Tactics at the World Cup – A Look Back and Forth

When you think of the  World Cup what comes to mind? Maybe it is 1966 and all that, Pele’s near misses in ’70, the Hand of God in ’86? Maybe its Tardelli’s celebration or even Roger Milla’s. However, as well all the magical moments it is worth remembering that, traditionally, the World Cup is often a showcase for tactical innovation too.

From an English perspective, the 6-3 Wembley defeat at the hands of Hungary in 1953 is often considered the watershed moment. The first time England had been beaten at home by continental opposition.. and it was a thrashing, both technically and tactically. The rematch in Hungary only served to highlight the point as England were stuffed 7-1. However, it was the 1954 World Cup that gave the Hungarians the chance to showcase their team to the world.

  
England vs Hungary 1953 – WM vs embryonic 4-2-4

The Miracle of Berne, a first defeat in 37 games, may have denied Puskas et al their World Cup win in ’54 but the tournament still served as a reminder they were streets ahead. By withdrawing the centre-forward in the then ubiquitous WM formation to a deeper playmaking role, Gusztav Sebes’ Hungarians were able to control games and cause significant confusion for their opponents. The centre-half simply did not know who to mark as the WM faced this newfangled formation. As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting The Pyramid - ”Two full-backs, two central defensive presences, two players running the middle and four up front: the Hungarian system was a hair’s-breadth from 4-2-4”. They had invented the formation of the future.

The Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann claimed that his leaving Honved for Sao Paolo in 1956 saw the 4-2-4 transported to South America. The lineage of the formation is far less clear than that. However, the next two World Cups were won with Brazil, aided by the stunning wingplay of Garrincha, using variants of that famous formation first unleashed on the world by the Hungarians years earlier.

By 1966, wing wizards were the last thing on the agenda. The greatest month in England’s footballing history can be remembered in terms of a Russian linesman and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary but it was as much a tactical victory for Sir Alf Ramsey as anything else. Like Viktor Maslov had discovered in the Soviet Union almost simultaneously, Ramsey had realised the benefits of tucking his wide men inside to become de facto right and left-midfielders as opposed to out and out wingers. In doing so, his side was able to dominate the midfield, with the added bonus of Nobby Stiles being able to sit deeper as a holding midfielder with no real creative responsibility. The ‘Wingless Wonders’ were born. As Ramsey put it: ”To have two players stuck wide on the flanks, is a luxury which can virtually leave a side with 9 men when the game is going against them”. The new formation saw England able to defeat an Argentina side in the quarter finals that had baffled them in the Maracana two years earlier, before going on to defeat Portugal and Germany to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy.

Eight years on, it was the turn of the giants of South America to be humbled. It was an eye-opening experience for both Argentina and Brazil as they found themselves given lessons in the Total Football being served up by the great Dutch side of ’74. Argentina were beaten 4-0..

 

A 2-0 win over Brazil followed. In many ways, the flexibility of the Dutch system had its forerunners in the Brazilian teams of years gone by. However, the possession game had been fused with a more high tempo pressing style and the results were astounding. As Tim Vickery points out, they also left a long-term impression on the humbled World Champions of the time:

”Johan Cruyff.. has often lamented that Brazil have turned into an overly pragmatic, counter-attacking team, but Cruyff’s superb Holland side of 1974 played its part in that process. They beat Brazil.. in that World Cup and the pressure they put on the ball left a huge impression on Brazilian coaches. Brazil decided that in order to face the European challenge their players would have to be bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive”.

Dunga’s Brazil perhaps has its roots therefore, in a footballing lesson taught nearly 36 years earlier. His counterpart Maradona is, one could argue, faced with a similar history lesson in attempting to get the best out of Lionel Messi for Argentina. In 1986, Carlos Bilardo took his Argentine side to Mexico on an unimpressive run of form despite the presence of the finest footballer on the planet within his ranks. He decided, maybe in desperation, to unveil to the world a new formation in order to bring success – the 3-5-2.

Bilardo’s reasoning was that with teams no longer using wingers then there was no real need for full-backs – they could be converted to midfielders and played higher up the field. By the Quarter Finals, Maradona was operating as a support striker making it closer to a 3-5-1-1. As Bilardo put it: ”When we went out to play like that, it took the world by surprise because they didn’t know the details of the system”. The rest as they say is history as it took them all the way to World Cup victory.

By the time of the next World Cup in 1990, with the wide midfielders in the system now perhaps more accurately decribed as wing-backs, variants of Bilardo’s formation were all the rage. Even Brazil and England, previously wedded to their back 4′s, were now experimenting with 3 at the back on the grandest of stages. The World Cup as a driver of change once again? It made sense on two counts – firstly, the desire to mimic success; secondly, the desire to ‘match-up’ in order to eliminate any tactical advantage for the opponent.

In more recent times, it may be considered harder than ever to spring a tactical surprise (We still see innovation – even in calamity, Rene Higuita’s antics in 1990 could be considered a forerunner to the sweeper-keepers of the backpass rule era). Things are more homogenised though as cultural diversity diminishes. Almost all the teams at major tournaments have at least a handful of players with experience of top level European football. Furthermore, when you consider the  increase in video evidence and improved scouting in the modern game, you may conclude there is no reason for major tournaments to be the focal point for tactical innovation they once were. For example, the driving force for the decline of 3 at the back probably came from the 4-5-1 in high level club football.  

And yet, as recently as 2004, the European Championship victory of Otto Rehhagel’s man-marking Greek side could be seen, perhaps more than anything else, as a monumental tactical triumph. It has not proven an influential tactic, frankly appearing to be more of a one-off. As the UEFA Technical Director Andy Roxburgh memorably put it though, ”the Greeks had posed a problem the rest of the world had forgotten how to solve”….. Could we see such a thing in South Africa this Summer?

Tactically speaking, the side which is attracting most excitement among afficionados is probably Chile. The Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has them playing his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation and they certainly qualified in style, playing a fluid attacking system.

My personal view is that whilst tactically interesting, we could just as easily be talking about spectacular failure as success. With David Pizarro on board you could argue it may have been different but the fear has to be that their defensive frailties could well be exposed by Switzerland let alone Spain. Bielsa attempted a variant of this formation with Argentina in 2002. They had more possession, more chances and more corners than any other side in the group stages but still found themselves on their way home. In striving for width high up the field and control of midfield possession, they found themselves vulnerable at the back. Tactically, it would be a shame if one of the teams attempting something different was to do so again but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

A more likely candidate to go all the way in South Africa whilst playing a curious system has to be Brazil.

Dunga has built a team playing an almost unique assymetrical formation with one centre forward and a winger, Robinho, playing high up the field on the left. There is no like for like player on the other flank with Ramires instead operating as a right-midfielder. Of course, this suits Dunga as it will allow him cover for when Maicon (or Dani Alves) advance forward. Thus he has width as well as retaining the element of defensive control he wants centrally. Their strength will lie on the counter-attack as evidenced by the 2nd and 3rd goals against Italy at the Confederations Cup last year:

It may be that this assymetrical approach of Brazil’s – providing a variety of threats to suit the players available – will be the tactic of this World Cup. Intriguingly however, the biggest weakness facing a side that prefers to soak up pressure and hit the opposition fast on the break, is the possibility of coming up against a side that refuses to engage and relies on ultra defensive tactics. Their first opponents will be a North Korea side that shackled Paraguay reasonably effectively last month and against whom even a 1-0 victory could bring disquiet back in Rio de Janeiro. Fascinating.

Elsewhere, we may well be looking to two of the most maligned coaches at the World Cup for the most talked about formations on view. Focus on Maradona’s handling of Messi is inevitable and will most likely remain a talking point for as long as Argentina are in the competition. The traditional Argentine 4-3-1-2 with the playmaking ‘enganche‘ as the ’1′ has been abandoned in favour of what, to English eyes, will be a very familiar 4-4-2.. even down to the defensive full-backs. Clearly the relationship between Veron and Messi will be key, but with Veron’s legs unlikely to last the pace, the real fascination could be how the formation adapts if they go deep in the competition.

Maradona’s chief rival for ‘most eccentric coach in the tournament’ is France’s Raymond Domenech and he is another capable of springing a surprise. The loss of Diarra presents a quandary for the coach and there is speculation he could utilise a 4-3-3 with Malouda and Gourcuff in midfield. This would be a significant tactical shift and an untypically attacking reaction to the problem, but in a very winnable group it could well be the making of the French side. 

There are others of course. Are Paraguay set to make a 3-4-3 work? Will North Korea’s defensive strategy be the talk of the early stages in the so-called Group of Death? Closer to home, in the possible absence of Gareth Barry could England be set to reinvent the box-to-box midfielder with Lampard and Milner in midfield?

Whatever happens in South Africa you can be sure coaches everywhere will be picking the bones out of it, analysing it and ruminating upon it for some time to come. What new problems will sides pose? What solutions can be found? We’ll soon find out, and I cannot wait…

4 comments on “Tactics at the World Cup – A Look Back and Forth

  1. Oli Baker on said:

    Great stuff Adam. I know we have discussed this before, but remarkable how similar to Brazil Mick McCarthy set up Wolves in the second half of the season, granted with slightly less marauding full backs (although Zubar at times did remind me of Maicon). Symmetry is vastly overrated isn’t it?

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  3. rupak saha on said:

    wonderful.

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