As in 2006, three of the four semi-finalists at this year’s World Cup have played in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
For France, Portugal and Italy (whose 4-2-3-1 could also be interpreted as a 4-4-1-1) in 2006, read Spain, Germany and the Netherlands in 2010. Germany were the black sheep in 2006, with a 4-4-2 hinged upon a midfield diamond that featured Torsten Frings at the base and Michael Ballack at the tip. Uruguay are the odd ones out this time around, their 3-4-1-2 having initially morphed into a 4-3-1-2/4-3-2-1 and then a 4-4-2 for the semi-final defeat to Holland.
One of the most distinctive elements of the 4-2-3-1 is the presence of two deep-lying central midfielders in front of the defence. Spain, Germany and the Netherlands are not the only teams to have fielded two such players, but what has made their midfield configurations so effective is the way they have paired players with different qualities.
Bastian Schweinsteiger pulls the strings for Germany alongside the more conservative Sami Khedira, while Xabi Alonso’s effortless midfield organising for Spain is shrewdly complemented by the graft and positional awareness of Sergio Busquets. Holland’s pairing usually features two predominantly destructive players, in the shape of Nigel de Jong and arch-niggler Mark van Bommel, but van Bommel is also a direct, highly motivated player and his barrelling runs into the opposition half are often the launchpad for the team’s attacks.
“Yes, I do the dirty work. And so what?” said van Bommel of his role earlier in the tournament. “A football team cannot just contain 11 dancers.”
With de Jong suspended against Uruguay, Demy de Zeeuw came into the team alongside van Bommel but adopted more of a positive role than the man he replaced usually does. Before being replaced at half-time by Rafael van der Vaart he didn’t play a single pass to either of his centre-backs or van Bommel, with Wesley Sneijder (nine) and Dirk Kuyt (five) the most frequent recipients of his passes. Van der Vaart, unsurprisingly, was even more attacking, spending 21 percent of his time in the opposition third (compared to seven percent for de Zeeuw) and turning the 4-2-3-1 into a 4-1-4-1. Van der Vaart’s introduction did not exactly change the game, but it did enable Bert van Marwijk’s side to establish more of a foothold in the Uruguay half.
The contrast with some of the fancied teams that failed to live up to the pre-tournament hype is stark. Brazil put their faith in a purely combative pairing of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo, and although Melo showcased the finer aspects of his game with the sublime pass that set up Robinho’s opening goal against the Netherlands, he reverted to type later in the game with an inexcusable stamp on Arjen Robben that brought his tournament to an abrupt conclusion. Brazil’s lack of invention in deep, central areas was unignorable in the latter stages of their defeat to the Dutch, as they walloped aimless passes down the flanks and hopeless high balls into the box in perhaps the most glaring betrayal of their footballing heritage of the entire Dunga era.
Argentina did have a creative, deep-lying midfielder in their squad, but Diego Maradona, seduced by the fire-power on show in his all new Tévez-Messi-Higuaín attack, elected to leave Juan Sebastián Verón on the bench for the quarter-final massacre at the hands of Joachim Löw’s Germany. By selecting Tévez instead of Verón – contrary to his pre-tournament intentions – Maradona left Javier Mascherano completely isolated against Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Mesut Özil in the centre of midfield.
With genuine wide players in Ángel di María and Maxi Rodríguez either side of him, Mascherano was in no position to stem the waves of German attacks that relentlessly rolled towards him and the final score amply reflected Maradona’s failure to anticipate this numerical imbalance in central midfield. Maradona told Di María and Rodríguez to switch flanks early in the first half in an apparent bid to narrow the midfield, but by then they were already chasing the game.
“We expected the Argentine line-up and knew Messi would fall back into midfield,” explained Löw, after Maradona’s strategy played straight into his hands. The fact that Spain also set themselves up in a 4-2-3-1 means it is almost inconceivable that Germany could over-run them in the same way in Wednesday’s second semi-final.
Germany had much the same joy against England, who were once again made to pay for the strange English inability to produce genuine holding midfielders. Gareth Barry was the man in the Mascherano role in Bloemfontein, the only remotely defensive midfield player in Fabio Capello’s oddly rigid 4-4-2, and the image of Özil flying past him like an Audi overtaking a milk float en route to setting up Germany’s fourth will live long in the memory of any English fan who had the misfortune to witness it.
The examples of Brazil, Argentina and England demonstrate that it is very difficult to establish control of a game without a composed player operating in central areas who is capable of picking a pass and either slowing or raising the tempo when necessary. Deploying two destroyers leaves a team bereft of that control in the middle of the pitch and unheathily dependent on their forwards for inspiration. Deploying just one nominally defensive midfielder against a well-equipped 4-2-3-1, as both England and Argentina can testify, can often be a sure-fire shortcut to humiliation.