become assistant manager. Cathro spent two years coaching in Portugal before Santo was offered the manager’s job at Valencia in 2014, and a year in La Liga followed before a return to the UK suited for personal and professional reasons.

Cathro has since been at Newcastle, as assistant to Steve McClaren then to Rafa Benitez, who was impressed enough with his work to ask him to stay on. Although Cathro never played at a high level, he believes his coaching work with international players in Portugal, Spain and England has brought some of the experience he missed out on directly.

What kind of person is he?

There has been skepticism towards Cathro, particularly in Scotland. His career path is unconventional, and he has a deep well of self-belief. There is also an inquisitive mind and an eagerness to learn and fill in the blanks of his knowledge and experience.

Cathro is intense and wholly committed to his work – even visits of family and friends to Portugal and Spain were not allowed to impinge too much on his working life. He carefully measures every word, but that is so they deliver an impact. There is a warmth and humour too, beneath the work personality.

He won’t lead by presence, but by the worth of his work with players. Many of the youngsters he first coached in Dundee still keep in regular contact by text.

The skepticism has led to accusations of Cathro being aloof or introspective. He is, though, merely guarded and has little appetite for a high profile.

Tactical Philosophy

Cathro’s philosophy is very much based around keeping possession and playing attractive football.  His coaching skill set has been developed much on the basis of the Portuguese and Spanish way of playing, a continental approach. His side must work hard to retrieve the ball through pressing high beginning with the opponent’s defence. Cathro’s team would then either dispossess them or force the opponent into an error creating a turnover of possession. When Cathro’s side has the ball, they must look after it carefully and delicately. The style of football is very attacking with the aim to create as many chances as possible, as then they are obviously more likely to score.

Cathro bases his ideas on not getting the best out of an individual, but to bind the group together to play for each other, creating an unrivalled team spirit so that regardless of the talent at his disposal, they all leave 110% on the pitch.

Formation and Tactical Structure

Cathro 1.png

As seen in the image above, Cathro uses an established formation but has modernised it to suit his playing style and his squad at his disposal. He diverges away from the traditional 4-4-2 into a 4-3-3 for the Jambos evolving into 3-6-1 depending on the situation. Different formations have been tried and tested, but this formation suits Cathro’s philosophy best as they are able to move the ball from defence to attack. However, this is through patient build up play and not like the stereotypical Scottish side (which desperately launches long balls to a target man). The whole team works together in great cohesion, reflective of their team-spirit to battle and overcome opponents whilst adhering to Cathro’s ideologies.

When the game is in motion, the formation alters with positions and movements of the players, which shown above are the movements and actions. Cathro likes his players to move up when in the 1st phase of play (build up). The full-backs push up high to support the attack, either by overlapping the winger or by coming inside to give an extra passing option. The number 6 (deep-lying playmaker) tends to drop deeper (generally Krystian Nowak, Alexandros Tziolis and Prince Buaben) of the central midfielders, being the main man in shielding the defence and picking up the loose balls, leaving the other midfielders to play the box-to-box roles. The wingers push high with Jamie Walker in particular making inward movements. Walker would take up intelligent positions in the half spaces with the wing backs providing width, bringing their opponents into one-on-ones, isolating them and the extra support of the full-back often overloads the opponents near to their goal. The second striker; Esmaël Gonçalves, also tends to roam in the space circled in between the midfield and attack. Although his performances are inconsistent, Gonçlves causes chaos for the opposition who struggle to keep an eye on the Portuguese forward.

Offensive Organisation

Cathro 2.png

Cathro tried to implement a style of football not used often in Scotland, that is, more of a possession-based, positional approach. I believe this was harder said than done putting into practice. With all due respect, the Hearts group of players have been the least talented he has worked with in professional football. The picture above gives you a visual reference of how Cathro’s team attempted to build out from the back. They create numerical superiority in midfield as two forwards usually press high. The number 4 (John Souttar) uses long diagonal passes often to relieve the pressure from the opposition press, resulting in attacking an unbalanced team from the other side of the field. Souttar was crucial in implementing the style of play Cathro wanted.

Cathro 3.png
Rangers v Hearts 13/05/2017


The picture above shows a glimpse of how Cathro wanted his team to play: domination of the ball using positional play to create numerical superiority when in possession. He demands his players to be brave on the ball and create rondos around the field.

Cathro 4

Cathro 5.png
Rangers v Hearts 13/05/2017

The images above (the former is the work of Riley Wichmann) shows that Hearts under Cathro were heavily reliant on using the left side of the pitch to attack, which rather than positional play he initially wanted to implement resulting in using more of an occupational play in his offensive organization. Hearts used frequent attacking combos with Jamie Walker, Isma Gonçalves and Bjorn Johnsen.

Defensive Organisation

When Hearts lose the ball, the instruction was to use a high press to regain possession. Hearts pressed high to regain possession during the following situations:

  1. The attacking team is not organized or are yet to transition into a shape that supports ball retention
  2. Opponent’s conditions for ball control are not present/yet to be created.
  3. The opponent gets themselves into patterned traps (for example, the ball is forced ball wide, and then the full-back is pressed, creating mistakes).
  4. The opposition gets themselves into risky situations (for instance, when the ball is close to their goal).
    Cathro 6.png
    Image recreated from Hearts v Kilmarnock 4-0 – 27/12/16

    The picture above shows a man-orientated press when Hearts under Cathro lost possession of the ball. When the opposition full-back received the ball, Hearts’s players moved in a way that blocked off the full-back’s passing angles. The touchline is used as another defender, giving limited passing options for the player in possession. Arnaud Djoum and Walker off the middle of the field with their intelligent pressing movement, forcing the Killie full-back to play long and give back possession to Hearts.


    Ian Cathro’s time at Hearts was short-lived, and it generated lots of media attention right from the start. Critics were out in numbers to have their opinion on him. However, when looking methodically into his time at Hearts, he certainly cannot be branded as incompetent or use the excuse of his age or inexperience.

    I believe Hearts’s unique infrastructure in Scotland, with Craig Levein as Sporting Director and their willingness to promote coaching from within, is a great way to go for a club like Hearts. It’s very similar to how German clubs operateHowever, Levein’s  signings such as Christophe Berra, Kyle Lafferty and Aaron Hughes, who are actually pretty good players, are not the profile of player Cathro needed to implement his footballing philosophy and actually contradicted the way in which he wants his teams to play. Hearts under Cathro ended up with a style of play which was mixed (not in a good way), that is, a mix of Cathro’s Iberian style with the traditional Scottish methods. An example was Souttar playing lots of long, vertical passes that broke the opposition pressing lines to Berra playing long hopeful balls in the general direction of Lafferty.

    In my opinion Ian Cathro was not a success at Hearts because:

    1. Cathro’s reign appeared to be ‘confused’ in terms of the players the head coach wanted – and suited the team’s style of play – and who the Edinburgh club added to the squad.
    2. It seems he was unable to build good human relations with the squad.

    Ian Cathro will without a doubt have learned a great amount at Hearts and the 31-year-old still has a very bright future.

    I’m a wee bit disappointed for Scottish football because he is clearly someone who was trying to work a certain way to develop players and make them better. I am not sure you have so many of them up here. That’s the brutal honesty of it.” – Brendan Rodgers on Ian Cathro.


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