Thursday, November 29, 2007


Missing the Point, Part 1

I've been busily downloading some more past World Cup games of late, and very much enjoying them. Somehow, the games of yesteryear (well, the better ones, anyway) seem to have a flow and a rhythm that is rarely produced these days, even by the finest teams...and I still maintain that the pointless, ill-considered backpass rule is responsible for that in no small part.

Herewith some thoughts on two games in particular that left an impression, and an interesting tactical novelty they both featured.

First, Holland v. Bulgaria from the 1974 World Cup. A very fine game, this. Johan Cruyff and his famous Oranje machine were in top form, and the Bulgarians were no slouches either; their star midfielder and captain, the elusive Hristo Bonev, would have graced any side of any era. Had their famous centre-forward Georgi Asparoukhov not been killed in a car crash a couple of years prior, the Bulgarians may well have reached the second round (or better) in Germany.

In this match, though, they were no match for the speed and slick interplay of the Dutch, and the prodigious acceleration and close control of Cruyff. Yet it was another aspect of the Dutch performance that interested me particularly.

There are plenty of tactical schemes around these days, but whatever the numbers (which, so often, only represent an approximation of a team's modus operandi) may be, almost all teams are sure to have a player at the apex of the attack; "at the point", as the jargon tends to be these days. This player will either flick the ball on with his head (if he's British), make the clever runs off the shoulder (if he's Italian), or receive, turn on a 50 cent piece and create chances for himself (if he's Brazilian). And, wherever he hails from, he will usually have the job of laying the ball off as well.

But need it be so?

In most accounts of the 1974 Dutchmen, Cruyff is described, for convenience, as the centre-forward. Yet this is an inadequate description of his role; most attacks did indeed go through him, but he almost invariably started from deep, much preferring to run at the defence. There were two other men in the forward line, Johnny Rep and Rob Rensenbrink, but they were playing as wingers, occasionally switching flanks but generally attempting to penetrate out wide.

In midfield it was something like this: Wim Jansen as the holding midfielder and tackler, Wim van Hanegem as the deep-lying playmaker, and Cruyff and Johan Neeskens breaking from midfield to support the two wingers, rather than playing in between them. No centre-forward.

And yes, the Dutch did indulge in plenty of positional interchange, the hallmark of their 1974 side. But there was none of the usual pivoting around a central man; the route to goal was usually either a surging run from the middle of the park, or a ball over the top to the wide men.

These are tactics that, to be honest, I haven't seen any contemporary team use. Yet there seems to be much to recommend them.

For one thing, the attacking players are, I feel, more likely to receive the ball facing the goal. Then there's the question of "availability"; one of the things that constantly frustrates me about modern football is that so often a full-back has few close options for a pass, necessitating either a long ball or a telegraphed pass to a player already tightly marked. With the forward line dropping deeper, there are consequently more chances of there being a "receiver" nearby.

Below is an example of the strategy in action, from the first half of the game in question. The Dutch win the ball in their own half, and immediately the wingers set off up the wing, drawing their men out wide. Cruyff is then cleverly released by van Hanegem, Neeskens charges up alongside him...and the break is on! It's notable that the two central men are difficult to stop, not only because they happen to be Cruyff and Neeskens, but because they are facing the goal, with ample space to run at the defence because, unlike a centre-forward, they are not tightly marked. The move deserved a goal (despite Neeskens' lucky rebound off a Bulgarian defender at the end), but you can't have everything...

Next: Argentina v. Poland 1978, and an even more striking example.

Hi Mike,

When you mentioned World Cup games of the past, my immediate thoughts went back to, you guessed it, 1986 QF Brazil v France!!!!

I consider this tournament the last World Cup before the cold hand of Globalisation made its impact.

In this tournament, you saw the various styles that each country possessed shown at their very best.

The supreme efficiency and confidence of the Germans. The machine like teamwork of the Russians, the neverending magic of the Brazilians, the more European style alternative of the Argentinians (with arguably the greatest player of all time in their team). The professionalism (without any superstars) of the Spaniards who in Butragueno had the perfect player to expose any pretenders (Denmark) to the throne. The high work rate, honesty, and stupidity (they should have hacked Maradona) of the English. The unfortunate cynicism of the Uruguayans (who realised they were not as good as they thought they were). The Brazilian like French (as opposed to European like Argentians).

1990 was swamped by such negative tactics, that we were not even sure if gloabalisation had had an affect yet. 1994 was a great tournament (except for final), which perhaps hid the fact that globalisation was impacting. 1998 it was starting to become apparent that the differences in style between nations had dramatically lessened. The Germans had lost that air of arrogance, the Italians appeared jsut as defensive as anyone else, and even the Brazilians were not as flamboyant as years gone by.

It all culminated in the 2006 World Cup. The worst WC since 1990. Saved only by, of all nations, Australia's performance. They offered, perhaps, the freshest ideas. Unfortunately it was mostly athleticism matched with Guus Guile.

Where can I get a hold of that great 1986 QF?
Hi anonymous,

I found a torrent of that Brazil v. France QF from 1986 on isohunt easily enough (would probably be on mininova as well). Wonderful game.

Agree with you about the distinctions between national styles diminishing all the time, although IMO the Argentinians have been "returning to their roots" of late, which is good to see.
thanks for the history lesson,

as a relative newby (first cheered a game in 2001, started watching premier league and champions league regularly in 2005) i appreciate the walk through how teams played in the past.


I find AS Roma's approach and formations similar to what you describe of the Dutch.

What say you on this?
Brazil - France 1986 QF is here:
Hi Mike,

where can I find the game for download. I am new to this P2P download stuff so if you could provide a little pointer in the right direction I will appreciate it.

Perhaps you could post a link to the games you are discussing?
i do ont think citing the greatest team and the greatest player helps your cause.

Brazil V France could well be the best match ever played

I find AS Roma's approach and formations similar to what you describe of the Dutch.

What say you on this?...

Yeah, there's certainly a bit of that in the way Totti plays as a withdrawn centre-forward (and Vucinic, too, sometimes). The idea is a pretty old one really, the legendary Hungarians of the fifties did it (check out the first goal in this, for instance; Hidegkuti, the nominal centre-forward, coming from deep to score).

...Hi Mike,

where can I find the game for download. I am new to this P2P download stuff so if you could provide a little pointer in the right direction I will appreciate it.

Perhaps you could post a link to the games you are discussing?...

I'm a bit of a novice with it myself, but as far as I know the process is first to download some kind of P2P software like BitComet or whatever, then search isohunt or some such for the names of the countries/clubs involved, and some torrents will pop up.

...i do not think citing the greatest team and the greatest player helps your cause....

Don't quite follow you...
Holland 1974 coems along once every fifty years whilst a Cruyff comes along once every 100 years and you are making them the benchmark.

Are you going to get kiddies to play cricket like Bradman?
...Holland 1974 coems along once every fifty years whilst a Cruyff comes along once every 100 years and you are making them the benchmark....

That's not what the post is about at all (I think you need to read it again TBH).
Hi Mike,

Thanks for the pointers on the torrents. I managed to find the Holland vs Bulgaria game and I must admit that I have always been a little skeptical of all the praise heaped on the great players whom I havent seen play, *even* Cruyff.

Previously, I had only seen highlights of some of his play. But gosh, what a fantastic player he was. Like an even more mobile Van Basten. Brilliant.

I think I will be hooked on these classic matches.
If you never saw Cruyff play you haven't seen football!!!

you can't recomend a style of football that has only been successfully played by the best of the best.

Agree with your overall theme though
Thank you for sharing this.It is worth reading for everyone.
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