WC 2010 – A Victory for the 4-2-3-1

Long before Andres Iniesta crashed the ball past Stekelenburg to end Holland’s obdurate and often heroically ugly resistance, it was apparent that in the war of tactics, the 4-2-3-1 system was the clear victor in the world cup 2010. 3 out of the 4 semi-finalists deployed their team in this formation, as did Brazil, though each team had their own variation of the formation.

Sometimes people over-elaborate the role of the formation – as though it makes all the difference in the game. But usually the formation becomes more significant when teams are well matched. Even more so when the match is won or lost in a specific part of the pitch or where the opposition has a known style that needs to be countered. Let’s be clear though, no formation would have mattered in the England v Germany game, for example, although it’s worth pointing out that England’s 4-1-3-2 system was a slightly different one that always risked exposing the defence a bit more.

The 4-2-3-1 system, by the way, is not much fun for the fans and neutrals. It is a pragmatic system that puts focus on not losing the match rather than winning it. And it would be terribly unsuited to a league system where the premium on winning over drawing is much higher, as teams like Liverpool have found to their cost. In a cup (knockout) system, however, the 4-2-3-1 comes into its own.

So how does it work? Well the obvious point to note is that you have 2 defensive midfielders in front of the 4 defenders. The binding philosophy of this system therefore is that 6 out 10 outfield players are in defensive positions, leaving just 4 to do the attacking. Although some players can move up to join in the attack, the system obviously tends to lead to selection of defensive midfielders who are much better in deep lying positions. And hence, the biggest challenge of the 4-2-3-1 system is that your 4 attackers have to be good enough to break down the opposition, occasionally with help from the wing backs.

Both the finalists used the formation, in different ways.

Champions Spain used Busquets and Xabi Alonso as their 2 defensive midfielders (DMs) and also enjoyed the latter’s passing ability and range. But Spain’s style of play does not encourage long passes, even when they have a speedy and penetrative winger like Jesus Navas on the pitch. So one of Alonso’s great skills is underutilized by the Furia Roja. Also, Spain tend to play almost a 4-2-4-0 system as they don’t have a spearhead marksman who plays out in front on his own. Though David Villa is nominally this player, much of his good work is done coming off the left or from a deep lying position.  Obviously Xavi and Iniesta are permanent fixtures in the team so the only choice for Spain is the last player – either Pedro or Navas. Torres injury and form meant that he could not be deployed as the front man with Villa as part of the offensive trio behind. So Spain’s formation was almost preordained. It’s worth noting that Spain are the lowest scoring World Cup winners ever,  having netted just 7 goals in the tournament. And they backed themselves to win games with just Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and one of Navas/Pedro, while resisting the temptation to throw more people into the attack except from set pieces. Ramos and Capdevilla did provide thrust down the flanks but were rarely caught out of position. The tactic was in fact, key to containing Germany.

Germany used Schweinsteiger and Khedira as defensive midfielders but were always adventurous enough to throw an extra man up when they counterattacked. However, against Spain the Germans came unstuck because Spain also always had 6 players behind the ball and had the quality to still dominate possession in the German half.

Holland’s path to the final was generally built around destruction rather than creation. With De Jong and the nihilistic Van Bommel permanently deployed in front of the back 4, the Dutch also relied on just 4 players to actually winning games – Sneijder, Robben and Kuyt with Van Persie upfront to spearhead their formation. Sadly for the Dutch, and for Van Persie, this was a very challenging system. You may have noticed that Van Persie didn’t really do much at the world cup. But you may or may not have noticed that he hardly had any scoring chances of note. Not surprising, since Kuyt is hard working but lacks the quality, especially as a left winger, at this leve; Robben only passes when completely out of all options and sometimes not even then; and Sneijder is known to not get along with Van Persie. Small wonder that Van Persie was generally starved of any meaningful opportunities, except for chasing down long balls over the top.

It’s definitely worth mentioning Brazil here, as their success with the 4-2-3-1 system in winning pretty much everything in between the 2 world cups has redefined the Brazilian game. In fact, Brazil’s success with the system may well have influenced a broader adoption of the system across the world. Once the land of free-flowing football that borders on naivety, Brazil’s success over the past 20 years has been born as much of their new found pragmatism as their flair and skill. Their 94 victory and 98 runners up performance was built around Dunga as the dominant defensive midfielder and in 2002, they had Gilberto Silva and Kleberson. Dunga has redefined the Brazilian template into a discipline-before-flair system with Gilberto Silva being partnered by Elano, Dani Alves or Felipe Melo in the DM roles. And with Kaka, Robinho, Fabiano and the marauding fullbacks, they have the talent and flair up front to produce the magic required. Sadly for Brazil, they’ve self destructed to suffer 2 QF exits now, which have cost Dunga the job and I would fully expect the next manager to try a more offensive formation, especially as hosts to the world in 2014. Brazil might still not win but they will be obliged to entertain.

So who didn’t play 4-2-3-1? The Argentinians played more of a 4-3-3, the weaker teams often went  with a 4-3-2-1, Portugal played an execrable 4-5-1 throughout. Ghana went 4-1-3-2 like England. Uruguay played the classic 4-4-2 when they had all their key players available. They all fell by the wayside though.

So there you have it. It might not be pretty, but it wins cups. Mourinho did it with the Champs League. Creative teams like Spain used it to win the world cup. Less talented teams like Holland used it to reach the final, and I fully expect the system to continue to win favour in cup tournaments at the club and country level in the years to come.

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