World Cup tactics: Don’t neglect the holding role

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.

Germany's average positions in the 4-0 quarter-final victory over Argentina; FIFA.com

“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.

22 Responses to “World Cup tactics: Don’t neglect the holding role”

  • Well put. A balanced pair of holders beat a pair of nigglers or a single holder anytime, anywhere.

    One legacy this worldcup leaves is the “massification” of analysis with Fifa.com and Opta statistics by blogs – in particular the actual positioning maps. (I’ve caught myself watching games counting down to minutes 15, 30, 45, when the fifa maps would be updated on the Matchcast). Some of the analysis is either misguided or too obvious, but you kind of hit the nail on the head here.

    For me, as a South American, it will be a “what if” tournament. “What if” Dunga had a Plan B, “What if” Veron had played…

    Looking forward to the appointment of the next coaches in both countries – if Leonardo and Martino take over (as seems to be the preferred choice of local presses) we’re in for a tactical leap and perhaps two unstoppable teams. But if popular clamor prevails and the backwards, tactically naive and “group guys” Scolari (back again) and Maradona are granted reprieves, I doubt how much of an evolution South America will present in the World Cup it hostst in 2014.

  • It’s almost come to the conclusion that you need a “double six” as Germany call it. Two players with the understanding and discipline to make it tight in front of the centre-backs although not necessarily a defensive ploy.

    It is a launchpad for stopping and starting attacks and it allows the key defensive plans in the modern game – being compact, allowing the correct pressing patters and distances.

    Can Spain play Xavi deeper? – because the contradiction is that attack is their key form of defence and in that sense they’ve looked slightly more vulnerable than in the Euro’s (plus their opposition haven’t exactly been stellar opponents). Still Busquets playing deep to mak2 the “False 10″ of Ozil wll be key v Germany.

  • [...] Yes, they’re all European — but the other thing all three teams left in the World Cup share are shapes featuring two deep but complimentary midfielders…one creative, one holding. “[I]t 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.” (Tom Williams/Football Further) [...]

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Manda D., Andi Mohr. Andi Mohr said: World Cup tactics: Don’t neglect the holding role: As in 2006, three of the four semi-finalists at this year’s Wor… http://bit.ly/cbgxOB [...]

  • JR:

    Where did you find the passing distribution and other charts on the FIFA website? Can you give me a step by step guide to navigate there? I found the match report and possession but I can’t find the passing distribution chart. Thanks.

  • Tom:

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    JR, you need to look for the ‘Match Documents’ section towards the bottom of FIFA’s match overview page:

    http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/matches/round=249719/match=300061512/index.html

    Click ‘More’ and you get a list of all the post-match data FIFA provides, including heat maps, passing statistics and average position diagrams:

    http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/matches/round=249719/match=300061512/documents.html

  • Your comments on the need for a composed central midfielder is one that ZonalMarking has been saying for a bit I think, do you think Michael Carrick is the man who can do that job? Do you think it’s just a matter of fact that England are just devoid of any central midfielders who look to just keep possession?

    From the games played, it’s obvious to see the benefits of playing a 4-2-3-1. It’s flexible and you can control midfield – which nowadays seems to be half the battle.

    Also Tom, you may be interested in this article I did which looked into how Germany capitalised on Argentina’s imbalance, particularly near the end, where Mascherano got moved around, creating space.

    http://timhi.wordpress.com/2010/07/06/germany-argentina-report/

    • I missed out the words ‘for England’ in that first sentence, otherwise it sounds like Michael Carrick can somehow play for every country in the World.

      • Tom:

        I’d love to see Carrick given more of a chance with England, but he never looks the same as he does in a Manchester United shirt when he plays in international matches (and he did suffer an alarming slump in form last season). I think it’s very revealing that Fabio Capello tried to tempt Paul Scholes out of retirement for the World Cup. He was clearly well aware of the likely shortcomings in England’s midfield without someone capable of establishing a passing rhythm.

        I think England’s failure to produce classic holding midfielders is a direct result of the way British kids play football. If you start playing football on a full-size pitch at the age of 11, 12 or 13, the players who stand out are obviously going to be the most physically developed kids who cover the most ground. It’s precisely that approach that prevents more patient, technically gifted youngsters from shining and it’s probably why England simply doesn’t produce players like Alonso and Andrea Pirlo. Scholes is the closest thing England has, and he started his career as a second striker.

  • Whilst, Germany’s formation can be classified as 4-2-3-1, I doubt whether the central midfielders can be classified as holding midfielders. Admittedly, Schweinsteiger and Khedira form a fairly flat central midfield duo, but they are anything but holding midfielders in the conventional sense. Neither plays the role of purely sitting in front of the back four, the manner in which van Bommel and de Jong have done for the Dutch or Alonso and Busquets have done for Spain. They both seem fairly dynamic and although the box-to-box midfielder is a virtually extinct breed, I think we’ve seen some of those qualities embodied by both Schweinsteiger and Khedira.

    • Tom:

      A good observation and an important distinction. I guess it reinforces the point that, to really make a 4-2-3-1 work, you need multi-faceted players in central midfield who are comfortable going forwards and backwards.

  • [...] 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 … Read More [...]

  • JR:

    Tom,

    Thanks man those are awesome documents. Are FIFA matches (major ones only I assume as well) the only organization that produces documents like this or does the EPL, La Liga, UEFA produce them as well (and where)?/

    New to the site and love it. Keep up the good work.

  • Great article. I thought that Busquets was fantastic again tonight, he and Xabi Alonso pressed so well throughout the match.

    All that pressing and composure on the ball in the Spanish midfield must be demoralising to play against. The German midfield, who have looked fantastic in this World Cup were suffocated and passed to death by this great Spanish side.

  • keano:

    Good points you have made here. And still Spain managed to suffocate our (i.e. Germany’s) midfield altogether last night.
    I just have to disagree on your classification of the German team 4 years ago as “…a 4-4-2 hinged upon a midfield diamond…” It’s been a prettybig issue in the German media back then that Ballack convinced Klinsmann to withdraw him to a DM position after the disastrous 4:1 defeat in a friendly in Italy earlier that year, thus sacrificing his goal scoring chances in order to give the team more defensive stability. So basically Germany were playing a 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders (Frings the tackler/Ballack the passer) and two offensive minded wide midfielders (Schneider on the right and Schweinsteiger on the left).
    It worked quite well, too.

  • yeah ok but it’s not that easy, you know… it doesn’t mean i won’t try…

  • Tsamina mina eh, eh
    Waka waka eh, eh
    Tsamina mina zangalewa
    This time for Africa

    bravo spain…
    spain will be the next champion..

  • dearieme:

    “bravo spain…”: I agree entirely. But bravo Germany too – fine performances, lovely teamwork, it needed an excellent side to knock them out.

  • [...] and the development of formations suggests that the 4-4-2 can no longer always be effective. The 4-2-3-1 allows players to play between the lines, and as demonstrated at the World Cup in South Africa the more fluid sides dominated, with both [...]

  • Excellent article, sorry I am a bit late in coming to it! It was good to see how the better teams set up their two deep-lying central midfielders in this World Cup, definitely. In fact I can’t remember a World Cup where it has been so crucial to progression.

    The only thing I’d disagree with slightly is regarding the German pairing of Khedira and Schweinsteiger; rather than a more straightforward destroyer/ball player combination like Spain, they seemed to me to be covering both jobs equally. I think Khedira, out of the two, was the one playing further up the field and more likely to be found in the final third, although admittedly when Schweinsteiger attacked it was usually more productive.

  • [...] with the formation that has emerged as the shape of choice for the top international sides over the course of the last two World Cups. Rudi Garcia has re-jigged his midfield in the last two games to accommodate for the absence of the [...]

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