On the eve of the World Cup, Football Further asked whether the 4-2-3-1 formation would continue to dominate as it did at the last tournament in 2006. The average position diagrams below, taken from all eight last-16 matches, demonstrate that while it remains the most popular shape in the international game, variations in tactics mean that it is being deployed in very different ways.
Uruguay began the competition as predicted by playing in a 3-4-1-2 but after a dour goalless draw with France in their opening game they shifted to a flat back four, with Jorge Fucile shuffling along to left-back from central defence, Alvaro Pereira pushed forward from left wing-back into a genuine left-midfield role and Edinson Cavani brought in on the right side of the attack in place of playmaker Ignacio González. Reading of the formation depends on Diego Forlán’s positioning. He tends to play much deeper than Suárez, and slightly to the left, turning the shape into a 4-3-1-2, but Cavani’s tendency to pull wide means he often operates on roughly the same line as Forlán, with Suárez left to lead the line alone.
[Squad numbers: 1. Fernando Muslera; 16. Maxi Pereira, 2. Diego Lugano, 3. Diego Godin, 4. Jorge Fucile; 15. Diego Pérez, 17. Egidio Arévalo Ríos, 11. Alvaro Pereira; 7. Edinson Cavani, 10. Diego Forlán; 9. Luis Suárez]
Ghana’s shape on paper is a 4-2-3-1, but the system allows Kevin-Prince Boateng – nominally one of the two holding midfielders – to exploit space ahead of him when he sees it, as he did when he scored the opening goal in the fifth minute of the last-16 win against the United States. Boateng and Kwadwo Asamoah also worked tremendously hard to press the US high up the pitch, meaning that Boateng rarely remained in a fixed position. A look at the average position data reveals that Ghana’s defenders played closer to the halfway line in the first half of their round-of-16 match than those of any other side in the last eight.
[Squad numbers: 22. Richard Kingson; 4. John Pantsil, 8. Jonathan Mensah, 5. John Mensah, 2. Hans Sarpei; 6. Anthony Annan, 23. Kevin-Prince Boateng; 7. Samuel Inkoom, 21. Kwadwo Asamoah, 13. André Ayew; 3. Asamoah Gyan]
Gone are the days when Holland’s 4-3-3 formation went down on the team-sheet before the players’ names. Their 4-2-3-1, established under Marco van Basten, boasts all the classic components of the system; namely two tough-tackling defensive midfielders, a creative mastermind in the number 10 shirt and a dextrous centre-forward capable of playing with his back to goal. Wesley Sneijder tends to play towards the left anyway, but Arjen Robben’s return to the starting line-up against Slovakia saw the whole Dutch attack shift to the left to give the Bayern Munich man space to charge into from the right flank. Robben’s return forced Bert van Marwijk to move Dirk Kuyt across the pitch to the left side, where his industry and positional awareness give him the edge over the more mercurial Rafael van der Vaart.
[Squad numbers: 1. Maarten Stekelenburg; 2. Gregory van der Wiel, 3. John Heitinga, 4. Joris Mathijsen, 5. Giovanni van Bronckhorst; 8. Nigel de Jong, 6. Mark van Bommel; 11. Arjen Robben, 10. Wesley Sneijder, 7. Dirk Kuyt; 9. Robin van Persie]
Brazil’s formation has been variously described as a 4-2-3-1, a 4-4-2 with midfield diamond and a 4-3-1-2. Key to this confusion is the role of the right-sided midfield carillero, who operates slightly in advance of the two midfield holding players but not quite as high up the pitch as playmaker Kaká and left-sided attacker Robinho. In the 3-0 victory over Chile, the role was filled by Daniel Alves. Elano brought goalscoring thrust to the position in Brazil’s opening two group games, but picked up an ankle injury in the 3-1 defeat of the Ivory Coast that makes him doubtful for the quarter-final against the Dutch. With holding midfielder Felipe Melo (ankle) also potentially unavailable and Ramires suspended, Dunga may have to tinker with the finely calibrated balance of his central midfield triumvirate.
[Squad numbers: 1. Júlio César; 2. Maicon, 3. Lúcio, 4. Juan, 6. Michel Bastos; 8. Gilberto Silva, 18. Ramires; 13. Daniel Alves, 10. Kaká, 11. Robinho; 9. Luís Fabiano]
Having jettisoned his stated plan to field four centre-backs across the back in the opening two group games, Diego Maradona returned to the system for Argentina’s last two matches and now looks set to stick with it. A concern for Argentina must be the isolation of Javier Mascherano in central midfield, with Maxi Rodríguez and, in particular, Ángel Di María both more used to playing as wide-midfielders than in more central roles. Lionel Messi’s lack of success in front of goal can partly be explained by the fact that he is playing much deeper than he usually does for Barcelona. In fact, his role as an old-fashioned playmaker means Argentina are currently using a very similar system to the one they adopted at the last World Cup, when Juan Román Riquelme sported the number 10 shirt and Javier Saviola proved a quicksilver foil for number nine Hernán Crespo in attack.
[Squad numbers: 22. Sergio Romero; 15. Nicolás Otamendi, 2. Martín Demichelis, 4. Nicolás Burdisso, 6. Gabriel Heinze; 20. Maxi Rodríguez, 14. Javier Mascherano, 7. Ángel Di María; 10. Lionel Messi; 9. Gonzalo Higuaín, 11. Carlos Tévez]
Few observers can have been left in any doubt as to the efficacity of Germany’s game after they obliterated England in the last 16. The cunning movement of Mesut Özil and Miroslav Klose dragged England’s lumbering central defenders all over the place, creating ample space for the darting inward runs of wide players Lukas Podolski and two-goal Thomas Müller.
[Squad numbers: 1. Manuel Neuer; 16. Philipp Lahm, 17. Per Mertesacker, 3. Arne Friedrich, 20. Jérôme Boateng; 6. Sami Khedira, 7. Bastian Schweinsteiger; 13. Thomas Müller, 8. Mesut Özil, 10. Lukas Podolski; 11. Miroslav Klose]
Like Uruguay, Parguay shelved their initial system after their opening group game. Lucas Barrios and his Borussia Dortmund club-mate Nelson Haedo Valdez were left isolated in a rather stiff 4-4-2 during their opening 1-1 draw with Italy, so coach Gerardo Martino switched to a 4-3-3 that saw left-winger Aureliano Torres replaced by centre-forward Roque Santa Cruz. Full-back Claudio Morel now provides much of the width on the left, with Enrique Vera – who scored a lovely goal in the 2-0 defeat of Slovakia in Parguay’s second group game – the link man between midfield and attack.
[Squad numbers: 1. Justo Villar; 6. Carlos Bonet, 14. Paulo da Silva, 21. Antolín Alcaraz, 3. Claudio Morel; 13. Enrique Vera, 20. Néstor Ortigoza, 16. Cristian Riveros; 9. Roque Santa Cruz, 19. Lucas Barrios, 10. Édgar Benítez]
One of the quandaries confronting Vicente Del Bosque prior to the tournament was how to accommodate David Villa and Fernando Torres in the Spanish XI without sacrificing the compactness of their now well-established 4-2-3-1 shape. Torres was left out of the starting line-up for the shock 1-0 defeat to Switzerland, but when he returned to the side against Honduras, Del Bosque moved Villa into a wide left position with Jesús Navas on the opposite flank. Villa has shone in the role, with four goals in his last three games turning him into the tournament’s joint-top scorer. Andrés Iniesta took Navas’s place for the 1-0 victory over Portugal and Del Bosque looks determined to proceed with the patient approach that wore down Spain’s opponents at Euro 2008 – epitomised by the probing passing of Xavi and Iniesta – rather than balancing the right side of the attack with a more direct attacking midfielder like Navas or David Silva.
[Squad numbers: 1. Iker Casillas; 15. Sergio Ramos, 3. Gerard Piqué, 5. Carles Puyol, 11. Joan Capdevila; 16. Sergio Busquets, 14. Xabi Alonso; 6. Andrés Iniesta, 8. Xavi, 7. David Villa; 9. Fernando Torres]
Thanks to Olga Skachko, you can also read this piece in Belarusian.