New Delhi: In the early days of football, passing was not an important part of the game. The emphasis was on dribbling the ball all the way to the opposition goal and shooting it past the goalkeeper. Today, such selfish dribblers are frowned upon and passing has become one of the most important aspects of the sport.
It becomes essential for the manager then to come up with strategies that can ensure his players are in open spaces to receive the ball, pass it on and press forward.
It is no surprise then that even the most gifted teams cannot do much unless they have a tactically sound manager, who can not only make plans in the dressing room but can also adapt to different situations in a game, thinking on his feet.
The evolution of the beautiful game has seen tactical savants from the past such as Gusztav Sebes, Bela Guttman, Rinus Michels and Hector Herrera to modern geniuses like Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp devise all sorts of methods to outthink their opponents.
The tactics have been developed and refined to such an extent that almost no epochal changes happen today. The introduction of a false nine (mobile centre-forward with freedom to drop deep) or the use of a libero (deep-lying central defender) are things of the past now. The focus has shifted to marginal gains whether by refining skills to keep the ball (possession) or pressing the opposition heavily without the ball (gegenpressing) etc.
The starting point of all such tactics is the team line-up. Over the course of the last two World Cups, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 have been the most commonly used formations, relegating the popular 4-4-2 formation of the 1990s to the sidelines as the fail-safe option.
Spain, the champions in 2010, with their incessant passing game, won the title playing in a 4-2-1-3 formation—four defenders, protected by two central midfielders, followed by an attacking midfielder, and then the three forwards.
Germany employed a similar tactic four years later on their way to glory.
But in Russia, team formations might mirror the trend in club football of recent years: the default formation of a lot of teams is likely to be some variation of a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2.
The emphasis on scoring has increased and teams are going in with three forward players—two wingers and a central striker. On top of that, wingers have become a lot more technical over the years.
The modern winger doesn’t just hog the touchline and looks to fire crosses in, but he can also move inside and lay through balls for the centre-forward or have a go at the goal himself.
This can often overwhelm the defending team, thereby justifying the need to play with a three-man central defence. Conventional wisdom states that the number of central defenders should be one more than the number of opposition strikers. While most teams play with one centre-forward, the falling standards of defending has necessitated the need for extra fortification in central defence, which also explains the current fascination with the three-man defence.
Another area of significant improvement has been ball-playing centre-backs—defenders who are not just good at their primary job of disrupting an opposition attack but who are also capable of initiating attacking moves. Spain’s Gerard Pique, Germany’s Mats Hummels, and England’s John Stones are archetypal examples of defenders comfortable with the ball at their feet. As a result, having three central defenders doesn’t just give defensive security, but also an outlet for counter attacks.
Even the goalkeepers are now selected not just on their ability to stop a shot but also their ball distribution.
When Guardiola freezes out Joe Hart and brings in Ederson Moraes for €40 million at Manchester City, he is also paying the huge sum for the Brazilian’s ability to find a team-mate with a 60-yard kick. The likes of Manuel Neuer and Jordan Pickford can be as comfortable with the ball at their feet as in their hands.
Defensive midfield is one position that appears to have become obsolete. Or, to put it mildly, it has become a position so demanding that not many players are capable of interpreting it well. There are no more Claude Makeleles. In part that has to do with the increased emphasis on midfielders who can do more than just dispossess an opponent, and also with the addition of the third central defender.
Two World Cup regulars Argentina and England are also likely to play with three men at the back. Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli has had success with the formation at both the club and international levels and may opt for the same in Russia. England boss Gareth Southgate has made abundantly clear his intention of ditching the English tradition of 4-4-2 and going with a 3-5-2.
To sum up, while the title contenders such as Brazil, Germany and Spain have their tried and tested variations of 4-5-1, most of the other teams are likely to play defensive football and opt for either a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 formation.
More than anything, it helps them in masking defensive weaknesses by putting extra bodies and also facilitates their attempts of launching long balls for the forwards.