In 2010, Spain passed their way to a World Cup victory – defeating the Netherlands 1-0 after extra time. For many in the footballing community, the result signalled the birth of a new tactical era, establishing possession as the primary currency of the sport.
Such a conclusion may have been a bit exaggerated (it was more the symbolic embodiment of a tactical evolution that was long in the making than anything else) but it certainly underlines that the World Cup is more than just some tournament we obsess over for a month and then carry on with whatever we’ve been doing.
Rather, the World Cup is where we come to learn about how the game is to be played. And while the footballing world becomes more and more homogenised with each passing year, the 2014 World Cup was no different.
Let’s take a look at one month in Brazil taught us, and how it will alter the Premier League in 2014/15:
More aggressive Goalkeepers
The increasing effectiveness and popularity of the aggressive goalkeepers is an example of a trend growing long before the World Cup gaining wider prominence because of it. From Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris to a lesser degree,Everton’s Tim Howard under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, goalkeepers have been becoming increasingly proactive in attempts to snuff out opponent’s chances on goal for a while. But in Brazil, it became mainstream – the norm, even.
While such a trend has been in making for the past few years – with formations becoming more and more fluid – its effectiveness was emphatically displayed by Germany’s Manuel Neuer performance against Algeria. With Algeria frequently orchestrating quick counter attacks – taking advantage of Germany’s high defensive line – Neuer left his line time after time, touching the ball outside his own penalty area a phenomenal 19 times.
In the first half alone, he had 24 touches – more than all but four Algerian players. And to glance at his heat map for the game, one wouldn’t have been faulted for thinking he was a centre back.
While Neuer’s dramatic performance against Algeria isn’t likely to be replicated anytime soon, the trend can be seen elsewhere through more subtle techniques – with goalkeepers throughout the tournament charging to close down shot angles and taking other preventive measures to aid their team’s defence of goal.
Three-Man Back Line
Following Spain’s dominant performances in 2010, the 4-2-3-1 formation was quickly adopted as the preferred formation of most major European clubs – with a few notable exceptions. But with Spain’s failure, some have concluded that the tiki taka style of play they represent has been exposed. And in the wake of that failure has arrived the success of teams using the three-man back line – such as Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands, Mexico, Chile, and Costa Rica.
While the three-man back line is unlikely to become as widely-used as Spain’s 4-2-3-1, the formation’s effectiveness at the World Cup can hardly be ignored. With their variations of the formation, both the Netherlands and Chiledefeated the defending champions in convincing fashion.
Elsewhere, Costa Rica defeated Uruguay and Italy – advancing at the expense of the latter. Even more surprising was the inability of other teams to adapt to the formation. Throughout the course of the World Cups, teams like Italy and Brazil struggled to make the tactical adjustments necessary to break through against sides using a three-man back line.
Even though the three-man back line is hardly a novel tactical innovations to wash up on Europe’s coastline, it will be interesting to see what effect the formation’s World Cup success has on domestic leagues.
With van Gaal set to implement the system at Manchester United, there may well be more and more managers opting for the tactical advantages – namely, maintaining width without sacrificing an advantage in the midfield – in the coming months (QPR for one – Ed). And how managers adjust to its potential popularity will be just as intriguing.
While we often look to the World Cup for lessons for how to play the game, we often forget that it also provides insight on the how to control the game – serving as the biggest and brightest stage for referees just as much as it does for players.
One such insight has been the implementation of vanishing spray – allowing referees to better control free-kick situations. With the power to spray a line 10 yards away from the spot of the free-kick, opposing defenders can no longer creep closer to free-kick takers – effectively the ending the so-called “penguin-walk” tactic.
While the 2014 World Cup helped introduce vanishing spray on a global scale, the product itself has been in existence since the 1980s – having been produced by a company co-owned by Sir Bobby Charlton.
However, with the English Football Association long disinterested (among many others), it didn’t become commonplace in European domestic leagues. The product’s success at the World Cup and the 2014 UEFA Under-17 Championship, as well as around South America, means vanishing spray has now been approved for use throughout all of Europe’s major domestic leagues.
With vanishing spray, matches undoubtedly become easier for referees to control – avoiding time-wasting while ensuring the integrity of the sports’ rules.
An age of greater tactical flexibility
With Spain’s failure to advance out of the group stages, many have attempted to locate the next tactical innovation to be gleaned from the 2014 World Cup. Some have settled on the aforementioned three-man back line. And while such a formation may see an increase in popularity, it is unlikely to be adopted on the same scale as Spain’s 4-2-3-1 after 2010.
However, this has less to do with the deficiencies of the three-man back line and more to do with the way in which Spain’s style of play changed our perception.
One of the less-discussed aspects of tiki taka – and football tactics in general – is that they often become extremely prescriptive and uncompromising (at least in their treatment by the media). In other words, after Spain’s World Cup victory and Barcelona’s club success, an attacking style of play that emphasised possession and utilised short passing suddenly became the way to play football. While in truth, there are unquestionably more styles that can yield success.
For those who remained adaptable, expectations were often surpassed – most notably, for van Gaal’s Netherlands. But for those who remained rigid and inflexible with regard to their style of play, like Spain and Brazil, their efforts were met with failure – and in embarrassing fashion.
Consider the tactical evolution of Louis van Gaal’s side during the World Cup. With his three-man back line, van Gaal played aggressively at times with his wing-backs pushed further up the pitch (as they did against Spain). But as the tournament progressed, he adapted his formation to defend against more threatening offensive side – settling into more of a five-man back line (as he did against Argentina).
His squad’s tactical flexibility was not limited to simply pre-match adjustments, either. Rather, van Gaal often made mid-match changes. Noticing his side was overexposed at the back against Australia, he switched to a four-man back line. And, with his squad trailing 1-0 against Mexico, he changed shape once again – utilising a four-man back line in a 2-1 comeback victory.
Everton manager Roberto Martinez, in a response that truly sums up this point of view, said:
“What we saw in South Africa was a real understanding of trying to keep the ball, trying to base your football in possession and the 4-2-3-1 system became very much the way of playing. Now I think there’s going to be a real change in that; there’s a more dynamic approach, you need to be flexible with your tactical awareness. As a manager, you need to find what suits your players rather than trying to be trendy with your approach in games.”
While the dominance of the 4-2-3-1 in South Africa may have not had its corollary in Brazil, football may not have a need for one. With the football world becoming a more tactically varied environment, the ability to adapt to both the needs of your team and the demands placed on your team by your opponent will be paramount in finding success at the domestic level.