With the World Cup now deliciously within reach, Football Further looks at ten tactical issues that could have a decisive influence on the outcome of the tournament.
1. Will freshness or preparedness prevail in Group A?
Attention on the tournament’s opening group is likely to focus on the travails of Raymond Domenech’s France and the efforts of South Africa to avoid becoming the first World Cup hosts not to make it beyond the first round, but both Mexico and Uruguay go into the tournament with high ambitions and two very different approaches to preparation. Mexico, like South Africa, embarked upon an exhaustive pre-tournament schedule, with coach Javier Aguirre dragging 17 players out of the Mexican championship early and overseeing no less than 12 friendly matches since the end of February, culminating in the superb 2-1 defeat of Italy in Brussels last Thursday. In the same period, Uruguay have played just once – a 4-1 win over Israel in Montevideo on May 26. Oscar Tábarez, who led La Celeste into battle at Italia 90, says he wanted to avoid tiring his players out. “This tournament is a drain,” he said. “Whoever turns up tired gets knocked out immediately. Teams with much bigger pools of players than ours, Argentina and Brazil, have lost for neglecting this aspect.” The battle of the fresh and the fit takes place on June 22, when Uruguay and Mexico will contest a potentially decisive final group game in Rustenburg.
2. Will France’s 4-3-3 work?
As discussed in detail last week, France are expected to deploy a 4-3-3 formation that they’ve worked on for only a matter of weeks after Lassana Diarra’s withdrawal forced Domenech to ditch the 4-2-3-1 that France have used since the eve of the 2006 tournament. After an encouraging 2-1 victory against Costa Rica, France drew 1-1 with Tunisia before slumping to a 1-0 defeat by China, and there are growing calls for ineffective right-winger Sidney Govou to be replaced by Arsenal central midfielder Abou Diaby, with Florent Malouda moving forward to the left wing and Franck Ribéry switching flanks to the right.
3. Can Capello get the best out of Rooney?
Few sides at the tournament will be quite so reliant on one player and Wayne Rooney’s importance to England is so acute that their odds to win the tournament would probably soar into the stratosphere if he were to be ruled out. Happily for England, Fabio Capello appeared to discover a formula to get the very best out of the Manchester United man during qualifying, when Rooney finished as the second-top scorer in the European zone with nine goals in as many matches. Key to that formula is Emile Heskey, whose movement and industry create the space for Rooney and Steven Gerrard to get on the ball in dangerous areas. “It’s actually mainly at club level I’ve been [playing more] in front of goal; with England I’ve been playing off Heskey, in the hole, and then when we haven’t got the ball, either me or Steven Gerrard go out and defend for the team on the left,” Rooney explains in this month’s edition of FourFourTwo. With neither Peter Crouch nor Jermain Defoe advancing particularly strong cases for a starting berth in England’s warm-up games, Heskey’s fitness might prove just as important to England’s hopes of success as Rooney’s.
4. Will Maradona go with three at the back?
Win, lose or draw, Diego Maradona will make the headlines whatever happens in South Africa, but after presiding over a chaotic qualification campaign he will lead his beloved country into battle with a strong sense of how he wants them to play. Argentina’s 1-0 win in Germany in March momentarily wrong-footed the critics who feel Maradona shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the dugout and the man himself immediately announced that he would keep faith with the XI that started that game in Munich. His thinking appears to have evolved since then, however, and speculation suggests he is ready to ditch his advertised four-man defence for a back three supported by Jonás Gutiérrez as a right wing-back; thereby allowing Carlos Tévez to take his place alongside Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuaín in a potentially explosive front three.
5. Will Dunga’s vision for Brazil be vindicated?
This World Cup has been a long time coming for Brazil. Dunga has espoused very clear ideas about the tactical configuration of his side since the day he took over in July 2006 and to date he has enjoyed great success, winning the 2007 Copa América, the 2009 Confederations Cup and qualifying for the World Cup with ease. Everyone knows how his team plays: with two defensive midfielders protecting the back four, attacking full-backs (Maicon and Michel Bastos) on both sides, a midfield shuttler (either Ramires or Elano) towards the right, Kaká directing the attacking play and Robinho playing from the left in support of Luís Fabiano. So far it’s worked like a charm, but Brazil were just as heavily fancied at the last World Cup and their unexpected quarter-final exit heralded an abrupt end to the international careers of some of the country’s greatest ever players.
6. How will Chile’s 3-3-1-3 formation fare?
Marcelo Bielsa’s youthful Chile side were one of the revelations of the South American qualifying competition, scoring 32 goals in their 18 matches (just one less than Brazil) and booking their World Cup place in style for the first time since 2002. Mastery of the flanks is one of the key components of Bielsa’s system, with Udinese livewire Alexis Sánchez and former Liverpool man Mark González playing wide alongside central striker Humberto Suazo and the magnificent Matías Fernández in the hole. It will likely be the most unorthodox system on show in South Africa and Bielsa will need no reminding that when he tried it with his native Argentina in 2002, the result was abject failure.
7. Can Spain get the balance right?
As they demonstrated anew in their 6-0 mauling of Poland on Tuesday night, Spain are as well-oiled a side as has ever pitched up at the sport’s showpiece event. The names of their star players roll off the tongue with beguiling ease but Vicente del Bosque has a difficult decision to make about the balance of his team. A 4-1-3-2 would allow him to deploy David Villa and fit-again Fernando Torres in attack but leaves the side looking top-heavy, while a 4-2-3-1 (with Torres’s place likely taken by defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets) would suggest that Del Bosque subscribes to the theory that Villa and Torres can occasionally get in each other’s way.
8. Will 4-2-3-1 continue to dominate?
Three of the four semi-finalists in Germany in 2006 - Italy, France and Portugal – built their success on largely orthodox 4-2-3-1 formations, with the hosts the only representatives in the last four to have tried anything different (a 4-4-2 with midfield diamond). Brazil’s unbalanced 4-2-2-2 broke in two at Zinedine Zidane’s hands in the quarter-finals, while Argentina’s 4-3-1-2 only took them as far as an unedifying penalty shootout defeat to the Germans in the last eight.
9. How many three-man defences will we see?
Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, New Zealand and North Korea are all contenders to start the campaign with a three-man defence, while both Italy and Argentina have also flirted with the idea. “The three-man defence is not just a myth, but it is a potential option,” said Italy coach Marcello Lippi last month. “You’ll see a team capable of changing during a match to different systems.” With so many sides likely to line up with only one central forward, if three-man defences prosper at the 2010 World Cup it could mark the beginning of a significant new tactical trend.
10. Will there be any innovation?
The World Cup used to the ultimate breeding ground for tactical developments. Brazil premiered the 4-2-4 at the 1958 World Cup and the world quickly followed suit, only for Alf Ramsey to move things on again eight years later when his ‘Wingless Wonders’ gave birth to the modern 4-4-2. Holland’s 1-3-3-3 and attendant tactical discipline made a huge impression, both sporting and cultural, in 1974, but in recent years innovation has given way to conformism.