Flexible systems pave path to glory

Three-tiered formations on their way towards exit
Last Updated 13 July 2010, 16:33 IST

In many ways, the tournament did little more, in tactical terms, than confirm what is already apparent from the leading club teams -- the era of traditional 4-4-2, and indeed any three-tiered formation, is over.

Spain, Netherlands, Germany and Uruguay all played variations on the same theme with four defenders, two organising -- or holding -- midfielders, three mostly attacking players and a single striker.

It is the system that has served Barcelona so well in European and Spanish football and which has been copied by many others. With so few secrets left in the game, it is hardly surprising there has not been any real innovation at the finals.

"The tendency is clearly now to play with three behind a single striker, call it 4-2-3-1. Germany do it very well, Spain as well," former Inter Milan defender and Italian television analyst Giuseppe Bergomi said.

"The trend is certainly towards playing a lot of attacking players behind the striker but they have to be players who help out the rest of the team," he said.

The benefits of the flexible formation, with a single striker and an 'offensive line' in support ahead of the two defensive midfielders, is that it allows for the kind of swift changing of positions Spain have flourished with. Fernando Torres or David Villa have played the sole striker role but with Andres Iniesta, Pedro and Xavi buzzing behind the front man, the opposition have had their work cut out keeping up with Spain's short passing game.

The system relies on having players, like Dutchman Wesley Sneijder, who can be equally effective at tracking back and grafting as they can be, eyeing goal, in the final third.
"They have to be able to play in two phases of the game -- with possession and without possession. When the team doesn't have the ball, they have to get back and run, close down the opposition," said Bergomi. "They can't just stay up front anymore."

"You could see the difference in Germany v Argentina. Germany had players who were involved in both phases, Argentina had too many players who didn't think about defensive work and they paid for that -- Germany punished them," he added, referring to the 4-0 win.

The most evident example of such a dual-purpose forward is Germany's Lukas Podolski -- once a traditional striker, now a wide player who cuts in to support Miroslav Klose when Germany break forward but who works back, even as deep as fullback, when they need to defend.

On a more defensive note, Paraguay showed that a lot can still be gained from closing down and getting men behind the ball as soon as possession is lost.

Gerardo Martino's team took former Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi's old notion of 'pressing' to a new level with support strikers effectively marking the opposition's fullbacks.

Bergomi said the only truly novel tactic he saw at the World Cup, at least in the modern context, was from Mexico who used centre half Rafael Marquez in front of two central defenders.

"One of the few things I saw new was what Mexico produced with on paper a back four but with Marquez in front of them allowing them to have two fullbacks who really pushed down the flanks," he said.

The teams who played static formations struggled.
England's 'old school' 4-4-2, allied with Italian caution from their coach Fabio Capello, looked badly dated. New Zealand's long ball game was allied with a good enough defence to earn three draws but looked to be from another era.

The exchange of information is so quick and widespread these days in the global game that there are very few obvious regional differences which Japan showed by playing the same system as Spain with Keisuke Honda playing the lone striker role.

It will be fascinating to see whether the current four-tier flexible formation survives until the next World Cup finals being hosted by Brazil in 2014 but it is hard to see a return to the rigid 4-4-2 that dominated the game for so long.

(Published 13 July 2010, 16:33 IST)

Follow us on