2010 Tactical Review: The Triumph of Cruyff

This is post by TSG Writer Mr. Tuesday

Cruyff, honing his education...

The Netherlands are in their first World Cup final since 1978 yet the shadow of their greatest player, Johan Cruyff, probably hangs more heavily over their Spanish opponents. Oddly, Barcelona’s new president has stripped Cruyff of his honorary title at the club at what seems to be the very height of his legacy. This not to say that this piece is about how “total football” has been reborn. It’s rather that it’s underlying concepts (and a touch of Cruyff’s genius) have been completely assimilated into the modern game.

Cruyff said that “Football is a simple game. It’s just very hard to play it simple.”

Spain’s simplicity, their constant movement off the ball, their instinctive play from a collection of players who have played together for years at club level, their intense pressing after losing possession are quite characteristic of total football.

Their lack of directness, their sometime inability to expand space on the pitch, to exploit space their opponents concede in wide areas to create scoring opportunities from crosses that go into the box are not.

According to Cruyff, “football is a game of time and space.” Both components are constantly in flux. The silky skills of Xavi and Iniesta expand time when they have the ball only for time to be compressed by the intensity of their pressing when it’s lost. While Spain may have power–this power over time–they sometimes struggle to create the space they need to find scoring opportunities.

The Netherlands have few intricate patterns.

Instead they’re replaced by slide-rule passes from Sneijder and slashing running with the ball from Robben. They are always seemingly in haste when in possession but seem to hardly need a moment to create a goal through their direct and expansive style of play. Out of possession, Van Bommel and De Jong will compress space in an attempt to overcome the Spanish midfield’s ability to expand time.

But this isn’t The Last Airbender, so let’s get on with the tectonic tactical shifts that have been on display over the last month, loosely linked to the patron saint of World Cup 2010, Johan Cruyff:

Decline of 4-4-2

“You can’t play dominant football with a 4-4-2 system. The numbers (triangles) on the field don’t match up.” Johan Cruyff

In football, tactical evolution has left a great many formations and styles of play to the dustbins of history.

Occasionally they are revived to some effect, as with Maradonna’s “Broken Team” cleaved into its attacking and defensive functions, or Mexico’s formation which Jonathan Wilson identified as the antiquated WW. Some managers may have the stroke of genius that solves the weakness of these antiquated systems while other fall into general disuse. It’s noteworthy that the 2010 World Cup has shown that the static 4-4-2, the underlying system in the English-speaking world, is in its death throes.

Two 4-4-2's matching up don't equal a right...

Group C was the home of the flat 4-4-2 with it being the tactical basis for the USA, Slovenia and to which England ultimately reverted. Curiously, the USA won the group by performing best when it least rigidly adhered to this system, when an additional midfielder freed Donovan and Dempsey to push on and play between the lines of midfield and attack, giving the side greater fluidity and unpredictability. With Rooney pushed too far forward and Lennon too busy trying to play football to recreate the movement which characterized their qualification, England never managed to break its rigid confines.

As Cruyff states, the 4-4-2 doesn’t lend itself to the easy triangles which allow a team to maintain possession in the attack. Instead, it favors directness and straight running – a good old kick and chase. It may be enough for teams of higher class to progress beyond the group stages over lesser teams but its nothing to trouble the true contenders.

Yet it remains the defensive mode of choice. As Spain pinned Germany into their own half during the semifinal, they imposed their will largely by compressing their opponent into a flat 4-4-2 from which they struggled to launch the counterattacks that had led to 4 goal hauls against England and Argentina. However, the 4-4-2 has made a key contribution to the tactical evolution most evident in the 2010 World Cup…

Dual Holding Role Frees the Fullbacks

“They can never beat you, buy you can lose against them…”

The opening group-stage matches at the World Cup were widely regarded as negative. Teams went out of their way to avoid losing their first match with only Germany managing a lopsided result against Australia. This ultimately resulted in a very exciting set of final group matches with few teams out of the running to qualify. Few teams took risks in midfield as a trend towards 2 deep lying central midfield players became apparent.

Deployed correctly, Busquets (left) has been phenomenal in South Africa...

In the shift to predominantly 4-2-3-1 among the top teams, the central strength of the 4-4-2 has been maintained and often made more rigid as central midfield player maintain shape in attack in anticipation of transition to defense. The most successful implementations use a complementary pair of holding players. Both Spain and Germany combine a marauding tackler with a ball-playing organizer who relies on good defensive positioning. The Netherlands rely on a tough tackler and the most cynical linking player in football to strangle their opponents midfield and deny the counter.

The midfield base keeps a careful square shape with the 2 center backs whenever the opponents have the ball in and around the central areas. This “defensive box” that forms the core of the team’s defending and must maintain a carefully regulated size, depending on how far into the defensive third they are pushed back. (Even teams that played three in the back exhibited this shape.) The ability to quickly return to this shape in the transition from attack to defense becomes more important than the traditional movement of the back four chain.

Instead, as the strong-sided fullback gets forward, the weak-sided fullback joins the line at the base of midfield to make a convenient and flexible “W” shape out of which to defend the quick counterattack. Thus the fullbacks are alternately freed to become the box-to-box players while central midfielders restrain this impulse and instead form triangles to perform the of keeping possession. Central midfielders only risk joining the attack only once the opposition is pushed back in their defensive third, which also changes the roles of the other forward players.

Positional Hybridization
“At any given time…”

As the fullbacks have become the box-to-box players, the roles of the players in the more attacking areas of the pitch often become hybridized to compensate for the late thrusts from central midfield. Everyone by now has heard the phrases: “The False Nine”, “The False Ten”, “The Inverted Winger”.

They sound appropriately exotic, defined in negativity against what it is no longer sufficient to exclusively be. Still, the concepts are simple enough. The False Nine is simply a central striker who “at any given time” might also drops deep and/or wide to become an auxiliary play-maker and/or winger (David Villa). The False Ten is a central play-maker who “at any given time” might be found getting into the box as a second striker or into wide areas like a winger (Sneijder). The Inverted Winger is a winger who “at any given time” might be found in central midfield areas performing the functions of the play-maker or in advanced positions like a striker (Robben). Finally, the attacking fullback – that amalgam of fullback and wide midfielder (Maicon).

The hybridization of position allows the important functions of positions that have been abandoned as the game has progressed tactically still to be performed. This has been made possible by the increased athleticism and fitness of modern footballers and necessitated by the abandonment of man-marking for zonal marking schemes. On the defensive side these qualities have simultaneous increased the necessity of unpredictability in the attack in order to overcome a well-organized defensive scheme that gets numbers behind the ball.

Return of 3-man Defenses

“Every disadvantage has its advantage.”

The 3-man defense was remarkably prevalent during the World Cup with Chile, Mexico, Algeria, undefeated New Zealand and the fluid Brazil sometimes defending with three players in the back, augmented with wing-backs. While the hybrid positions within a 4-2-3-1 sought to put zonal marking schemes at a disadvantage, some 3 man defensive systems seemed like attempts to negate this and regain the advantage. The main impetus seemed was the system’s flexibility in dealing with deep-lying central attacker who plays between the lines of midfield and defense.

Marquez and Mexico may trouble US strikers with "their new look" long after World Cup 2010...

The 3-man defense is generally considered to be best suited to combat a dual-striker system, but it underwent an interesting evolution in South Africa, as it was also deployed against the 4-2-3-1. For Mexico and Chile, the two teams that qualified for the knock-out rounds playing regularly with 3 at the back, the third center back had far more freedom to step up and get tight on a deep-lying forward, without leaving a 1v1 against the central striker. Instead, the extra center back is free to step out and limit the time and space of the deep-lying attacker, leaving a 4-man back line behind him as the wing-backs drop back.

When the ball was out wide it allowed the wing back to aggressively pressure the wide players with plenty of support behind them while the central midfield simply kept shape. In contrast, with a 4-man back line the holding midfield player is often sacrificed for cover behind the fullback against a tricky winger. Ghana’s Annan frequently tucked behind the fullback v. Germany, leaving the gap in the danger zone from which where Ozil’s goal ultimately came.

Aguirre’s Mexico used wing-backs as the truly box-to-box players creating a system that changed with the phases of play to become a 5-3-2 in the defensive third, a 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 in the middle third, and even a 2-3-5 (football’s earliest formation) in it’s most attacking phase. With 3 central backs, Marquez was liberated to play a modern interpretation of the sweeper role, stepping into the center of a four player “defensive box” to close down and protect the danger zone. This also gave him the freedom to become the extra man in the attack as he did when he scored the equalizer in the opening match against South Africa.

Bielsa’s Chile also frequently played 3 at the back. Their 3-3-1-3 system is very unique and not particularly designed for pinned-back defending, designed instead to free the wing-backs to press defensively. Deep in the defensive third they frequently create a “two banks of four” shape with only 1 wing-back dropping into a fullback position while the other stays in the deeper midfield  line where he’s joined by one or both of the wingers and the central play-maker who press high up the pitch out of possession. In the attack, the advanced wingers stay wide while the wing-backs come from wide to central areas on the diagonal – an unusual movement that troubled most of their opponents. After losing the ball, they simply foul to prevent the counter.

Cruyff’s World Cup

Regardless of what happens in the final between the Netherlands and Spain, this has been Cruyff’s World Cup. Spain, with a string of 1-0 victories in the knock-out rounds, have been the ultimate realization of his statement “when you have the ball the other team cannot score” and “I am convinced that you have to do it like I do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it this way.”

Spain didn’t quite realize that “it doesn’t matter how many goals they score. As long as you score one more” as we had hoped, but it’s been anything but boring despite the frequent 1-0 margins.
There aren’t many teams are there in the world that can truly impose their will on every opponent. No team outside of Chile has been able to impose their own game on Spain for any length of time rather than absorbing pressure and hoping to counter.

Ironically, the Netherlands better embody the description “they can never beat you, buy you can lose against them.” With Inter’s talisman beating at their heart, the Netherlands have become the Italians that Cruyff thus described before Ajax faced AC Milan in the 1995 European Cup final.

14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Rick on 2010/07/10 at 9:14 AM

    I love this little article! It has opened my eyes to a better understanding of the multiple facets of soccer that factor into the success or failure of a team, such as:

    – team tactics
    – individual player tactics
    – formation
    – individual player fitness
    – overall football intelligence of each player, and their understanding of their role according to position and system
    – determining which players will best fit into a particular system of tactics and style of play
    – predicting how closely those players will fulfill their desired roles
    – player personality and tendencies during play
    – how different teams match up, according to all the above factors

    I suppose all these factors come into play in any team sport, but up until now I don’t think I’ve been been considering the importance of each one of these elements when watching soccer, and how interwoven they are. You can’t reasonably consider any one of them independently, in any useful way, without putting them into the context of the big picture.

    Recognizing these patterns and how these elements interrelate is not an easy thing. But after reading this, I don’t think I’m going to be able to watch games the same way I used to. The trick is understanding when to spot the application of more advanced and nuanced principles.

    If you have any recommendations about how to learn more about any of this, please say so.


    • Posted by Seamus on 2010/07/10 at 9:38 AM

      Read Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson and follow his articles in The Guardian (UK). Bookmark zonalmarking.net and of course continue to read The Shin Guardian for the best US soccer news/views/breakdowns.


  2. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2010/07/10 at 10:19 AM

    As always, great article Tuesday. I was and still am wondering why England didn’t go with the 4-2-3-1 that served us so well during WCQ.

    Rick, here is something to consider: I think I got the idea from a Sacchi article in FourFourTwo back in the day, but when I re-watch games and one team is about to counter attack, I always pause it to see what options the player on the ball has and try to decide which is the best one. Then I press play and see the action evolve. It is amazing how some teams always make the ‘right pass at the right time’ and other get it horribly wrong and the attack break down.

    And Netherlands were in the 1978 WC Final too…


    • According to Capello’s statements, that’s because it was an accidental 4-2-3-1 w Roo dropping deep and The wingers pushing on. Roo didin’t drop and the wingers didn’t push on.


  3. Posted by Sein Fein on 2010/07/10 at 10:21 AM

    Maybe I am misremembering, but weren’t the Dutch in the ’78 final?


  4. Posted by Tom on 2010/07/11 at 10:05 AM

    Something to consider- I’ve always considered the soccer field concepts of time and space, as in reality, to be relative and directly related. That is, if a player has space, he also has time, and if a player has time, he can create space. So really the central “currency” of the field is spacetime.


  5. Posted by mfmaxpower on 2010/07/12 at 12:02 AM

    It’s a good article with top-level analysis… the only problem is that it’s more than a bit outdated – all of the tactical innovations mentioned here have been going on for a better part of five years, if not longer, and have been detailed previously elsewhere, like the aforementioned Jonathan Wilson.

    So spot-on with the analysis, only it’s been done before. If you could provide some more original contributions to the game, you would truly be top class. Good try though. Cheers.


    • Originality and identifying the major trends of the World Cup are strange bedfellows when you consider how much ink has been spilled over the last month. Thanks for your compliments and criticism – we’re always working to get better here at TSG.


    • So this was me on Saturday.
      This is Jonathan Wilson on SI today: http://bit.ly/bZtGKI

      And this is the second time this has happened this month. I think you’ll find my piece is also far more enjoyable to read.


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