Tuesday, July 13, 2010
South Africa 2010: A Review, Part 1
The knockout stage of the 2006 World Cup was frankly a complete turn-off. 2002 was fairly mediocre throughout, with a team as essentially ordinary as Germany allowed to progress to the final with three 1-0 wins against modest opposition. France 1998 and the European Championship which followed it were superb tournaments, and we may not see their like for quite some time to come, given the doctrine of conservatism which has become so prevalent in recent years.
If there was a tactical theme that ran through the event, it was the death of the pure striker. Both teams in the final featured players in the "point" role who shifted out wide, dropped deeper, and generally played more like Alfredo di Stefano or Johan Cruyff than Fernando Morientes or Marco van Basten. Germany, in the third place match, acted likewise, although of course the injury to Miroslav Klose was the main reason for this.
Increasingly, teams are tending to use "false nines", as Jonathan Wilson likes to say. The author of the recent influential tactical history has published his own review of the tournament's tactical trends, and although I don't agree with him in every particular, the thrust of his argument is definitely sound. Japan's use of Keisuke Honda in the pivot role was a classic case in point; Honda is used as a midfielder by his club and it became very clear during the tournament that he would have been better used as a playmaker (this was especially clear after the arrival of Shinji Okazaki against Denmark), but Takeshi Okada was determined to make the most of his midfield talents.
First Roma and Manchester United; now everywhere.
Pim Verbeek was a slave to the trend, of course; the pre-World Cup plans of shifting Tim Cahill or Harry Kewell into the striking role were prime instances of the modern shift away from out-and-out strikers. When a real if flawed No.9 in Josh Kennedy entered the picture, the Socceroos looked more dangerous straight away. Significantly, too, two teams that punched well above their weight at the event, namely Uruguay and New Zealand, regularly fielded two or three strikers (thereby playing to their own strengths), and benefited thereby.
I still believe there is a future for the old-fashioned No.9. Diego Milito showed that with abundant clarity in the Champions League final, and had Fernando Torres not been in such abysmal form in South Africa, we might have been able to cite Spain's triumph as an example as well. It was a shame that England saw fit to rely on a very two-dimensional No.9 in Emile Heskey in the early games, when an alternative approach would have been more appropriate.
Klose's continuing success at World Cup level is another case of bucking the overall trend, since Klose is very much a classical striker whose qualities gel surprisingly well with the fluidity of the system in operation behind him. And Asamoah Gyan was an archetypal case of the striker carrying his team, which was built around him and relied on him almost completely.
At the other end, the zonal back four is now almost a given. Strange that only eight years ago, three of the final four at the World Cup employed back threes (it would be inaccurate to describe them as sweeper defences), and that six years ago it was a man-marking system that allowed an average team to gain an astonishing victory at the European Championships.
Yet, once again, the rare instances of back threes (or flexible defensive systems) being used at the tournament often coincided with modest success. Mexico's bolt-like system against South Africa functioned excellently, New Zealand's 3-4-3 fitted them like a glove, and Uruguay's initial use of a back three against France blunted the attacking ambitions of Messrs. Anelka et al. very effectively.
The lesson to be learned from the tournament's most successful coaches - Oscar Tabarez, Gerardo Martino, Ricki Herbert, and, yes, Vicente del Bosque - was surely to be flexible enough to alter your system to fit your personnel, not the other way around. A simple message which, however, has never been more important in world football, in my view.