England's World Cup disaster exposes the antiquity of 4-4-2
England's 4-4-2 formation is increasingly outdated in modern soccer
Brazil sits deep but presses its opponents once they cross the halfway line
Spain yet to settle on a consistent formation and often relies on fullbacks for width
With the second round knockout stage over, here's some tactical observations:
For the past two years, I've been writing that Michael Owen is finished as a striker at the highest level (except perhaps as an impact substitute) because he needs either a target-man or a support striker alongside him and the game has moved tactically away from a dual striker system. Now, after England's humiliation against Germany, it turns out he agrees with me. "It hurts me to say it as a striker who almost needs to play up front with another, but the days of 4-4-2 against a good team are going," Owen wrote in his column in the Telegraph.
There are, as he points out, two reasons for that. The first is a specific issue of the distribution of players on the field: "If you lose that midfield battle, you lose the game more often than not." The second is more psychological. "I think 4-4-2 is a good formation," he went on, "but if things are not going right the easiest thing in the world is to get rigid. As a player, you think, 'We are struggling, I'll just play in my position' and all of a sudden you are in two straight lines of four."
That both renders the side playing 4-4-2 predictable going forwards, and means that there is space between the lines for opponents to exploit. That has become a particular issue since the liberalization of the offside law led to a stretching of the effective playing area, although players who operate in the space between midfield and attack have always troubled English sides. To the list of Matthias Sindelaar, Vsevelod Bobrov, Alfred Bickel, Laszlo Kubala, Nandor Hidegkuti, Pele, Gunter Netzer, Diego Maradona, Ruud Gullit, Zinedine Zidane, Manuel Rui Costa and Juan Roman Riquelme is now added Mesut Ozil. The young German playmaker did little spectacular on Sunday, but he did enough, picking holes for the two wide forwards, Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski to exploit.
What is so frustrating from England's point of view is that, although coach Fabio Capello insists he changed nothing, in the qualifiers the shape was far more flexible, closer to 4-2-3-1 than 4-4-2. There are two possible explanations: either Capello himself, troubled by the fact England kept only four clean sheets in 10 qualifiers, two of them against Andorra, drained away some of the fluidity to give his side a better defensive structure (and given how naively it defended in the second half against Germany, any anxiety he felt was justified); or, more likely, Wayne Rooney, having become an out-and-out striker at Manchester United over the past year, found it difficult to revert to a deeper role, dropping off Emile Heskey and then Jermain Defoe.
With Rooney pushing high, space was left between midfield and attack. That created two problems: the wide midfielders tended to come inside to fill the gap, which both meant England lacked width and that the full-backs were left isolated, something that was a particular difficulty for Ashley Cole when faced with Thomas Muller; and Frank Lampard tended to press forward, with Gareth Barry following him so that England didn't end up with, effectively, a queue of players in single file down the pitch, and that left the danger zone in front of the back four free for Ozil.
There are those who ask whether Capello, having been schooled in the hard-pressing 4-4-2 of AC Milan, which was predicated on the sort of high offside line that rule changes have rendered impossible, is stuck in the ways of the past; more troubling is that English football is yet to eradicate a flaw that first emerged eight decades ago.
Brazil's victory over Chile was a tactical masterclass, and showed again why Dunga's side is so hard to beat. Chile is a tough, aggressive team whose defending is almost entirely predicated on pressing. Brazil also like to press, but that doesn't mean they pile forward with a high offside line as the teams of Rinus Michels and Arrigo Sacchi used to do. The coaching manual written by Valeriy Lobanovskyi outlines three basic types of pressing and countless variations; Brazil seemed adept at most but particularly at "stealth pressing." Its players retreat, sit deep, allow the opponent forward, and only when it has crossed halfway close the space. This has two advantages: the smaller the area in which the press is happening, the easier it is to shut down possible passing angles; and, when the ball is won back, there is space behind the opposition into which counter attacks can be launched.
That was precisely how Brazil beat England in Doha last November, and it is how the second goal came against Chile. Robinho had been causing problems by dropping deep, playing in the space between the Chile right back, Gonzalo Jara, and the right-sided midfelder, Mauricio Isla, and at the crucial moment nobody picked him up. With the score at 1-0, Chile poured forwards, Jara overlapped, leaving Robinho free. Jara wasn't used, Brazil cleared, Luis Fabiano turned the ball on to Robinho and with Brazil breaking three on three, the ball was in the net in a quick flurry of passes.
Like the Netherlands, the sense is that Spain is yet really to fire in this tournament, and strangely for a team that has been so successful over the past two years, it has not yet settled into a formation. Against Portugal, Vicente Del Bosque again opted for two holding players in Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, and two center forwards in David Villa and Fernando Torres. That leaves Xavi and Andres Iniesta to operate as roving playmakers, rather as Zico and Socrates did for Brazil in 1982, which leaves Spain heavily reliant for width on the two fullbacks, Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila.
Villa does pull left -- as he did for his goals against both Chile and Portugal (and as Eder did for Brazil in 1982) -- and Iniesta, of course, is happy enough operating on the right for Barcelona, but the suspicion is that the weakness the U.S. exposed in the Confederations Cup last year -- that, by restricting the fullbacks you can make Spain play very narrow, and so restrict them. Then again, its passing is so good, that may not matter; even when the U.S. beat Spain, it was fortunate.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.
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