Sunday, July 09, 2006

 

The Phantom Strikers

There was rich significance in the fact that it was Nuno Gomes, so perversely ignored by Luiz Felipe Scolari for the majority of the tournament, who scored Portugal's consolation goal against Germany in the World Cup third-place playoff. A deft finish it was, too.

Gomes is one of a number of players, including David Trezeguet, Fred, Dirk Kuyt and John Aloisi, who have been, at this World Cup, the victims of world football's current tactical fad: the lone striker.

Scolari has, no doubt, enhanced his reputation in Germany. After all, Portugal were considered little more than a dark horse before the tournament; reaching the semi-finals has garnered him considerable acclaim. Far more than he deserves.

In truth, Portugal found themselves in an easy first-round group from which they progressed with little trouble. The win over Holland in the round of 16 was a match the football world would prefer to forget. England looked a better side with ten men than Portugal with eleven in the quarter-final. And against France, they never looked like equalising Zidane's first-half penalty.

After Maniche's superbly-taken goal against the Dutch, Scolari's side in fact failed to score for over six hours of football. That's right: six whole hours without the ball hitting the back of the net. And don't forget, Portugal possess the attacking talent of Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Figo, the long-range threat of Maniche, plus one of the most consistent scorers in European club football.

But for the majority of the tournament, Pauleta was left totally alone up front, and all the trickery of Ronaldo, the experience of Figo and the brilliance of Deco went to waste.

In the semi-final, Scolari absurdly substituted Pauleta with Simao Sabrosa, leaving his team with three wingers on the pitch, and no strikers. It was a similar story in the quarter-final, when Cristiano Ronaldo was inexplicably moved into the centre. He was never sighted there.

The hard truth is that the Portuguese were capable of better. And if their coach had shown a little more courage, they might just have achieved it.

Scolari's compatriot, Brazil manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, became the latest convert to the 4-5-1 club in Germany. He started the quarter-final with Ronaldo alone up front. Next to Parreira in the dugout sat the venerable Mario Zagallo, World Cup winner as player and coach, and advisor to Parreira in 2006. This is the same man who, in 1990, excoriated the lone-striker tactics of Brazil's then manager, Sebastiao Lazaroni, implying that such a setup went against all the principles of Brazilian football. Evidently, times have changed.

The current deity in football is the "holding" midfielder, and it seems every top national side needs two of them. France have Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. Brazil use Ze Roberto and Emerson in the role. Portugal have a veritable crowd of them.

It is usually the extra holding man who nudges out the second striker from a team's starting eleven. But is this second anchorman really needed?

Certainly, from the fan point of view, we could easily do without him. And despite what most national team managers seem to think, I believe their teams just might play better football, and even be more successful, with a bit of added help for the poor lone man up front. Australia, for one, generally looked a far more threatening unit in Germany once John Aloisi had arrived...and their defensive solidity was not unduly affected.

The upshot of this slavish addiction to 4-5-1 is that the World Cup has been deprived of some of the best strikers in world football. It would surely have been a more entertaining event if the Nuno Gomeses of the world had been preferred to the Costinhas now and then.

Comments:
Great stuff Mike, thoroughly enjoyed the read. Like you I've also been puzzled with how stubborn Scolari has been towards Pauleta, as described in my analysis of the 3rd/4th playoff. When you play 4-5-1 (4-2-3-1, call it what you will), you really need the man at the top of the formation to hold the ball up and provide a cutting edge, but Pauleta has failed to do this for at least the past two major championships (despite his record in the quals). When they went 1 down in the semi final, the game was crying out for a second striker, alongside Pauleta, and with France sitting so deep and Portugal having to resort to crosses, Gomes was your option. He has proved he can get on the end of things so it's puzzling why he was kept on the bench. Portugal were also guilty of not filling the space between the sole striker and midfield.

Like you and many others I would have liked a more positive world cup. German proved you can play with two up front and still get results, but few others were at ambitious as Klinsmann.
 
Thanks for the comments, Tony!

It's interesting that Italy are so often stereotyped as the most negative of all football nations, and yet they've played two strikers for most of the tournament as well. The Germans, as you say, managed OK with only Frings having a primarily defensive role in midfield. Surely some of the other "favourites" could have done the same...
 
The trend I saw wasn't so much towards 4-5-1 per se in the tradition of one or two domestic national leagues we know and love, rather teams' coaches trying to work out the oppositions' tactics, and weaknesses, and bring the attacking players on some time in the second half.

This worked out well enough I suppose with proper coaches who were observant, astute tacticians (e.g. Hiddink with Aloisi & Kennedy & Cahill or Pekerman with Tevez & Messi) and these coaches would even bring on a pure midfielder and reorganise the midfield if he thought he saw something to take advantage of.

But when the ex-player type of coach tried it on (van Basten's decision to leave off van Nistelrooij, and in fact bring on Vennegoor of Hesselink instead of RvN to replace the woeful [in that match] Kuijt [and I would love to have seen how Huntelaar would have gone had he been selected], or Klinsmann with Schweinsteiger against Italy) the results were a bit different.

Note that Hiddink's Australia was eliminated because Hiddink was gambling on another thirty minutes in which he could bring on a fresh strike-force, and Pekerman's Argentina was eliminated after his odd choice of starting with Tevez, then bringing on Cruz and not giving Messi any part to play at all.
 
...The trend I saw wasn't so much towards 4-5-1 per se in the tradition of one or two domestic national leagues we know and love, rather teams' coaches trying to work out the oppositions' tactics, and weaknesses, and bring the attacking players on some time in the second half....

I guess so, but IMO often they didn't give the genuine extra (or alternate) strikers long enough to make an impact, if you know what I mean.

...Note that Hiddink's Australia was eliminated because Hiddink was gambling on another thirty minutes in which he could bring on a fresh strike-force,...

For reasons I'll explain in a subsequent edition of the Saint Guus thing, I reckon this was a bad gamble. Surprising, too, from Guus who had probably been the bravest coach at the WC in terms of substitutions, up to that point.
 
Good stuff, I totally agree with you.

Have anyone bothered to ask Scolari why he insisted on Pauleta alone up front? Or why he was chosen in the starting lineup for that matter?
 
Will the success of the 'traditional' favourites and the considerably cooler temperatures of South Africa see a noticeable increase in the use of two strikers? I'm just trying to identify any possible reasons that may lead to its return in the near-future...

Another thing to consider perhaps is the increased value placed on a four-man backline. With it being almost mandatory among the 'big' teams nowadays, there's really only two positions to sacrifice for a second holding midfielder - a striker or attacking midfielder. With a wing-back/three-man backline system, coaches could also sacrifice a wide midfielder or fullback.
 
...Will the success of the 'traditional' favourites and the considerably cooler temperatures of South Africa see a noticeable increase in the use of two strikers?...

I get the feeling it's driven by club football trends more than anything else; with Chelsea (in particular) having a fair bit of success with a lone striker system, it's become all the rage. More to do with the personnel than the system, of course, but that little point tends to get missed.

So, if you get a few clubs winning trophies with two up front, maybe we'll see a comeback...
 
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