At the dawn of the tournament Football Further posed ten tactical questions that the World Cup would answer. Three days after Spain’s tense extra-time victory over the Netherlands in the final, the answers to those questions reflect a tournament in which defensive rigour was overwhelmingly de riguer and tactical innovation conspicious by its rarity.
1. Will freshness or preparedness prevail in Group A?
Having played just one game in the build-up to the tournament – a 4-1 win over Israel in Montevideo on May 26 - Uruguay took control of Group A before scrapping their way to the last four for the first time since 1970. How much of that was down to their fitness, and not the obliging manner in which the big teams benignly opened up the path to the semi-finals, is debatable. Mexico played 12 preparation matches and also made it out of the group phase, while their 3-1 defeat by Argentina in the last 16 showed no discernible signs of fatigue.
2. Will France’s 4-3-3 work?
How to put this? Not only did France’s 4-3-3 fail to work, but Raymond Domenech lost all faith in it before the tournament had even started. In their opening game, a 0-0 draw with Uruguay, they reverted to their tried and tested (if not actually effective) 4-2-3-1, with Jérémy Toulalan and Abou Diaby in the holding midfield roles and Yoann Gourcuff as the playmaker. The 4-2-3-1 remained in place for the 2-0 defeat by Mexico, but this time with Franck Ribéry in the playmaking role (to which he is wholly unsuited) and Nicolas Anelka reprising his great disappearing centre-forward act until matters came to a head at half-time. It was not until the 2-1 loss to South Africa that the long-awaited 4-3-3 finally made its appearance, but by then it was already too late. Over to you, Monsieur Blanc.
3. Can Capello get the best out of Rooney?
A resounding and quite puzzling no. As Wayne Rooney said before the tournament, the key to England’s shape in qualifying had been the way he played “in the hole” behind Emile Heskey, with either he or Steven Gerrard pulling wide to the left flank in the defensive phase. So why did England end up playing in the most rigid 4-4-2 seen at the tournament, with Rooney apparently under strict instructions to remain alongside his strike partner at all times? The abject wretchedness of the Manchester United striker’s performances in South Africa may have owed as much to injury, fatigue and psychological discomfort as anything else, but he was not assisted by Fabio Capello’s bizarre and self-defeating tactical inflexibility.
4. Will Maradona go with three at the back?
The team-sheet for Argentina’s opening game, a misleadingly narrow-sounding 1-0 win over Nigeria, suggested as much, but wing-back Jonás Gutiérrez actually played as a fairly conventional right-back. The introduction of Nicolás Otamendi in the third group game against Greece saw Maradona switch to his pre-tournament plan of fielding four centre-backs in defence, but it was in deviating from the midfield configuration that he had tested prior to the tournament that Argentina fell apart. Fielding a third forward instead of Juan Sebastián Verón* left the team bereft of a means of imposing their own rhythm on the game, placing far too much of the creative burden squarely on Lionel Messi’s shoulders and creating a sizeable void in the middle of the formation through which Germany were more than happy to stride. (* With 67.3 percent of his passes finding their intended target, Verón completed a higher percentage of passes than any player in the tournament except Xavi and Sergio Busquets.)
5. Will Dunga’s vision for Brazil be vindicated?
Emphatically, no. Brazil’s system worked efficiently enough in the group stage and the 3-0 defeat of Chile in the last 16, but their over-reliance on one or two sublimely talented attacking players to win matches on their own meant they were ill-equipped to react when circumstances unforeseeably conspired against them. Cue the second half of the quarter-final with the Netherlands. Had Maarten Stekelenburg not pulled off one of the saves of the tournament to deny Kaká in the first half, Brazil would have taken a 2-0 lead into half-time and had one foot in the last four. But when things began to fall apart in the second half, their purely counter-attacking set-up meant they were unable to re-establish control of the game. The result was that they bowed out of the World Cup deploying some unedifying (and very un-Brazilian) kick-and-rush tactics in the absence of any apparent alternatives. This World Cup aside, Dunga’s tenure was a spectacular success. His undoing in South Africa proved to be a lack of concentration and discipline from his players at some pivotal moments, as well the lack of any kind of Plan B. “It was a tie that hinged on little details, but that’s what the World Cup is all about,” said a forlorn Kaká.
6. How will Chile’s 3-3-1-3 formation fare?
Marcelo Bielsa’s side charmed the neutrals with their expansive, relentlessly attacking style until they were perhaps predictably picked off by Brazil in the last 16. In a tournament strangled by defensive play, Chile proved that it was possible to achieve success by taking risks and committing players forward. “Right or wrong, we tried to impose our methods within the idea of some noble play,” said Bielsa. Paradoxically, the Argentine’s side were undone by their profligacy in front of goal. Despite having scored 32 goals in qualifying (one less than Brazil), they managed just two in South Africa. Had they prevailed more handsomely in the 1-0 victories over Honduras and Switzerland (two matches that they dominated) they could quite conceivably have topped Group H ahead of Spain and avoided Brazil in the second round.
7. Can Spain get the balance right?
Spain’s shape changed throughout the tournament and their ultimate triumph bore testament to Vicente del Bosque’s ability to adapt his tactics to what was happening on the pitch. David Villa enjoyed a superb tournament, but only when he was playing in a Robinho-style position on the left flank. He scored against Chile (twice), Honduras, Portugal and Paraguay when playing from the left but failed to shine in a lone striking role in the shock opening loss to Switzerland and the narrow victories over Germany and the Netherlands in the semi-finals and final. Villa was moved to the left in order to accommodate Fernando Torres at the point of the attack, but when Torres failed to find form, Pedro came in and Villa moved back into the centre. Jesús Navas brought pace and width to the side in the 2-0 defeat of Honduras in Spain’s second game but was promptly dropped and did not re-appear until the second half of the final. The introduction of Navas and Cesc Fabregas swung the balance of the final in Spain’s favour, with both players helping to set up Andrés Iniesta’s winning goal. Del Bosque had an incredibly talented squad to select from, but one of the reasons for Spain’s success was his ability to make the right changes at the right time.
8. Will 4-2-3-1 continue to dominate?
Yes. As in 2006, three of the four semi-finalists (Spain, Germany and the Netherlands) played in a 4-2-3-1, while Uruguay’s shape changed from a 3-4-1-2 to a 4-3-1-2 and ultimately a slightly lopsided 4-4-2. All the sides that reached the last four deployed two central midfielders and a pair of wide players, while the role of the central attacking midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 evolved into something more closely resembling a turbo-charged Brazilian-style number 10 such as Kaká or Zico.
9. How many three-man defences will we see?
Not as many as advertised. Italy, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, New Zealand and North Korea were all rumoured to be considering using a three-man defence but in the end, only Chile, New Zealand and North Korea did so consistently. However, with so many teams using only one central forward, it can only be a matter of time before more sides muster the courage to play with only three at the back.
10. Will there be any innovation?
Chile aside, there was nothing groundbreaking and the continued dominance of the 4-2-3-1 is unlikely to convince many national coaches to send their teams out in unconventional shapes. One interesting modification to the 4-2-3-1 was the way Brazil and Spain slanted their band of attacking midfielders, with both sides using a much more attacking player on the left (Robinho, Villa) than on the other side. Spain’s ‘Death by Tiki-taka’ passing style was the most enduring tactical approach at the World Cup, but it is practically impossible to emulate. Not since the Netherlands in 1974 has a successful side relied on so many players from one particular club and the key to the system’s efficacity was the highly developed level of understanding (the French word automatisme seems more fitting) between the Barcelona contingent in the Spanish line-up. It can only be hoped that the sterile play that dominated much of the tournament gives way to something a bit more enterprising in Brazil in 2014, when Italy, France, Holland, England, Argentina and, most notably, the hosts themselves will all be striving to re-assert their footballing identities.