Tactical Breakdown – Has the 2010 World Cup finally put 4-4-2 to bed?
Over the last decade there has been a real tactical shift in the game. In previous generations the default formation was 4-4-2. There were of course some major exceptions such as the Dutch who were famed for their ‘Total Football’ in the Johan Cruyff era.
Of the top teams in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup (the ‘top’ teams being the nations tipped to have a realistic chance of winning the tournament prior to its beginning) there has been little evidence of the use of 4-4-2. Italy and Spain used it when they were chasing their opening games against Paraguay and Switzerland respectively. For both their second games there was also a shift with Italy striker Vincenzo Iaquinta moved from a wide position to a more central attacking role. More interestingly, with Fernando Torres fit to start in Spain’s second game against Honduras, one felt that a 4-4-2 may be used. This was not the case however as Torres started in a central striking position and David Villa operated from the left of a front three, with Jesus Navas employed from the right – a very definite 4-3-3. Similar set-ups were seen in the systems of the French, Germans, and is still traditional in the Netherlands squad.
Arguably the most impressive of the tournaments favourites so far, Argentina, also adopted a 4-3-3. This is somewhat less surprising given the array of attacking talent available to Diego Maradona. So confident are they with the strength and ability of the squad that flank players, Ángel di María and Maxi Rodriguez have been deployed in a central midfield three, rather than in the wide areas of a traditional midfield four. Fellow South Americans, Chile have been impressive in terms of their single-mindedness approach to attacking football and Uruaguay have even used their main man, Diego Forlan, in an attacking role supporting two main strikers.
The greatest traditional shift however has been the Brazilians. Historically renowned for their flair going forward, we now see them utilise a 4-2-3-1 formation. Although Brazil still have a wealth of offensive talent, what makes Dunga’s side tick is the two defensive midfield players Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva. Although not greatly required given the amount of possession Brazil had against Korea DPR, the performance of the aforementioned duo against the Ivory Coast was the platform for the Samba’s victory. Any threat the Africans posed on the counter-attack was immediately snuffed out by them. In the same group a flexible Portuguese team put seven past Korea DPR with attacking midfielders Cristiano Ronaldo and Simao Sabrosa playing off one central striker.
That brings us to England. In recent years the English game has been the butt of many a continental joke in terms of tactics. Even under the guidance of Italian Head Coach Fabio Capello, the English are the only ‘top’ team that have played a consistent 4-4-2 in South Africa. This is somewhat surprising given the nationality of their coach and his recognition that keeping possession has been one of the English frailties. Surely one would assume that any intent on keeping the ball would involve a formation where one could match-up or outnumber teams in midfield areas in particular, and hence adopt a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system. The rigid nature of their 4-4-2, along with other factors of course, left England looking radically short of ideas against the Algerians in a disappointing 0-0 draw. They do however have the ability to change things tactically if Capello so wishes as they have the key ingredients to change to an alternative formation. Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson are excellent attacking full-backs and would give the needed width required should they play with a central midfield three. Defensive midfielders, Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick could both be used as screens for the back four, akin to Gilberto and Melo. Rooney is now more than capable of playing a role up front on his own or from the left should a more traditional target-man like Heskey or Crouch be used, all with the attacking support from midfield of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. The English media is crying out for him to do so.
The shift from 4-4-2 has been a marked one, especially in the current World Cup. Apart from England, none of the ‘top’ teams have done more than dabble with the formation, and did so when chasing results. Can we assume that 4-4-2 is finally dead?