"A healthy dressing room is worth more than 100 hours of tactics," declared Vicente Del Bosque as he and his team prepared to jet off to Brazil to defend their title.
He’s right, of course. Without the right team spirit, all for one and one for all, any amount of tactical cleverness will almost certainly be nullified, as the Dutch have proven on numerous occasions.
By a nice irony, it was the tactical bravery of Louis Van Gaal and his Dutch side which ripped Spain apart in 27 minutes in Salvador last month, thus setting the tone for the World Cup.
It’s hard to imagine a more complete contrast with the last match between the sides and a dire Dutch display in the 2010 World Cup final.
Three at the back, raking diagonals bypassing midfield, centre backs pressing the opposition beyond the halfway line, the keeper left exposed... at times it seemed reckless, but it worked, and we saw similar tactical experiments from other sides.
Chile also had a nominal three-man defence, but sat deeper. That should have allowed Spain room to play the possession game that has served them so well, but Chile played with such intensity that the Spanish midfield couldn’t assert control. Like the Dutch, they used the diagonal ball from left to right, constantly finding space on the flanks.
The group stage was phenomenal. Teams using the “unfashionable” back three played eight matches against sides with four at the back and emerged with six wins and two draws, both scoreless. Yet in recent years it’s really only in Italy that top sides such as Napoli and Udinese have used this as their standard formation, and even then with mixed results.
Pace and width gave this World Cup a very different feeling.
To some extent, this was an inevitable counter to the Spanish domination of international football, especially after the way Barcelona and then Bayern Munich came unstuck in the Champions League playing possession without aggressive pressing — lots of tiki, not enough taka. As Roberto Martinez said: “Everyone came to the conclusion that if you wanted to compete against Spain, it couldn’t be on their terms.”
What no one expected was the all-out blitz.
The obvious example is Germany’s destruction of Brazil, but Chile did something similar against Spain without the goal glut: 2-0 up with 20 minutes left, their two wingbacks combined in the Spanish penalty area and should have scored a third.
It was a great World Cup for attacking play — but not for strikers. Thomas Muller looks like an exception, but he did a lot of his attacking from the flanks. James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben both had excellent tournaments, but neither is a striker as such. Good players out wide enjoyed success, both cutting in to shoot and with crosses, notably for Germany. The cut and thrust between wingers and wingbacks was a feature of the tournament from the first day, right through to the final and Mario Götze’s stunning finish from Andre Schürrle’s cross.
The one genuine innovation of this World Cup was the flying goalkeeper. Manuel Neuer’s exploits came close to disaster on two or three occasions — there was some overreaction when he clattered Gonzalo Higuain in the final, but it still looked reckless — but his timing and speed off the mark were outstanding. Other keepers also showed great reactions and speed off the line, notably Tim Howard for the USA and Thibaut Courtois for Belgium, but Neuer has genuinely taken the keeper’s role to a new dimension, and his distribution .was also worthy of an outfield player.
How much all this will influence football in the season to come remains to be seen.
Spain’s success between 2008 and 2012 had a profound effect. The counter-revolution has still be to tested properly. Hopefully we will see more exciting play down the flanks and more flair from full backs. But the three-man defence was partly successful because of its unfamiliarity. It can work well against a 4-2-3-1 but it is a lot less secure against three forwards.
Attacking teams prospered — but only up to a point. The Prozone stats show France were the best attacking side measured by ‘net shots inside the penalty area’. On this measure, Germany were behind Spain and Brazil. Don’t expect a goal fest.
As for the men between the posts, we can probably expect to see a few Neuer wannabes next season. And also a few more men in gloves embarrassingly stranded on the edge of the area or trudging off for an early bath.
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