Four years of tactical evolution
The World Cup is always a fantastic barometer of the prevailing style of football in any era. Games from Chile in 1962 were amazingly physical and aggressive, by the 1970s things had become more cultured and technical, and in 1990 defensive organisation and structure was the overriding feel.
What of 2014 in Brazil? What will distinguish it from World Cup 2010 -- and, indeed, from World Cup 2018? Here are three key features of the 32 sides competing over the next five weeks.
No long-ball football
International football is generally a step behind club football in terms of technical and tactical quality. While small, technically gifted players have reigned at club level for a few years, it hasn't been uncommon for international sides to play a "big man" up front and hit long, straight and simple passes towards him.
This time around, it's tough to find any side that will play long-ball football. England are a decent example in this respect -- in 2006 they took Peter Crouch and often thumped straight passes towards him, while in both 2002 and 2010, Emile Heskey was considered the first-choice No. 9. Heskey wasn't purely about challenging for long balls, but it's amazing England were using such a basic footballer just four years ago.
Now, Roy Hodgson's side boasts some physical quality up front, but all of England's strikers are extremely good technically, and thrive in passing sides rather than long-ball teams. Daniel Sturridge is brilliant with the ball at his feet, Danny Welbeck's pass-completion rate is always extremely high and even obvious Plan B Rickie Lambert isn't a Heskey figure -- he's someone with great intelligence in possession and loves linking with oncoming midfielders.
That sums up the technical shift over the past four years of many sides. Think back to 2010, and there were various sides that played rather directly up to the front two. Serbia chucked the ball forward to Marko Pantelic and Nikola Zigic, and Slovenia's play was based around 6-foot-3 Milivoje Novakovic. Paraguay's approach was about Dortmund duo Lucas Barrios and Nelson Valdez chasing lost causes, while New Zealand's Shane Smeltz, Slovakia's Robert Vittek and Switzerland's Blaise Nkufo were simply target men, too. Even Italy were disappointingly basic, often playing Vincenzo Iaquinta from the wing -- the sure sign of a long-ball side.
There's much less of this in 2014. Even South Korea, who played simple long-ball football under former coach Choi Kang-hee, have been revolutionised as a technical side under former captain Hong Myung-bo. This doesn't mean every team will copy Spain's obsession with ball retention, of course, but the sides that play directly will attempt to counter-attack down the wings rather than thumping the ball forward. Therefore, the technical quality on show at this tournament should be very impressive.
At the World Cup of 2010, the widespread passiveness without possession was extremely underwhelming. Marcelo Bielsa insisted that Chile pressed at all times, while Spain utilised the fact Barcelona were accustomed to pressing, too (which, via Pep Guardiola, also links back to Bielsa). But otherwise, it was so disappointing to see everyone drop back into their own half and wait for the opposition to enter the final third before attempting to win possession. It was also particularly surprising considering the cold temperature in South Africa, which is theoretically suited to constant running.
It might seem ludicrous to expect more midfield pressing considering Brazil's climate -- and games in Manaus might be played at walking pace -- but in the warm-up matches, various teams have been playing extremely proactively without the ball, despite the danger of tiring themselves out before the tournament itself.
Don't expect to see the opposition centre-backs harried much, but the Netherlands, for example, are pressing very vigorously in midfield. Regardless of whether they play three or four at the back -- Louis van Gaal has tried both in preparation games -- the midfielders get tight and the full-backs (or wing-backs) push forward while the centre-backs keep a high line.
Their neighbours Belgium are trying something similar, with Axel Witsel charging forward from his deep-lying midfield role, and leaving space between the lines -- which becomes the responsibility of aggressive centre-back duo Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen. Continuing the western European pressing craze, France's ultra-mobile trio of Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba should do something similar.
Traditionally cautious sides like England and Italy are more positive without possession, and even Greece have pressed in the midfield during some pre-tournament friendlies. Outside Europe, Japan want to keep the ball away from their shaky centre-backs, so will close down higher up the pitch; Australia are a young, energetic side and Algeria looked extremely proactive throughout their qualifiers. Then, of course, there's Spain and Chile -- still leading the pressing charge. Teams might not able to sustain this for 90 -- or 120 -- minutes, but it should be more exciting than in South Africa.
Midfield scrappers, adventurous full-backs
Even at the last two World Cups, it wasn't uncommon to witness sides with very flat lines of defence and attack, with central midfielders getting heavily involved in attacking play, and the full-backs staying at home and protecting their defenders. South Africa, Slovenia and Australia were good examples of this. The top-level European and South American sides consistently threw full-backs forward while protecting the defence with solid, reliable midfielders, but that pattern has become much more widespread.
Honduras, for example, are arguably the weakest of the competing nations. Their approach is simple -- Wilson Palacios and Luis Garrido simply shield the back four, and it's difficult to imagine either of them charging forward to provide a penetrative pass or a goal. The full-backs, though, will fly forward, with Emilio Izaguirre a great threat from the left.
It's not dissimilar to the approach used by Brazil -- Luiz Gustavo stays very deep, Paulinho often helps him out and even No. 10 Oscar has a very disciplined role, while Daniel Alves and Marcelo attack energetically from the wide positions. From bottom to top, there's a huge emphasis upon minimising the space between the lines, while trying to expose the opposition down the flanks.
The question, of course, is precisely what the sides do from those advanced wide areas. Crossing has become a questionable tactic, and it's likely we'll witness teams attempting to create overloads in the channels, before attempting intelligent, measured cut-backs from close to the byline.
This is something coaches have emphasised recently, and this could be a tournament for players arriving late in the box. South Korea's Koo Ja-cheol, Ghana's Kevin-Prince Boateng and the United States' Michael Bradley are the type of attacking midfielders that thrive in these situations -- and while these aren't star names, they could score crucial goals.