From The Archives — Tactical trends from the 2014 FIFA World Cup
The following piece was written three years ago (August 21, 2014) after the 2014 World Cup. Three years later, some of its points are relevant today.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup, it seemed, left as quickly as it came but it did leave some indelible legacies. As with previous editions Brazil 2014 showcased today’s en vogue tactical trends, where the game stands at the moment and, perhaps, where it is headed.
Mostly, there was a refreshing bravery and, after a counter-punching 2010 edition, this was perhaps confirmation of another shift in collective philosophy — a new cycle where attack is king.
Certainly, around Europe, clubs in the supremacy right now are those with attacking approaches.
In Germany, the two top sides — Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund — are proponents of an attractive, offensive game. In England, Manchester City and Liverpool both scored over 100 league goals last season and, in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid continue to add to their rich attacking talent every year.
Even in Italy, the land of defensive arts, last season’s top two teams — Juventus and Roma — averaged two goals per game over the course of the league campaign.
Now, with the focus shifted to the new football season, here are some trends from the World Cup to look out for over the course of the 2014–15 season.
The return of the back three
For a decade the back three seemed extinct from the game with teams preferring a four-man defence of two centre-backs and two full-backs. As explained here by Zonal Marking, this was partly down to a rising prevalence of one-striker formations which often left the third centre-back redundant in both phases of the game.
However, the use of three central defenders has gradually crept back into the game and was in full vogue at the World Cup.
Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile and the Netherlands all used the system throughout the tournament.
All were highly successful and all reached the last 16.
The advantages of the system are clear with defensive solidity being the most obvious (in total, Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile and the Netherlands conceded only 13 goals in 20 tournament games).
But, offensively there are benefits, too. Three centre-backs allow the fullbacks to push even higher up the pitch, making it possible to squeeze opponents back because the extra centre-back is able to cover or sweep up balls over the top.
The wingbacks, therefore, are able to support attacks as well as defend.
Teams will no doubt look to adopt this tactic this season with Louis Van Gaal’s transition from Netherlands coach to Manchester United being the most intriguing.
It will be interesting to see how widespread and frequent the use of three central defenders will be.
Is this the return of the back three?
The advanced keeper
Germany’s Manuel Neuer introduced a new position at the World Cup — the advanced keeper.
Of course the concept of a sweeper keeper isn’t new. It is widely credited to the Dutch and was popularised by Rinus Michels and Total Football in the 60s. Gerrit Bals, the Ajax Amsterdam goalkeeper at the time, was encouraged to patrol the space behind the defence by Michels and the stopper played a notable role in Ajax’s dominant side from the mid-60s to early 70s.
Later, Edwin van der Sar became perhaps the role’s first master, being able not only to sweep behind the defensive line, but initiate attacks with his distribution as well.
Fast forward to Brazil 2014 and Neuer took things a step further by basically becoming an extra outfield player for Germany, most famously in their last 16 tie against Algeria.
Manuel Neuer’s famous heat-map v Algeria:
Image via Squawka
- 59 touches of the ball
- 19 outside penalty box
In the chess game that is football, coaches are forever seeking an upper hand over opponents and the 11th-man keeper has obvious advantages — he allows the team to push higher up the pitch because he covers space behind the defence and can also launch attacks.
Apart from Neuer, other exponents of the advanced keeper are Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris and Victor Valdes, now at AS Monaco.
Modern football is more holistic.
Increasingly every player on the team has to contribute more; the advanced keeper is just another step in this evolution.
This was a particular quirk of the World Cup, the winger that was essentially a number10, i.e. the team’s main creator.
Arjen Robben was the best example of this.
Nominally a winger, Robben spent a lot of time creating havoc in central zones. Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz also had a successful tournament drifting infield from a wide position while Mesut Özil was similarly influential in Germany’s World Cup final win over Argentina drifting in from the wing.
The reasons for this shift are also clear.
The introduction of the Makelele midfielder has minimised the work space of the traditional number 10, usually seeing him harassed and chased for 90 minutes.
For the winger playmaker, however, there is often to space be found when the opposing fullback ventures forward, a major part of the modern game. The winger-playmaker usually gains possession in wide areas and can then decide whether to cut inside or attack on the outside.
By a winger-playmaker cutting inside it means fullbacks are unable to use the sideline as an extra defender and, by engaging midfielders centrally, the winger-playmaker creates space for runners coming from deep and teammates on the overlap.
The rise of the counterattack as a team strategy, not just phase of play, is another cause of this strategy as the languid, traditional number 10 has been sacrificed for quicker alternatives. The team’s most creative player is now frequently stationed out wide.
This was seen, for example, with Atletico Madrid last season, and they had great success with skilled ball-players Koke and Arda Turan who could put in a shift out wide and also drift infield to dangerous effect.
Two-man pivot remains the way
Even with a three-man defence the Netherlands still employed a two-man pivot in front of the defence, just like all the other three semi-finalists — Germany, Argentina and Brazil.
Standard interpretation of the midfield double-pivot:
This is a tactic that was solidified at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and has become standard today. The double-pivot provides protection to the defence and ensures the team isn’t overrun in midfield.
Still, it is vital the two central midfielders are able to build play and dictate the game in an offensive sense as well. That was a problem Brazil had; Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo were unable to progress play into the final third.
Balance between the double pivot’s defensive abilities and capacities for progression is crucial. Germany were successful because at all times they had a duo able gradually press opposition back and dictate the life of the game.
This area remains key.
Importance of set-pieces
Not so much of a tactical trend, but a confirmation: set-pieces are crucial in the modern game.
Roughly set-pieces account for 30% of goals scored at the highest level and they have become a crucial part of the game.
For example, from the quarterfinal stage to the final (barring Germany’s 7–1 mauling of Brazil), four of the six goals scored came from set-pieces.
It is simple.
The biggest games are decided by the smallest margins because all teams involved are highly skilled and defensively prepared. Space and clear-cut chances from open play are at a premium.
Set-pieces, thus, provide a golden opportunity to decide a game.