Recently I was watching the 2010 World Cup Final while at home sick. Despite the fact that I actually attended the World Cup in South Africa, I didn’t have tickets to the final and I was in the air when the game was being played.
I had always meant to watch the game, but as I already knew the result and always seemed to have something else to do, it took me a whole year to get around to it.
Finally though, the cat and I sat down and pushed play on the Foxtel iQ remote. I already knew that Spain had won and Andres Iniesta scored the goal, but it had been such a long time that I had forgotten when he had scored. I also wanted to see Nigel de Jong’s assault on Xabi Alonso in real time to see just how bad it was.
The teams lined up like this:
It was to be expected that both teams would line up with two holding midfielders, given the occasion, but the most interesting thing from a tactical perspective was how teams lined up in the attacking third.
Basically both teams lined up with six designated players (two fullbacks, two centre backs and two holding midfielders) and four attacking players. But while it was obvious to see who was playing where at the back, it was far less clear in the attacking third.
While David Villa and Robin van Persie were named as sole centre forwards, it was not unusual to see them dropping deep, both centrally and on the flanks when in possession. Conversely, Pedro and Dirk Kuyt, both named on the wing, would often be seen in the position that you would normally see a centre forward in. While all of this was going on, Xavi and Wesley Sneijder were buzzing around in front of the opposition defence, appearing wherever the space was to receive the ball.
So while the defenders in the match had designated, set in stone, positions, roles and responsibilities, the attackers seemed to be under the general instruction to attack. While the team sheets indicated that both teams were playing a 4-2-3-1, they were actually playing a 4-2-4, with the four attacking players constantly interchanging.
While Spain and Barcelona are examples of how this tactic can be effective, they do make it look very easy, easier than it is in fact. In reality, it’s very hard to do and requires a huge amount of patience and technical ability.
Given the way the attacking players are always asked to find space and create a simple option, the get out of jail option (cross into the box and hope something happens) is taken away. Without two designated centre forwards, there is normally only one attacker in the box, sometimes none.
The other thing that can happen is all four players can end up static or in similar positions, making it easy for the defence to shut down. Conversely, players can become isolated if their team mates aren’t creating the simple option.
The key ingredient is of course movement. Without it, it’s very simple for the defence to shut down and stop any opposition attacks, as marking assignments become suddenly very clear and simple. When done well, opposition defenders will be constantly pulled out of position and be asked difficult questions as to whether to track the runner, or to pass him on. One mistake, one miscommunication, and a chance can be created.
This was seen in Lionel Messi’s goal in the 2011 Champion’s League final. Messi had tucked in from the right-hand side, and with no one following him or picking him up, a simple ball from Iniesta put him into a position where he had space to run at the Manchester United defence before firing past Edwin van der Sar from the edge of the box.
Messi didn’t dribble past three players and it wasn’t a killer ball that split the defence in two. It was a simple goal, Barcelona creating a three on two in the middle and poor covering defence from Man Utd – Patrice Evra in particular – gave the player in the world a chance that a player of his quality rarely squanders.
It’s no coincidence that the teams that make this sort of system work are the best in the world. It takes not just the best players in the world, but also a similar footballing culture between those players for it to be effective.
This was shown at the 2010 World Cup Final. The Spanish front four all play for Barcelona (although David Villa had only just joined), who use this system week in, week out. As a result, the Spanish had 57% of possession and always looked more threatening.
And de Jong’s challenge was appalling.