This has been the tournament of 4-2-3-1. The move has been apparent in club football for some time; in fact, it may be that 4-2-3-1 is beginning to be supplanted by variants of 4-3-3 at club level, but international football these days lags behind the club game, and this tournament has confirmed the trend that began to emerge at Euro 2008. Even Michael Owen seems to have noticed, which is surely the tipping point.
Formations, though, are one thing, their employment something else, and what has been noticeable in South Africa has been the vast range of 4-2-3-1s. Spain, when they finally adopted it against Germany, and stopped trying to squeeze Fernando Torres and David Villa into the same side, fiddled with the line of three, pulling Xavi back and pushing Andrés Iniesta and Pedro forward so it almost becomes 4-2-1-3, which seems to be the route club football is taking. It has had very attacking full-backs and has pressed high up the pitch, essentially using the Barcelona formula.
There are those who protest at their lack of goals (no side has reached the final scoring fewer) but they are a classic example of a team that prefers to control the game than to become obsessed by creating chances. Perhaps they at times become mesmerised by their passing, perhaps there is even something attritional about it, wearing opponents down until they make the mistake, but it is beautiful attrition. Those who have protested at the modern Holland, and their supposed betrayal of the heritage of Total Football, which is being painted as the ne plus ultra of attacking football, should perhaps look back at the European Cup finals of 1971-73 when Ajax expressed their mastery by holding the ball for long periods. Frankly, if they ever faced a side who took them on rather than sitting eight men behind the ball, we may see a more overtly attacking Spain.
Which brings us to Germany. They too play a 4-2-3-1 and, although Philipp Lahm breaks forward occasionally, theirs is essentially a defensive set-up. Here again goals are the great betrayers; it was bewildering how much praise was heaped on their supposedly fresh, open approach just because they scored four goals in three games. This Germany was superb on the counterattack, and the interaction of the front four of Miroslav Klose, Thomas Müller, Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil was at times breathtaking. But this was reactive football.
In three games, Germany scored an early first goal – against Argentina and England, it was essentially handed to them – and in those games they ruthlessly took advantage of the space opponents left behind them as they chased an equaliser. England, Argentina and Australia all defended idiotically against them, and were severely punished. In the other three games, teams defended decently against them and the early goal didn't arrive surrounded by watercress on a silver salver. In those games Germany managed one goal, and that a wonder-strike from Ozil. Against Spain their poverty of ideas was such they ended up sending the lumbering centre-back Per Mertesacker forward as an auxiliary striker, an idea so bereft of subtlety that the only time I remember it working was when Dennis Smith once sent Gary Bennett forward for Sunderland against Oxford in 1990.
Reactivity, in fact, has been a feature of this World Cup, which is one of the reasons the proactivity of Spain is so welcome. It's probably too early to highlight it as a definite trend, for the world seemed headed in a similar direction in 2004 when José Mourinho's Porto won the Champions League and Greece won the European Championship, only for attacking football to return the next season, but with Mourinho's success with Inter, it may be that the great creative boom of the past decade is drawing to a close.
Holland and Argentina both effectively played broken teams, the former in a 4-2-3-1, the latter in a 4-3-1-2. Certain players were clearly designated to defend, others to attack, with very little to link them. The allure of the approach is understandable, for with the limited time available to managers it is difficult to develop sophisticated systems (Spain benefit from the fact that so many of their players play for the same club, and that they have essentially played the same way, with minor evolution, for four years), and simplification is desirable.
It can be effective, and the way Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel have protected Holland's shaky back four has been admirable, but it can render a team static and reliant on the ability of a couple of individuals (Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder; Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez). And if the forwards do no tracking back at all the system can very easily be unsettled by a breaker from midfield, as for instance Bastian Schweinsteiger showed against Argentina.
Even Brazil had an element of reactivity about them, often sitting deep, pressing only when the opponent had crossed halfway, and then hitting the space behind them. They played an angled 4-2-3-1 that had the advantage of getting Robinho into an area other 4-2-3-1s found difficult to counteract. Although they capitulated miserably in the second half against Holland, and although they have an utter disregard for the samba stereotype, they have been arguably the strongest side in the world over the past four years, winning the Copa América, the Confederations Cup and finishing top of Conmebol qualifying. That they and Spain never met feels like one of the great missed games.
Then there was Ghana's 4-2-3-1, with the five midfielders packed deep and Asamoah Gyan the lonest of lone strikers, only in bursts breaking free with the sort of passing that suggests they might actually be a force in years to come. Japan played a 4-2-3-1 with a false nine, almost embracing their historical lack of midfield flair (and no, two free-kicks, brilliant as they were, plus a goal on the break against Denmark doesn't suddenly make them a creative force, even if Keisuke Honda offers great hope for the future).
The rise of 4-2-3-1 has had knock-on effects. Attacking full-backs have become rarer – and the difference in attitude of the respective pairs of full-back is arguably the major difference between the two 4-2-3-1s that will meet in the final. It had seemed that the advance of lone-central-striker systems would spell the end for three at the back, for who needed two spare men? Well, it turns out that teams intent merely on surviving, playing for goalless draws, do, and that's what Uruguay did against France, North Korea did against Brazil, and New Zealand did on a regular basis.
Again, that suggests a preparedness to absorb pressure that it's hard to believe wasn't in some way, if not inspired then at least encouraged, by Inter's success in Barcelona. There was evidence that a technically inferior side could, though discipline and industry, endure a prolonged assault. It is that same battle between proactivity and reactivity that will be fought on Sunday; and for once, it is the Dutch who find themselves cast as the destructive force.
This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.