Argentina Excite Again

17 06 2010

A slight change of shape and personnel for Argentina but it was another win for the South Americans as they continue to impress under the ever-entertaining Diego Maradona.

The opening game against Nigeria could have been a similar scoreline to this 4-1 victory but for a stunning performance by their keeper Enyeama. As it was, the score remained 1-0 last Saturday and there was just the one change from that team this time around – Maxi Rodriguez coming in for the injured Juan Seba Veron. It saw a subtle change in shape for the Argentinians. The diagram below shows the average positions in the first game:

Notice how Veron was by no means playing the mirror position to Di Maria, who held the width on the left-hand side. The Argentinian right-side was a flexible collaborative effort courtesy of Jonas Gutierrez, a natural winger, pushing on from full-back, Veron drifting out there at times and Carlos Tevez or Gonzalo Higuain working hard to get back in support.

Against South Korea, with Maxi a far more natural wide-man than Veron, the formation became a more regulation 4-4-2 diamond formation:

Messi’s performance at the tip of the diamond was a pleasure to watch as the world’s best player gave another glimpse of his immense talents. The front two were also more impressive – freed of the constraints of patrolling the right-flank when out of possession. Higuain was to walk away with the match-ball with a textbook display of world-class goal hanging – all 3 coming at the far post from a combined distance of the average sized living room. As for Tevez, his busy efforts catch the eye but he perhaps lacked that little bit of awareness at times. Indeed, the last two goals came with his replacement Sergio Aguero on the field and the little Atletico man was heavily involved in both.

Aguero sees the run of Messi and shows fantastic awareness to play a delightful reverse pass. The player marked red is the goalscorer Higuain. Maxi is highlighted by the green mark.

Messi returned the favour with a gorgeous chip over the Korean defence to find Aguero:

Again, red marks the goalscorer Higuain and green marks Maxi on the right-wing.

Maxi has been highlighted in these pictures because they indicate the more attacking shape the Argentinians adopted in this game. This was not a position Veron found himself in too often and, for the 4th goal in particular, the presence of Maxi in an advanced role helped open the space for Higuain by keeping the Korean defender Yeom Ki-Hun wide.


It was certainly a warning shot across the bow of any side that comes across the Argentines at the business end of this World Cup and showed that they can succeed with a different point of attack. They adapted well to a 4-4-2 diamond with Messi acting as the primary playmaker after having used Veron effectively as a deeper-lying playmaker in the first game. Doubts remain at the back but, after this display, all indications are that this will not be a problem until much deeper into the tournament.


A Tale of Two Coaches: Raymond & Diego Watch

14 06 2010

So that’s their first games underway – Raymond and Diego are up and running.

These are the two coaches that are supposed to provide the entertainment this tournament – wild maniacs who are liable to emotional breakdowns and erratic decisions – and admittedly Diego certainly caught the eye on the touchline. However, 180 minutes in and their sides have conceded only a handful of chances let alone a goal. Proof perhaps that their team selections are not the work of a pair of unhinged individuals?

Well of course they’re not. Raymond Domenech took France all the way to the World Cup Final last time around and after spending much of the warm-up games flirting with an ambitious 4-3-3 with Malouda and Gourcuff in midfield he reverted to a more conservative 4-2-3-1 for the game against Uruguay. This was most likely the formation he had in his mind for much of the build-up – Diarra would have played in Diaby’s place but for injury – and it certainly made sense to go with it up against Uruguay. 3-5-2 vs 4-2-3-1. Not that you would have known it by the reaction of the BBC pundits and, if the rumours of dissention in the ranks are true, his own players. In truth, getting Govou and Ribery at the wing-backs meant Uruguay were forced into virtually playing with five at the back, restricted to relying on Forland and Suarez to conjure something from nothing.  The back four looked comfortable and Toulalan & Diaby gave the front four a decent platform to play from. Sadly for Domenech, Gourcuff, Govou, Anelka and even Ribery were just very poor on the night.

Maradona’s sprang a slight surprise with his team selection opting for Jonas Gutierrez at right-back and asking Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain to share duties covering back on the right-wing. It was an attacking line-up and was only a qualified success – Gutierrez was caught out a couple of times early on – but Argentina eventually came through by an unflattering 1-0 margin. Messi and Veron controlling the game with ease for long spells.

Perhaps the key difference between the two at this early stage appears to be the way they have or, in Domenech’s case at least, have not been able to foster a team spirit. For all the talk of Maradona’s crazy behaviour he appears to have the full support of his squad, who seem to adore him. He is quoted as saying he would die for the players and has fostered strong bonds with them. Perhaps it was this that the experienced Zanetti and Cambiasso were unable to buy into? Domenech on the other hand appears more than ever to be at the mercy of his players with disharmony reigning supreme. In summary, there is a case for saying Domenech got his formation tactically right and Maradona’s selection left his side vulnerable… but spirit is every bit as important as tactics and it is this that means the French are the ones to worry about at this stage.

Tactics at the World Cup – A Look Back and Forth

25 05 2010

When you think of the  World Cup what comes to mind? Maybe it is 1966 and all that, Pele’s near misses in ’70, the Hand of God in ’86? Maybe its Tardelli’s celebration or even Roger Milla’s. However, as well all the magical moments it is worth remembering that, traditionally, the World Cup is often a showcase for tactical innovation too.

From an English perspective, the 6-3 Wembley defeat at the hands of Hungary in 1953 is often considered the watershed moment. The first time England had been beaten at home by continental opposition.. and it was a thrashing, both technically and tactically. The rematch in Hungary only served to highlight the point as England were stuffed 7-1. However, it was the 1954 World Cup that gave the Hungarians the chance to showcase their team to the world.

England vs Hungary 1953 – WM vs embryonic 4-2-4

The Miracle of Berne, a first defeat in 37 games, may have denied Puskas et al their World Cup win in ’54 but the tournament still served as a reminder they were streets ahead. By withdrawing the centre-forward in the then ubiquitous WM formation to a deeper playmaking role, Gusztav Sebes’ Hungarians were able to control games and cause significant confusion for their opponents. The centre-half simply did not know who to mark as the WM faced this newfangled formation. As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting The Pyramid – ”Two full-backs, two central defensive presences, two players running the middle and four up front: the Hungarian system was a hair’s-breadth from 4-2-4”. They had invented the formation of the future.

The Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann claimed that his leaving Honved for Sao Paolo in 1956 saw the 4-2-4 transported to South America. The lineage of the formation is far less clear than that. However, the next two World Cups were won with Brazil, aided by the stunning wingplay of Garrincha, using variants of that famous formation first unleashed on the world by the Hungarians years earlier.

By 1966, wing wizards were the last thing on the agenda. The greatest month in England’s footballing history can be remembered in terms of a Russian linesman and Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary but it was as much a tactical victory for Sir Alf Ramsey as anything else. Like Viktor Maslov had discovered in the Soviet Union almost simultaneously, Ramsey had realised the benefits of tucking his wide men inside to become de facto right and left-midfielders as opposed to out and out wingers. In doing so, his side was able to dominate the midfield, with the added bonus of Nobby Stiles being able to sit deeper as a holding midfielder with no real creative responsibility. The ‘Wingless Wonders’ were born. As Ramsey put it: ”To have two players stuck wide on the flanks, is a luxury which can virtually leave a side with 9 men when the game is going against them”. The new formation saw England able to defeat an Argentina side in the quarter finals that had baffled them in the Maracana two years earlier, before going on to defeat Portugal and Germany to lift the Jules Rimet Trophy.

Eight years on, it was the turn of the giants of South America to be humbled. It was an eye-opening experience for both Argentina and Brazil as they found themselves given lessons in the Total Football being served up by the great Dutch side of ’74. Argentina were beaten 4-0..

A 2-0 win over Brazil followed. In many ways, the flexibility of the Dutch system had its forerunners in the Brazilian teams of years gone by. However, the possession game had been fused with a more high tempo pressing style and the results were astounding. As Tim Vickery points out, they also left a long-term impression on the humbled World Champions of the time:

”Johan Cruyff.. has often lamented that Brazil have turned into an overly pragmatic, counter-attacking team, but Cruyff’s superb Holland side of 1974 played its part in that process. They beat Brazil.. in that World Cup and the pressure they put on the ball left a huge impression on Brazilian coaches. Brazil decided that in order to face the European challenge their players would have to be bigger, stronger, faster, more explosive”.

Dunga’s Brazil perhaps has its roots therefore, in a footballing lesson taught nearly 36 years earlier. His counterpart Maradona is, one could argue, faced with a similar history lesson in attempting to get the best out of Lionel Messi for Argentina. In 1986, Carlos Bilardo took his Argentine side to Mexico on an unimpressive run of form despite the presence of the finest footballer on the planet within his ranks. He decided, maybe in desperation, to unveil to the world a new formation in order to bring success – the 3-5-2.

Bilardo’s reasoning was that with teams no longer using wingers then there was no real need for full-backs – they could be converted to midfielders and played higher up the field. By the Quarter Finals, Maradona was operating as a support striker making it closer to a 3-5-1-1. As Bilardo put it: ”When we went out to play like that, it took the world by surprise because they didn’t know the details of the system”. The rest as they say is history as it took them all the way to World Cup victory.

By the time of the next World Cup in 1990, with the wide midfielders in the system now perhaps more accurately decribed as wing-backs, variants of Bilardo’s formation were all the rage. Even Brazil and England, previously wedded to their back 4’s, were now experimenting with 3 at the back on the grandest of stages. The World Cup as a driver of change once again? It made sense on two counts – firstly, the desire to mimic success; secondly, the desire to ‘match-up’ in order to eliminate any tactical advantage for the opponent.

In more recent times, it may be considered harder than ever to spring a tactical surprise (We still see innovation – even in calamity, Rene Higuita’s antics in 1990 could be considered a forerunner to the sweeper-keepers of the backpass rule era). Things are more homogenised though as cultural diversity diminishes. Almost all the teams at major tournaments have at least a handful of players with experience of top level European football. Furthermore, when you consider the  increase in video evidence and improved scouting in the modern game, you may conclude there is no reason for major tournaments to be the focal point for tactical innovation they once were. For example, the driving force for the decline of 3 at the back probably came from the 4-5-1 in high level club football.  

And yet, as recently as 2004, the European Championship victory of Otto Rehhagel’s man-marking Greek side could be seen, perhaps more than anything else, as a monumental tactical triumph. It has not proven an influential tactic, frankly appearing to be more of a one-off. As the UEFA Technical Director Andy Roxburgh memorably put it though, ”the Greeks had posed a problem the rest of the world had forgotten how to solve”….. Could we see such a thing in South Africa this Summer?

Tactically speaking, the side which is attracting most excitement among afficionados is probably Chile. The Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has them playing his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation and they certainly qualified in style, playing a fluid attacking system.

My personal view is that whilst tactically interesting, we could just as easily be talking about spectacular failure as success. With David Pizarro on board you could argue it may have been different but the fear has to be that their defensive frailties could well be exposed by Switzerland let alone Spain. Bielsa attempted a variant of this formation with Argentina in 2002. They had more possession, more chances and more corners than any other side in the group stages but still found themselves on their way home. In striving for width high up the field and control of midfield possession, they found themselves vulnerable at the back. Tactically, it would be a shame if one of the teams attempting something different was to do so again but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

A more likely candidate to go all the way in South Africa whilst playing a curious system has to be Brazil.

Dunga has built a team playing an almost unique assymetrical formation with one centre forward and a winger, Robinho, playing high up the field on the left. There is no like for like player on the other flank with Ramires instead operating as a right-midfielder. Of course, this suits Dunga as it will allow him cover for when Maicon (or Dani Alves) advance forward. Thus he has width as well as retaining the element of defensive control he wants centrally. Their strength will lie on the counter-attack as evidenced by the 2nd and 3rd goals against Italy at the Confederations Cup last year:

It may be that this assymetrical approach of Brazil’s – providing a variety of threats to suit the players available – will be the tactic of this World Cup. Intriguingly however, the biggest weakness facing a side that prefers to soak up pressure and hit the opposition fast on the break, is the possibility of coming up against a side that refuses to engage and relies on ultra defensive tactics. Their first opponents will be a North Korea side that shackled Paraguay reasonably effectively last month and against whom even a 1-0 victory could bring disquiet back in Rio de Janeiro. Fascinating.

Elsewhere, we may well be looking to two of the most maligned coaches at the World Cup for the most talked about formations on view. Focus on Maradona’s handling of Messi is inevitable and will most likely remain a talking point for as long as Argentina are in the competition. The traditional Argentine 4-3-1-2 with the playmaking ‘enganche‘ as the ‘1’ has been abandoned in favour of what, to English eyes, will be a very familiar 4-4-2.. even down to the defensive full-backs. Clearly the relationship between Veron and Messi will be key, but with Veron’s legs unlikely to last the pace, the real fascination could be how the formation adapts if they go deep in the competition.

Maradona’s chief rival for ‘most eccentric coach in the tournament’ is France’s Raymond Domenech and he is another capable of springing a surprise. The loss of Diarra presents a quandary for the coach and there is speculation he could utilise a 4-3-3 with Malouda and Gourcuff in midfield. This would be a significant tactical shift and an untypically attacking reaction to the problem, but in a very winnable group it could well be the making of the French side. 

There are others of course. Are Paraguay set to make a 3-4-3 work? Will North Korea’s defensive strategy be the talk of the early stages in the so-called Group of Death? Closer to home, in the possible absence of Gareth Barry could England be set to reinvent the box-to-box midfielder with Lampard and Milner in midfield?

Whatever happens in South Africa you can be sure coaches everywhere will be picking the bones out of it, analysing it and ruminating upon it for some time to come. What new problems will sides pose? What solutions can be found? We’ll soon find out, and I cannot wait…