Tactical Breakdown – How were World Cup giants Spain beaten and Brazil humbled?

Many pundits have derided the standard of the football in the opening round of group matches in the World Cup, with the onus seemingly on negative, defensive football. It poses the question, just why has there been so few goals and why have we been so lacking in terms of entertainment.

One major factor for this is that teams are playing more and more on the counter-attack. They defend deep, and in numbers, looking to win the ball back in defensive positions and spring into attack when their opponents have over-committed. In sporting terms, one could compare it to basketball tactics. To use a boxing analogy, weaker teams know that if they go toe-to-toe with their stronger opponents, they will be knocked out – they need to box clever. In effect then, teams create a defensive ‘block’, forcing the opposition to attempt, as coaches now call it, to “beat the block”. The block imposes a defensive wall where the defending team lets their opponent have possession, but only in areas of the pitch where it will least hurt them, i.e. in their own defensive third and often into the middle third. Once the team advances into dangerous areas, they will not be allowed play through the middle of the defence and be forced to go wide. Arguably the most recent high-profile example of this was used by Inter Milan in the semi-final second-leg of this season’s Champions League. So far in South Africa, two teams have used this tactic with some success.

The first that we will look at here is Korea DPR’s performance against Brazil. Predictions suggested that the South Americans would simply be too good for their Asian counterparts – a complete footballing mismatch. Korea DPR however had a plan. Worrying about what brilliance Kaka or Robinho could conjure up would get them nowhere. Focusing on what they themselves could do in the game however could see them reap the rewards. In the run up to the tournament, their domestic league was halted and the national side spent months together to prepare for the insurmountable task of South Africa’s “Group of Death”. They arrived in Johannesburg on June 15 disciplined, ready and with a game plan. Tactically they set up with five defenders and packed their midfield with the intent of stifling the space for Kaka and company – and it worked. They forced the play wide where full-backs Maicon and Michel Bastos advanced to give Brazil much needed width. It eventually took a debateable goal from Maicon to break the deadlock. From Korea DPR’s perspective, goalkeeper Ri Myong-Guk will be disappointed that he has conceded at his near post, whether Maicon’s attempt was intentional or not. Once Brazil had scored they could relax more and a delightful penetrative pass from Robinho set-up Elano to finish neatly on 72 minutes. There was however a final minute twist that would reward the Koreans for their excellent performance as Ji Yun-Nam burst through the Brazilian rear-guard to fire beyond Julio Cesar. The game finished with Brazil having 63% possession and out-shooting their adversaries 26 to 11, but with the ‘block’ in place, only narrowly edging out Korea DPR.

The next day, favourites for the title Spain took on underdogs Switzerland. Although using an alternative setup than Korea DPR, employing the infamous ‘two banks of four’ shape, the Swiss had the same purpose – let the mercurial passers have the ball where they cannot penetrate, defend stoutly and play on the counter-attack. And unlike the Koreans – it worked. Spain had 65% possession and had three times more strikes on goal. The Swiss were happy to force Spain into wide areas of the pitch and to try score from crosses, something they are not especially strong at, added to an under-par performance from substitute winger Jesus Navas, whose end product was sadly short of quality. A sloppy second-half counter-attack goal from Gelson Fernandes saw the Swiss take the lead and claim the most unlikely of victories, with the Spaniards unable to “beat the block”. Had Spain been allowed to penetrate centrally, as they are renowned for, there is little doubt that they would have won the game comprehensively, but the Swiss boxed clever and were rewarded.

As the old football phrase goes “anyone can beat anyone”. Now however, it appears that anyone can withstand defeat against anyone. Greece won the 2004 European Champions using such tactics – can someone win the greatest prize in world football using them?

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