Who will press high, who will play three at the back and who may even favour the Christmas tree? Everything you need to know about tactics at the 2014 World Cup
The stifling heat in many host cities makes it impossible to press relentlessly high up the pitch but few teams are secure enough defensively to sit deep, soaking up pressure for long periods. The inevitable compromise is to allow the opposing centre-backs to have possession, before springing into action when the ball is played into midfield.
Atlético Madrid specialised in this approach throughout 2013-14, and it was a crucial part of their La Liga title success and run to the European Cup final. It allows teams to play attack-minded football without necessarily dominating possession.
Only Spain and Chile excelled at pressing in South Africa four years ago but the former’s success had an obvious impact on Germany, whom they defeated in the semi-finals in 2010. Joachim Löw has encouraged his midfielders to play a more proactive game since that defeat, winning possession as quickly as possible. In the warm-up matches, it’s also been notable that Louis van Gaal’s Holland and Marc Wilmots’ Belgium press intensely in midfield too, while young, energetic sides such as Switzerland and Algeria might be best suited to closing down for long periods.
The dominant system at the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 was 4-2-3-1. It will probably be the most utilised formation this time around, too, with many of the top sides favouring it – but there’s a decent amount of variety across the 32 teams. Not everyone will deploy a four-man defence. Mexico will play a back three for the third consecutive tournament, with the intelligent centre-back Rafael Márquez sweeping behind his two defensive colleagues, then moving in front to start passing moves. Chile will switch between a three-man defence and a four-man defence depending on how many strikers the opposing team are playing – their coach, Jorge Sampaoli, always wants a spare man at the back.
Van Gaal might do something similar with Holland – his use of a three-man defence throughout the pre-tournament friendlies was highly surprising, but it now appears to be his default system.
Jürgen Klinsmann has been experimenting with a diamond midfield system in order to get the best from the USA’s rampaging central midfielder Michael Bradley, who is allowed to play a more attacking role.
Italy’s Cesare Prandelli could also use a diamond, or a 3-5-2, or even a Christmas tree system. As always, the Italians remain the masters of tactical unpredictability.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to predict golden boot winners at major international tournaments, with goals spread across a number of attacking players, rather than being dominated by one greedy central striker.
Colombia’s Radamel Falcao was set to be the purest No9 in the competition but the Monaco striker has been ruled out through injury. A common feature among the top sides is the use of a selfless – and sometimes goal-shy – player up front.
There are essentially two contrasting types of players who serve this purpose – to bring attacking midfielders into play. The first is the classic hold-up man, and while Brazil’s Fred scored five goals in five games at the Confederations Cup last year, his primary role in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side is to win aerial battles, hold up the ball and create space for Neymar, who cuts inside from the left. This is similar to the role played by Hélder Postiga for Portugal. He’s not a world-class player, but he has consistently helped to bring the best out of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Alternatively, possession-based sides can use a false nine. Spain have the option of the Brazilian-born Diego Costa, but could instead use Cesc Fábregas as the closest thing to a centre-forward, while Löw seems determined to play Mario Götze in that role for Germany.
The last two World Cup-winning managers utilised their entire squads brilliantly, rather than simply depending on their starting XI. In 2006, the Italy coach Marcello Lippi took six forwards to Germany – Francesco Totti, Luca Toni, Filippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino – and all six scored.
Four years ago in South Africa, Spain’s Vicente del Bosque started matches with ball retention in mind, but then introduced direct players like Pedro, Fernando Llorente, Jesús Navas and Fábregas to provide attacking thrust. Judging by these two examples, the winning manager will use a consistent back four but vary things intelligently in the final third.
Substitutions will be especially important in Brazil considering the climate – the simple concept of a fresh pair of legs could be vital. For games in Manaus, for example, a winger will probably have more impact in a 30-minute substitute appearance than if he starts the game and is removed after an hour.
It is also about keeping the squad happy, of course. Managers of international sides are increasingly keen to stress the importance of togetherness and harmony, and the obvious way to keep players happy off the field is to give the majority playing time on it.
The number of contenders with a big problem as left-back is surprising. Spain’s Jordi Alba, Brazil’s Marcelo and Portugal’s Fábio Coentrão are the best in the competition but even those three are not immune to defensive errors.
Argentina are the obvious example, with Marcos Rojo widely viewed as the weak link. Often playing centre-back at club level, he looks extremely uncomfortable when tricky right-wingers dribble at him, and could be Argentina’s downfall.
Belgium will also be playing a centre-back in that position – Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen prefers to play in the middle but the lack of recognised full-backs means he will be pushed out to the flank.
Holland do not have an obvious option at left-back. Terence Kongolo and Bruno Martins Indi are left-footed centre-backs, while Daley Blind is a superb player but happier in the centre of midfield. Germany could use Erik Durm, who has only one cap, and is not a regular for Borussia Dortmund. Italy lack a left-footed left-back, with the right-sided Mattia De Sciglio set to fill in. It looks as though right-wingers could be crucial in the knockout stages. This could be a tournament for such as Pedro, Colombia’s Juan Cuadrado and England’s Raheem Sterling to shine, as they will often find themselves running at the opposition’s weakest player.