The English Goalkeeper in Decline

1 08 2010

Robert Green’s error for England at this summer’s World Cup turned him into an overnight figure of fun in this country. The perception was that it was an accident waiting to happen, not least because he was the 3rd choice goalkeeper in the eyes of most pundits. And yet, who were these other options?  A 39 year old with injury troubles and a 23 year old young buck who had spent the season loaned out by the club that owned him. In a week where one of those options, David James, has signed for Bristol City of the Championship, Ghostgoal asks: What is happening to England’s goalkeepers?


Increase in Foreign Players

It is a familiar lament of the 6-0-6 phone-in brigade – foreign players are taking the places of English players. However, in terms of outfield players, the influx of overseas talent has been tempered by the introduction of a squad-based system over the past decade. With six outfield substitutes now named in matchday squads and invariably three being introduced in each game, there are still opportunities for home-based players. On average, 82 English players started Premiership matches each weekend last season. Given squad rotation of outfield players, this is probably sufficient to provide the England coach with over 100 eligible players to work with. However, the goalkeeper position really needs to be looked at separately because here the paucity of options becomes clear…


Decline in Number of Top-Flight English Keepers

You don’t have to go back too far to see the dramatic decline of the English goalkeeper in the Premiership. In the 1994-95 season the Premiership was well under way. Notably, Juergen Klinsmann had arrived that summer and foreign stars were lighting up the English game. Even so, 25 English goalkeepers made 460 starts between them in the Premier league that season with 16 keepers getting into double figures, including 9 England internationals. Fast forward to 2009-10 and the number of English goalkeepers and the number of games played had both more than halved. Indeed, only 6 keepers got into double figures for appearances last season – Joe Hart (who finished 9th with Birmingham), Paul Robinson (10th), Chris Kirkland (16th), Robert Green (17th), Matt Duke (19th) and David James (20th).

The problem is perhaps highlighted best by the players not included in the 6 names listed above. Ben Foster managed to play 2 games for England last season despite making just 9 Premiership appearances for Manchester United in their campaign (less than Gary Walsh did for them 15 years ago) and finishing the season as their 3rd choice keeper. Scott Carson, who played for England as recently as November 2008, spent last season in the Championship with West Bromwich Albion.


A Stark Contrast

I willingly accept it has already become a little tired to wax lyrical about the malaise in the English game by contrasting the performance of the national team with that of their German counterparts this summer. However, it would be remiss not to draw attention to the relative standings of the two nations’ goalkeepers from last year’s European U21 Championships Final – Schalke’s Manuel Neuer and Scott Loach of Watford. Whilst Neuer has already amassed 122 appearances in the Bundesliga, Loach is yet to make a Premiership appearance. Indeed, the Watford keeper may consider himself fortunate to be operating in England’s second tier given that one of his recent predecessors as England U21 keeper, Joe Lewis of Peterborough, once again finds himself plying his trade in the third tier of English football.

One reaction to the situation outlined above is to take the view that this is all part of globalisation.. a testament to the strength of the game in England.. the cream will surely rise to the top if they are good enough won’t they?

Sadly, I am unconvinced it is that straightforward. A look at the previous generation of England goalkeepers – David Seaman, Nigel Martyn and Tim Flowers – reveals that they were able to gain many years of valuable top flight experience at the likes of QPR, Crystal Palace and Southampton respectively before they were to gain international recognition in their mid-20s. The chance to develop as a player and learn through coaching and experience is arguably more vital for a goalkeeper, where decision-making is a quality of such importance, than it is for outfield players – and yet this development is far less assured when the player is training and playing in the lower leagues…..

The Coaching Problem

It is fair to say the transfer of Adam Legzdins from Crewe Alexandra to Burton Albion is an unremarkable one in many ways.  Although highly rated by Steve Bruce as a youngster at Birmingham City, Legzdins has since found himself in the lower divisions in search of game time. However, these quotes from the young goalkeeper really should raise an eyebrow or two:

“I felt, in the stage of my career that I am at, Crewe wasn’t the best place for me to progress. Not having a goalkeeper coach there was a factor in me wanting to move on because I know that I need to work hard and improve”.

To anyone in any doubt as to the significance of talented young English keepers being forced to develop their careers further and further down the pyramid then this is surely an eye-opener. Remarkably, Crewe Alexandra under Dario Gradi are actually regarded as one of the more progressive of ‘small’ professional clubs in this country and have Academy status.. but no goalkeeper coach? Indeed, they are far from an isolated case – it is common even among those lower league clubs that do employ a specific coach for goalkeepers, that this individual be shared between various clubs, thus working on a part-time only basis (Paul Gerrard has just announced he will be splitting his time between Oldham Athletic and Shrewsbury Town next season). Financial constraints can be tough in the lower leagues but it seems reasonable to conclude that young players who are only receiving coaching on a part-time basis are unlikely to reach their full potential.


Although attempts are being made to protect the development of home-based talent with the introduction of quota systems this season, all evidence would suggest that the increased globalisation of football will see even less English goalkeepers playing in the league in the future. This is a by-product of the success of the Premiership. What we must ensure, however, is that English goalkeepers are still given the opportunities to become the best players that they can be. This can only happen with the benefit of specialist coaching and, amidst the vast sums of money currently swilling round the game, it would be an ongoing tragedy if this coaching were to remain out of the reach of all but a handful of English goalkeepers.


England: An Autopsy

28 06 2010

Apologies for the delay. There was quite a lot to take in. Here are a few thoughts on the reasons for England’s weekend elimination:

1) Don’t under-estimate the Germans

Alan Hansen may continue to push the view that they are no better than average, but all the indications are that this Germany team know what they are doing. The defence is largely unspectacular although it must be noted that in Philipp Lahm they possess one of the finest full-backs in the game. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are a dynamic pairing with good passing skills. Mesut Ozil is one hell of a player with that golden combination of pace, skill and intelligence. Importantly, they all know the gameplan and are comfortable in the system. Throw in young Thomas Muller and the continually under-rated Miroslav Klose and you have quite a team. They will cause Argentina, a side with better players than England possess, more than a few problems.

2) Tactics / Formation simply wrong

Of course England’s deficiencies are not solely the responsibility of Fabio Capello and I have long argued that if a man with his record cannot bring success then surely nobody can. However, it can only be frustrating to see him wedded to a stuttering 4-4-2 that so plainly failed to bring the best out in key players. Wayne Rooney favours a lone role up front. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would appreciate being freed of some of their defensive responsibilities. Gareth Barry and Joe Cole prefer to operate in a 4-5-1. Aaron Lennon is more suited to it. As is Michael Carrick. To be honest, pretty much any creative player you choose to mention would be better served in a 4-5-1 and in the absence of a world-class strike partner for Rooney it is baffling that Capello did not seem to entertain the idea. Even if convinced by the success of the qualifying campaign, surely he had seen that it wasn’t working in the group stages of this World Cup? Even if persuaded by the improved showing against Slovenia, surely the 1st half mauling, with Ozil repeatedly enjoying the freedom of Bloemfontein in between the English lines, would see him change the shape? There are many valid arguments for why England fail to impress at the highest level but the chief reason this particular 90 minutes did not go England’s way was down to the way Capello set his team out. For that, he is surely culpable.

3) We Are Just Not That Good

Ashley Cole world-class? Fair enough. Wayne Rooney top drawer? He had a nightmare tournament, but yes. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard? Wonderful players, although they are both the wrong side of 30..

After this, it is hard to make a persuasive case for these players being of the highest order. Robert Green and David James have been involved in relegation battles all season, the latter unsuccessfully so. Likewise Matthew Upson.  Joe Cole and Emile Heskey are not first XI players. James Milner, Gareth Barry, Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon.. these guys have not played regular Champions League football. Glen Johnson of Liverpool won’t next season. These are not top-class footballers and there is just no reason for us to think they should be.

4) The Premiership Style of Play

Capello highlighted tiredness as being the key reason for England’s failure to impress in South Africa. With the entire 23 man squad playing their football in the Premiership perhaps it does have some weight as an argument. The best league in the world? It is certainly the fastest. With a high turnover of possession and a heavy emphasis on the physical, players are proving unable to maintain that tempo in tournament play as the opposition prove unwilling to give the ball back so readily

However, my view is that the problems inherent in the Premiership extend beyond talk of tiredness and winter breaks. It centres around the very types of player that it helps to create and thrive. England posses a plethora of powerhouse midfielders with good engines – I am thinking top class players like Gerrard & Lampard in their prime, or merely good ones like Gareth Barry & James Milner. I’m looking at how a supreme talent like Joe Cole who could do anything with a football was converted into a winger, playing on the periphery of the game, and effectively had his creativity coached out of him for the good of the team. Fine players like Deco are derided for not being able to impose themselves on the English game and the 6-0-6 crew will all have a laugh about how his ilk go missing on a cold November Tuesday in Bolton. Harry Redknapp, a progressive coach if some are to be believed, recently suggested we over-rate Brazil – they can’t be that good because Elano and Robinho couldn’t cut it in the Premiership apparently. Well, maybe the Premiership is not the ultimate judge of a footballer? Maybe that is in fact our problem and not theirs?

Whatever the reason, no Premiership footballer has a World Cup winners medal so far this century and should favourites Brazil win this one, the only outfield player in their squad contracted to a Premiership club is none other than Robinho. Food for thought.


The matter of England’s elimination is as big or as little a discussion as you want it to be. You can get into issues of foreign players, the relationship between the FA and The Premier League, even the blame culture of modern society if you wish. Or you can say Gareth Barry is slow as death and the linesman was blind. I think the key is to retain some balance between the two. Germany are a good side and they won the match because they tactically outwitted the England side. In many ways it was a textbook example of how 4-2-3-1 exposes 4-4-2 with Mesut Ozil free to roam in the hole untracked by the English midfield and confusing their centre-backs. This was the reason for the defeat. But even if we had won the battle, we are still losing the war. Where is the guile? Where are the skilful and creative footballers who can play a simple, passing game? It does not seem a coincidence that they are missing from the England squad. It appears to be the natural result of the way football is played in this country. Oh well, see you in 4 years time for another disaster.

England vs Slovenia – A Preview

22 06 2010

I just saw Piers Morgan’s team for the Slovenia game. 4-4-2, Lampard and Gerrard as the central pair with ‘Crouchy’ up front and SWP on the wing. Didn’t exactly inspire me. Well, that’s not true, it inspired me to write this.. a few thoughts on the credible alternatives facing Capello right now..

The first thing to say is that a change of shape appears both necessary and inevitable. To say that 4-4-2 is an old-fashioned and discredited formation is patently untrue. What is true, and has been for some time now, is that the formation does not suit the players at England’s disposal. After a sensational free-scoring season for Man Utd, often playing alone as a central forward, the notion that Emile Heskey is there ‘to get the best out of Wayne Rooney’ should have been questioned. From the moment Wayne Rooney said he preferred to play on his own up front, it should have been filed in the tray marked Plan B.  When you throw in the fact that the players arguably need the psychological boost of being told that it was the formation that was the problem then we are probably heading inexorably towards some sort of variation of 4-5-1.

The two best options for England and Fabio Capello involve bringing in either Michael Carrick or Joe Cole:

1) Michael Carrick

The case for Michael Carrick’s inclusion has been made in more depth and more persuasively than I could hope to in several articles by Zonal Marking over the past few months. Suffice to say, when on form, he is positionally excellent and has a good range of passing in his repertoire. Those articles argue for his inclusion alongside Gareth Barry with Frank Lampard ahead of them and Steven Gerrard wide left in a 4-2-3-1. This formation would clearly give Rooney his desired role as a lone frontman and, perhaps equally significantly, give Lampard more attacking freedom. Of course, Steven Gerrard remains out on the left-flank which is not ideal. However, he is playing out of position as it is and at least in a 4-2-3-1 there is a chance that Barry can cover the problems caused by Gerrard’s positional wanderings somewhat better than seems to be the case in a 4-4-2. This formation would hopefully see Barry and Carrick secure control of the midfield and give England’s star players the platform from which they can go play and score goals.





2) Joe Cole

You could be forgiven for thinking Joe Cole has been England’s player of the World Cup thus far judging by the kind words written and spoken about him over the past week. What started as a Joe Cole or Adam Johnson debate last month has now become, according to John Terry at least, a case of Joe Cole being one of only two players who can unlock opposition defences. Good progress for a man who has seen no match action thus far. It is fair to say, however, that he does give England something different. While Wright-Phillips and Lennon have that ability to stretch the play, only Cole has that combination of dribbling skills and guile that England appear to have been sorely lacking. If he is to be involved it would seem likely to be from the left-wing, freeing Gerrard up to take his preferred role playing off Rooney. Cole had some success here in 2006 for England, emerging as one of the side’s better performers with his stunning goal against Sweden the highlight.

3) Others

There have been alternative ideas floated. As I write this, there is talk of Jermain Defoe joining Rooney up front and Shaun Wright-Phillips replacing Aaron Lennon on the right-wing. This formation would be in keeping with the shape Capello favoured throughout qualifying. However, with SWP merely a like-for-like swap for Lennon the change is partly cosmetic and perhaps fails to get to the root of the problem – England are just not functioning as a team.


England have stumbled through the first two games of this World Cup and the reasons are many. The feeling persists though, that there are quality players in the squad who could take England far deeper into the tournament than currently looks likely. The key is getting the best out of them. That task is a psychological and motivational one but it is also tactical. The options discussed above would surely give Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard every chance of succeeding. If one of the options is taken then let us hope the players make it work. And if Capello does not opt for these changes, let us hope it does not cost us.

England Problems All Too Familiar

13 06 2010

There has certainly been a lot of disappointment over England’s result / performance last night. BBC’s Phil McNulty claimed there were  ”very few positives” but this seems overly harsh simply because there were very few surprises either…

Robert Green’s error will take the headlines and it was indeed a shocker. To hear Gerrard and Terry blame the ball is commendable loyalty but when Green made similar comments it just felt too much. This was horrible goalkeeping. The disappointing thing is that any straw poll would show that Green is the 3rd choice keeper in the eyes of fans, journalists and ex-pros. Committee is no way to run a football team but the proof is in the pudding and Capello clearly got this decision wrong when most others would have got it right.

The defence is one area I would point to when people question the lack of positives. Glen Johnson got through a fair bit of good work and you would have to say had a good game. Ashley Cole was not a force going forwards, which for England is a huge problem as he is vital to the side as an attacking outlet, but he was solid and did his job defensively. John Terry put in a strong performance amid the chaos of his ever-changing centre back partner so you could argue three of the back four did well.

Of course, defence is all about how you work as a unit rather than individually and England’s high line as they pressed forward left the ageing Jamie Carragher vulnerable late on. Again, legitimate questions can be asked of Capello. Ledley King’s injury was nothing if not predictable and the selection of Carragher to play with Terry does mean a lack of pace at the heart of England’s defence. It does not feel a good fit and, as a side issue, if Carragher is the next cab off the rank does an injury to Glen Johnson mean further disruption? Why was Dawson called up as a 5th choice centre-back rather than a reserve right-back or even an Adam Johnson or Theo Walcott? Unconvincing stuff.

In midfield, we are back with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the centre.  Lampard had a quiet game but his partnership with Gerrard was at least responsible. It was admittedly not the biggest test though with the US central midfielders rarely advancing. Gerrard got the goal and showed glimpses of a return to form but it is hard to see reason to be surprised by anything we saw here – the Lampard and Gerrard debate is well trodden ground. Of course, they can play together but if they are going to be handed the responsibility of sharing defensive duties it is nonsensical for anyone to expect them both to play with the freedom we see of them with their clubs. In this instance, it was a subdued display from Lampard and one that should not have come as a shock to any England supporter.

Aaron Lennon was in and out the game but did have the beating of his full-back at times. He should perhaps have done better when put through in the first half when he could have shot or picked a pass but only succeeded in finding the defender with his attempted cross. As I write the last two sentences it occurs to me that I could have written them in advance or indeed at any time in the last three or four years.. and about any one of Lennon, Theo Walcott and Shaun Wright-Phillips. Ahh SWP.. a baffling choice from Capello a la Sven’s decision to bring on Darius Vassell in 2004.. never the best at retaining possession, Wright-Phillips struggled for much of the hour he was on the field and you couldn’t help but feel Joe Cole would have been a preferable option.

In attack, Wayne Rooney was fairly quiet and this could be a source of frustration as clearly much was expected. Emile Heskey impressed with his overall contribution however. Leading the line, taking the knocks and bringing others into play with his unselfish running, never more so than with his assist for Gerrard’s goal. In short, it was everything that you expect from Heskey at his best. Unfortunately, he fluffed his lines in all too predictable fashion when put clean through by Lennon as he fired straight at Tim Howard. Thus, big Emile completed his ‘classic’ performance.


The real source of frustration is not the result or even the performance. A draw hardly threatens England’s qualification hopes and the performance was far from a disaster. The problem is that this was the moment it became apparent to everyone that the reality is there is no Capello masterplan. 4-4-2. Lampard-Gerrard. Two wingers. Big Emile up top. It is a team and a style of play that could have come from Graham Taylor, Sven Goran Eriksson or countless others. In short, it was everything we might have expected.

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…