Posted: Wednesday July 14, 2010 9:38AM ; Updated: Wednesday July 14, 2010 9:38AM
Jonathan Wilson
Jonathan Wilson>INSIDE SOCCER

The demise of the 4-4-2 and the importance of holding midfielders

Story Highlights

The 4-2-3-1 formation has displaced the 4-4-2 as the preferred system

In modern times, the holding midfielder is increasingly important

The wide midfielder or winger role has evolved into several distinct types

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Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger
Much of Germany's success stemmed from the play of dynamic holding midfielders Sami Khedira (6) and Bastian Schweinstegier (7).
John Macdougall/Getty Images

Looking back at what the World Cup revealed in terms of tactical trends:

The death of 4-4-2

It is a process that has been going on for the better part of a decade, but this, surely, was the tournament at which 4-4-2 drew its last breath, at least as an attacking formation. As Johan Cruyff pointed out last week, the key to maintaining possession is the creation of triangles, and 4-4-2 simply doesn't lend itself to that. Or, to give theory more axiomatic form, when attempting to maintain possession, a triangle will always beat a line.

That's the theory; in practical terms, of course, the reason why 4-4-2 was so popular for so long was because it offered a sound defensive structure -- only rare examples, such as Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan, had the discipline both to achieve the balance of structure and fluidity to play a pressing 4-4-2 as an attacking formation -- and as such, a broken team of eight plus two, it may endure. Its decline has been hastened, though, by the liberalization of the offside law. Pressing and a high line are no longer so effective if a defending side cannot guarantee players behind its back four will be deemed to be interfering. The result is that sides tend to sit deeper, the effective playing area is stretched and the midfield of any team playing a three-band system ends up a thin band trying to cover not 20-30 yards, as used to be the case, but 40-50 yards.

Of course, the three bands can be squeezed and shunted back, but then a side becomes very defensive, or shunted forward, and is vulnerable to balls played behind its back four, as happened to England against Germany. Hard pressing is now the preserve of sides that are very well-organized and don't give possession away so often that opponents can pick holes in their rearguard (i.e., Spain and possibly Chile). This was the World Cup of 4-2-3-1, a system pioneered in Spain 20 years ago; there is a certain logic in Spain's winning the World Cup as the rest of the world began to play in its shape.

The boom in holding midfielders

As four-band systems (most commonly 4-2-3-1 at this World Cup and its very close Spanish cousin 4-2-1-3) have become more prevalent, holding players have blossomed. In choosing a team of the tournament, the hardest decisions were in goal, because the process is one of eliminating those who hadn't made great gaffes, and at the back of the midfield, because so many have played well. I went for a 4-2-1-3: GK, Eduardo (Portugal); D, Phillip Lahm (Germany), Lucio (Brazil), Gerard Pique (Spain), Jorge Fucile (Uruguay); M, Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Xabi Alonso (Spain); Xavi (Spain); F, Arjen Robben (Netherlands), Diego Forlan (Uruguay), David Villa (Spain).

Javier Mascherano, Victor Caceres, Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong excelled from a defensive point of view; Sami Khedira and Alonso showed the art of the deep-lying playmaker is still alive; and Rafael Marquez, Schweinsteiger and Michael Bradley gave an indication of how the old-style, box-to-box midfielder might be able to reinvent himself in the modern game. To look at Schweinsteiger is to see what Steven Gerrard might have become with a little more tactical discipline.

The return of the back three

The back three seemed to have disappeared, lingering only in recondite forms in North Africa and Brazil, but at this World Cup it returned as a purely defensive measure. The logic said that once teams start playing with a single central striker, it is enough to have one center back to mark him and one spare man, with the fullbacks picking up the opponents' wide men. What we saw in South Africa, though, is sides, perhaps encouraged by Internazionale's survival in the Nou Camp in the Champions League semifinal, happily employing the extra spare man and ceding possession. Uruguay did it to take a point off France (in the first game, before France's dysfunctionality became apparent); Algeria did it against England; New Zealand did it in all three games; and North Korea did it with some success against Brazil. In that regard, three at the back became part of a more general shift toward reactivity, one happily bucked by Spain.

The variety of wide men

There was a time, in England at least, when the wide midfielder was the great creator, classically an impish urchin or a willowy aesthete who skipped round fullbacks and crossed. Then he became a chugging, up-and-down midfielder, almost an auxiliary fullback, as 4-4-2 took hold. But now, with the domination of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 (although 4-3-3 seems restricted to the club game for now; given the lag between the club game and the national game, perhaps 2014 will be the World Cup of 4-3-3), there is a tremendous variety of wide players.

In the World Cup we saw the inside-out winger such as Robben, Clint Dempsey and, at times, Miroslav Stoch (even Gerrard), operating with their stronger foot on the inside so they can cut in-field and shoot. Presumably because of the preponderance of right-footers, it seems far more common for right-footers to operate on the left than the other way around (Robben being the exception), which perhaps explains why the official stats show a bias toward attacking on the right for almost every team.

Then there are wide forwards -- essentially center forwards who play in wider positions -- such as Lukas Podolski, Roque Santa Cruz and, at times, Carlos Tevez and Forlan. Bleeding into that category are the wide creators, players who would once have been either playmakers or second strikers: Andres Iniesta, Donovan, Walter Birsa or Lee Chung-Yong. There are the modern incarnations of tornanti (returners) who were such a key feature of Italian sides of the '60s and '70s, the hard-working wide player who tracks back to help his defense: Dirk Kuyt, James Milner, Ramires or Park Ji-Sung.

And then there are still orthodox wingers, players whose aim is to beat the fullback and send in a cross: Andre Ayew or Milos Krasic.

Broken teams

International soccer is hard on coaches because they have so little time to work with their players. Sophistication, necessarily, has to be jettisoned, which is why so many sides in South Africa, most notably Argentina and the Netherlands, seemed to settle for the simplest possible tactic: Some players defend and some players attack -- joining the two is left almost to chance. Both trusted their individuals to do enough to outscore packed and rigid defenses.

Argentina was exposed by Germany, largely because Germany's two holding players, Schweinsteiger and Khedira, took advantage of non-defending Argentine forwards; even the Netherlands ended up being overrun by Spain in the end. Spain, of course, benefited from the fact that so many of its players play for Barcelona, but overall this tournament offered further evidence of how far the international game has fallen behind the club game.

 
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