The Question: How did tactics develop in 2010? | Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson

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Aug 1, 2010
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The World Cup was merely reflective rather than innovative, showing how international football has been eclipsed

In August, I wrote a piece for the Guardian's pre-season supplement in which I speculated that, after the World Cup and Internazionale's success in the Champions League, we may be about to witness a return to reactive football. Since when we've seen probably the most attacking Premier League in living memory, which goes to show two things: first, never believe anything anybody writes when trying to predict the future of football; and second, the World Cup is no longer a bellwether.

That, perhaps, has been the most shocking aspect of the year; the realisation of just how far international football lags behind club football. It used to be that the World Cup served almost as a conference at which delegates arrived from all round the world and exchanged ideas: Brazil suddenly sprang 4-2-4 on the world at the 1958 tournament, for instance; England showed the effectiveness of 4-4-2 in 1966; Total Football, although Ajax had already won three European Cups, caught the imagination in 1974; and the success of Argentina in 1986 marked the beginning of the development of three at the back. The main lesson of this summer's tournament, though, was that 4-4-2 has been superseded by 4-2-3-1 as the universal default, something that has been apparent in club football for several years.

The formation was blamed by many for the defensiveness of the tournament, but that is to put the cart before the horse. Formations are neutral; it is their employment that gives them positive and negative characteristics. Numerous coaches preferred 4-2-3-1 because they were already set on playing defensively and it allowed them to flood the midfield while still posing a level of attacking threat through the line of three; but if the line of three consists of two wingers/wide forwards and a playmaker, it can be exhilarating, though if the three are deep-lying, it isn't.

The question then is why the mind-set was so negative, and the worrying thing is that it is probably inherent in international football. With limited time available to develop mutual understanding, most coaches focus on developing defensive cohesion. Equally, the limited number of games played in international football – around a dozen a season, of which half are friendlies – means the stakes are higher for each, and that makes managers more cautious. The result is coaches packing men behind the ball and hoping for an individual to change the game.

At the World Cup, only Spain – who have had a stable side for three years and whose players are drawn largely from two clubs and so have an understanding – and Chile – who were coached by the idiosyncratic and brilliant Marcelo Bielsa – were genuinely proactive and, as Arrigo Sacchi said, it is proactivity that makes for true greatness. Even Germany, for all the goals they scored, were essentially reactive, a very good counterattacking team. Most disappointing were the sides with a great tradition of proactive football, such as Brazil and the Netherlands, who relied on a solid base and hoped individuals could turn the game their way.

There were those who accused Spain of being boring, but what were they supposed to do when opponents sat 10 men behind the ball against them? As Peter Taylor once said in answer to criticism of Nottingham Forest: "A team cannot be boring if it has the ball." They weren't taking it into the corners or time-wasting; they were passing it around waiting for the opposition to try and get it back, something only Chile really attempted. The general negativity, resulting in a lack of quality and drama, is a serious issue for the World Cup. There hasn't been a great game since 1998 – Italy's win over Germany in the 2006 semi-finals might just about qualify as very good – and if that trend continues you wonder how long public interest will hold up.

What the World Cup does do, though, is to reflect pre-existing trends. The decline of 4-4-2 has probably been overstated – although when Michael Owen starts publicly doubting it, you know its days of absolute hegemony are over – but the use of it now is more knowing and it, too, has frequently become a defensive tactic, with two banks of four sitting deep, looking to hit two forward men with long direct passes. Even when used in a more progressive way – as, for instance, Manchester United have deployed it this season (although notably not against Arsenal or Manchester City), there has often been one striker dropping off and one of the midfielders pushing on to make a de facto fourth band, three bands having become too few with the stretching of the game brought about by the liberalisation of the offside law.

Playing three central defenders, having all but vanished with the emergence of lone striker formations, is now back as a defensive strategy, offering the security of two spare men. Uruguay used it against France at the World Cup and Algeria did so against England, while Estudiantes effectively secured the Argentinian apertura by drawing 0-0 away to second-placed Velez Sarsfield with a defensive 3-4-2-1. In the Champions League, Rangers, similarly, stymied opponents with a 5-4-1 and might, with slightly better luck and better finishing at home against Valencia, have taken second place in their group behind Manchester United.

Three at the back has also become a holding position for sides with attacking full-backs, something Chelsea began doing under Luiz Felipe Scolari, with Mikel Jon Obi often dropping in between the two central defenders as José Bosingwa and Ashley Cole pressed on. Mexico did something similar at the World Cup, but it is Barcelona who have perfected the system, Sergio Busquets regularly sitting deep between Carles Puyol and Gerard Piqué to allow Dani Alves and Maxwell the freedom to attack, providing width to outflank sides that sit deep against them. Perhaps Spain could have tried something similar with Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila at the World Cup, but such ploys take time to effect.

Barcelona also show the effectiveness of two of the other tactical trends in club football: the false nine and the inverted winger. Again, their absence at national level probably suggests the relative lack of sophistication in the international game. When Lionel Messi plays in the middle of a front three, he persistently drops off, leaving David Villa and Pedro to cut in from wide positions, so they are perpetually working on a diagonal, operating in the space between centre-back and full-back. When it works, as it has done over the past few weeks, it is devastating, and the 5-0 win over Real Madrid is likely to stand in their history as Milan's 5-0 victory over Real Madrid in the 1989 European Cup semi-final does in theirs.

That game was a joy, not least because eight of the 11 players who started for Barça had grown up through their academy (which does raise the question of how they have managed to accumulate quite so much debt). The greatest football is still that played by teams that have been nurtured and developed from an early age, so that players have an almost organic understanding of where they should move and where their team-mates are moving, and, in a world of billionaire owners looking for shop-bought success, that is a consoling thought.

Even Roman Abramovich seems to have realised that, if it is true that he approach Txiki Begiristain and asked him to turn Chelsea into Barcelona. Whether the Russian has the patience to wait the decade or so it would take for an ethos as strong as Barça's to be instilled is debatable. At national level, meanwhile, the sort of time it takes to create a team like Barça's simply doesn't exist. If there has been one lesson from 2010, it is that the gulf between club and international football is vast, and getting wider.

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