Tactics Board: Alves, Marquez, Robben
BRAZIL 3-1 CROATIA
Dani Alves showcased both sides of his game in Brazil's winning start. The Barcelona right-back tends to be a one-man right flank and, as his touch map shows, he spends much of his time in the opposition's half. Alves is always an outlet and had 105 touches, more than anyone else.
Yet there is a theory that there is space to be found behind Brazil's attack-minded full-backs, whose starting positions are higher than those of many of their counterparts with other countries, and both Alves' touch map and the Croatia goal illustrated that. Alves was so far forward that he had been chasing down Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, with Ivica Olic afforded room to cross from Brazil's right before Marcelo deflected it into his own net. Brazil try and compensate by using holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo to drop in between the centre-backs -- and Thiago Silva and David Luiz are among the more mobile defenders -- but the captain did not get far enough across to cut out Olic's cross for the opener. The use of wingers high up the pitch is a tactic others might try and adopt against Brazil.
One factor in Alves' defensive difficulties was that, while Luiz Felipe Scolari selected the XI expected, it was not the most anticipated line-up. Oscar spent much of the match on the right, rather than as a No. 10, with Hulk shifted to the left. The Zenit St Petersburg forward tends to protect Alves and, while Oscar was influential in the final third and has a reputation for defensive diligence, he didn't offer as much assistance against Olic as Alves required.
MEXICO 1-0 CAMEROON
One of the reasons fewer sides field three central defenders now is that, when the opposition only use a single striker, they can suffer because they have two spare men at the back. It wasn't a problem for Mexico, however, because Rafael Marquez, at 35, does not want to be a marker and retains the passing range of a midfielder.
The Mexico captain's touch map shows that, while he was almost a sweeper behind the other central defenders at times, he was extremely willing to step forward, past them, to join anchor man Jose Juan Vazquez at the base of the midfield. Crucially, against a Cameroon side who defend deep, Marquez is an accurate long passer, completing 12 of his 14 long balls, as he looked to cut out the West Africans' midfield.
It is telling he came forward more on the right: Francisco Rodriguez, playing on the right of the trio of centre-backs, dropped in behind him to form the right of a pair. The other reason why Marquez, Rodriguez and Hector Moreno had so much freedom was because Cameroon chose to use their wingers to track the Mexican wing-backs. It meant their full-backs were often marking no one and, in effect, they were playing a back six. Normally when a team playing 3-5-2 encounters opponents who favour 4-1-4-1, it is a question of whether they can get the wingers in room either side of the three centre-halves. Because Cameroon were so defensive, it was never an issue for Mexico.
NETHERLANDS 5-1 SPAIN
Arjen Robben was an inverted winger before the term was invented. He has spent virtually all of his career cutting in from the right flank, normally in 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations. Last month, Louis van Gaal reshaped Netherlands into a team without wingers, playing 5-3-2. Yet in his modern-day wingless wonders, Robben was integral.
Ostensibly, he was the second striker, supporting Robin van Persie. In reality, he had licence to roam. His touch map is an unusual one: viewed in isolation, it isn't easy to determine where he is playing. One cluster of dots near the right touchline represents familiar territory. More significant, though, was his time spent in central areas: from the inside-right channel, he sent Wesley Sneijder clear for what should have been the opening goal.
A burst through the same area led to his stunning, second goal and concluded in the other area where there are several blobs: inside the Spanish penalty area. It was a sign of how penetrative Netherlands were that they were able to get one of their match-winners on the ball so much in goalscoring positions. It was also a vindication of Van Gaal's change of shape. Robben scored 21 times for Bayern last season operating on the flank but his new role gives him a greater potency. As his style of play and his emphasis on dribbling remained, he was at his best as a central winger.
CHILE 3-1 AUSTRALIA
While Spain jettisoned the controversial tactic that brought them victory in Euro 2012, the World Cup got its first false nine as Jorge Valdivia lined up at the tip of Chile's midfield diamond. He scored, too, with a goal that illustrated the key component for any side fielding a false nine: movement. In this case, it was more the movement of Eduardo Vargas, one of the two wide forwards, who drew the Australia defence out of position and created room for Valdivia.
His pitch map shows Valdivia largely operated as an attacking central midfielder. His sole touch in the Australia box in a central position brought his goal. A false nine can only succeed with the right players around him. In Vargas and Alexis Sanchez, Chile have two wingers who are ideally suited to the system: both have pace and can shift defenders around, allowing the less-dynamic Valdivia space. Both are able to go wide and link up with the raiding full-backs (or wing-backs, when Chile play a back three) and the width in Jorge Sampaoli's side did not come from the midfield as much as the forwards and defence until Valdivia went off and winger Jean Beausejour came on.
In a game of stark contrasts, one of the most notable was that Australia used a converted midfielder, Tim Cahill, as an old-fashioned No. 9, a target man who prompted an aerial attack. It could be argued that neither side had an out-and-out striker -- in terms of the players selected, anyway -- but they adopted opposing approaches.