Tactical observations from the World Cup: Argentina, Ghana, Chile
Argentina's back line focused entirely on defending due to lack of fullbacks
Ghana excels by frustrating opponents and controlling space
Despite what its goal total suggests, Chile is Cup's most attacking team
Some tactical thoughts on the second set of matches at the World Cup ...
When Diego Maradona announced a squad devoid of fullbacks, there was widespread skepticism. Attacking fullbacks have been a key part of the game plan of each of the past four World Cup winners, as well as the European champions Inter Milan, and the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. There is a European team that was notably successful last season without attacking fullbacks, but that was Stoke City, and you'd like to think Argentina was aiming rather higher than that.
But when you look at the reasons for the success of attacking fullbacks, Maradona's stance becomes more logical. As famed former English defender Jack Charlton noted after the 1994 World Cup, when a side playing a back four faces a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, the players with the most time and space are the fullbacks. Given the return of more advanced wide forwards and wingers as 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 have become more prevalent, that space is no longer there. With gifted attacking fullbacks it's possible to fight fire with fire, but Argentina lacks a player like Maicon, Dani Alves or Ashley Cole, and so it makes sense for its back four to focus on defending.
Javier Mascherano then operates as a midfield holder, with Juan Sebastian Veron or Maxi Ridriguez as a link to the more creative players. Angel Di Maria has played a more tucked-in, deep-lying role than he usually does at Benfica, meaning Argentina has something akin to the so-called "broken teams" that were so prevalent in Italy in the late 1990s. There are, essentially, five players with a brief to defend, and three focused on attacking -- Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez (or Sergio Aguero) and Gonzalo Higuain -- with Di Maria and Rodriguez acting as shuttlers to link the two. If Veron plays, he links less with running than with his range of passing.
Where the system, to an extent, falls down, is that Jonas Guttierez has been exposed at right back. With Nicolas Burdisso covering for the injured Walter Samuel, it seems likely that Velez Sarsfield fullback Nicolas Otamendi will be given his chance against Greece on Tuesday.
Not since November last year, when it drew 2-2 with Mali in a World Cup qualifier in Kumasi, has Ghana scored twice in a game, and yet in that time it has reached the final of the African Cup of Nations and, after two games of Group D, looks the likeliest of the African teams to reach the knockout phase. Of its past seven competitive games, four have been won 1-0, and only Ivory Coast, which inflicted a 3-1 defeat in the Cup of Nations, has managed to score more than one against Ghana's defense.
Coach Milovan Rajevac has said repeatedly that he cares far less about style than he does winning, but there is an elegance in Ghana's defensiveness. The method is simple: leave Asamoah Gyan high up the pitch in a 4-2-3-1, with three creative midfielders -- Prince Tagoe, Kwadwo Asamoah and Dede Ayew -- breaking to join him when Ghana is in possession, but sitting deep in what is very much a five-man midfield when it doesn't.
Where Ghana really excels is by frustrating opponents and, when it takes the lead, holding possession and controlling space. When it beat Angola in the Cup of Nations quarterfinal and then Nigeria in the semifinal, it looked utterly assured in its 1-0 lead. Ghana's problem comes when it falls behind or the onus is on it to take the game to the opposition, as it was against Australia on Saturday. Then it lost shape, repeatedly took the wrong option in the attacking third and unleashed a debilitatingly large number of speculative long-range shots. Against Germany on Wednesday, though, needing only a draw to reach the second round, it can return to doing "the compact thing," as captain John Mensah puts it; unless it manages an early goal, Germany will not find it easy.
Chile may have won its two matches by only 1-0 scores, but it has been probably the most attacking team so far in South Africa. It bombarded the goal against both Honduras and Switzerland, but, thanks to a combination of bad luck, good goalkeeping and poor finishing (its main striker in qualifying, Humberto Suazo, missed the first game through injury and was subdued against the Swiss), it hasn't got the rewards it probably deserves. That could end up being costly, for if Chile loses to Spain and Switzerland beats Honduras, the probability is Chile will be eliminated on goal difference. For Marcela Bielsa, Chile's Argentine coach, the feeling must be horribly familiar: In 2002, his Argentina team had a greater percentage of possession and won more corners than any other side in the group stage, yet was eliminated by England and Sweden. And that despite having Gabriel Batistuta up front.
Of course, bad luck happens, for football is a game of probabilities rather than absolutes, but it is tempting to wonder whether Bielsa's preferred 3-3-1-3 formation, which he also used in 2002, may be in part to blame. There is something thrilling about a side that sets out with attacking wing backs -- Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla -- as well as a playmaker in Mati Fernandez, two wingers in Alexis Sanchez and Jean Beausejour and a center forward in Suazo (by the final quarter it had become even more attacking, as Esteban Paredes came on for Fernandez, switching to center forward, with Jorge Valdivia playmaking and Mark Gonzalez playing as the left winger as Beausejour dropped back as the nominal wing back).
But could it be that starting out with so many players so high up the pitch favors possession over penetration? It may be that, as former Norway coach Egil Olsen argued, players running from deep, who are already moving at pace by the time they reach the defensive line, are more dangerous than those who effectively receive the ball while already operating close by a defender. Notably, when Chile's goal came against Switzerland, it was after Paredes had managed to make a run behind the Swiss defense to receive a pass from Gary Medel, advancing from his right-sided center-back position and finding himself, for once, unencumbered by Swiss pressing. He had, in other words, created depth by exploiting the high Swiss line that was exposed by the failure of its forwards to close down the man in possession. That ability to expand the game vertically seems vital to Chile if it is to make the most of its control of the ball. Even when it fails, it's great to watch.