The obituaries for the back three were being written. It seemed a dying tactic. In the 2010 World Cup, only three of the 32 teams operated with three centre-backs: the minnows of Algeria and New Zealand, plus Chile's endearing underdogs. The South Americans at least reached the round of 16. Thereafter, everyone else fielded a back four.
So, 2014 promises to be different. Costa Rica and Chile have qualified for the second round by playing three at the back (even though Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli opted for 4-3-1-2 against Australia), while the meeting of Mexico and Netherlands ensures at least one quarterfinalist will be adhering to 3-5-2. Louis van Gaal made a late switch of formation after midfielder Kevin Strootman was ruled out, while Miguel Herrera, brought in to rescue Mexico's disastrous qualifying campaign, imported the system he had used in club football. Each has profited by going against the tactical trends. It promises to be an intriguing battle, with several key components.
The Robben factor
Netherlands are a counterattacking team. It makes them particularly dangerous when they have a lead. Arjen Robben is both their quickest player and their most direct. Think of his second, and their fifth, goal against Spain, when he sprinted past Sergio Ramos, or Memphis Depay's late goal against Chile, for examples of the havoc he can wreak with high-speed, vertical runs. He is a prime reason Netherlands were the top scorers in the group stage. Mexico, meanwhile, had the best defensive record, so the game could boil down to the question of whether their back three can keep Robben and Robin van Persie quiet.
The Bayern Munich player's touch map from the three group games highlights how dangerous he is. He has had only 115 touches, but 10 of those have been shots, three of which have been goals. He operated as a winger in Van Gaal's 4-2-3-1 system before moving in field to partner Van Persie in the new-look 3-5-2. But, as the diagram indicates, he has the licence to return to the flanks.
Robben has been excellent at isolating himself against opponents, particularly slower ones, and his speed makes it harder for anyone else to get across and cover. The slowest of the Mexican back three is captain Rafael Marquez. The statistics show he has made fewer defensive contributions -- tackles, clearances and interceptions - than Francisco Rodriguez and Hector Moreno.
The 35-year-old is also the more accomplished footballer, with a greater passing range and a willingness to step into midfield to act as an extra playmaker, with Rodriguez covering. Marquez is part sweeper behind the two orthodox centre-backs, part sweeper in front of them. So far, the division of responsibilities has worked perfectly.
Marquez's heat map for the tournament indicates he can be a factor in the opposition's half. The chances are that Robben will look to exploit the space behind Marquez when he advances or to pit himself against the Mexico skipper. It is also worth noting that Netherlands are unafraid to look for a ball over the top of the opposition's defence, as Van Persie's equaliser against Spain showed.
The midfield battleground
Neither has adopted this shape to dominate the ball. Netherlands had 32 percent of possession against Chile and 36 percent against Spain. In six group games between the two, there was only one -- Mexico's opening win against Cameroon -- in which they had the ball for the majority of the game. They are likely to see more of it than Netherlands, which will probably suit the Dutch.
There is a difference in the midfield triangles. Especially if Jonathan de Guzman partners Nigel de Jong, Netherlands will field a duo of deep-lying players at the base, whereas Mexico have opted for a solitary holding midfielder, Juan Jose Vazquez, who is suspended. Either side of him, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado have been more advanced.
Guardado's heat map shows how he almost operates as an inside-left, linking up with left wing-back Miguel Layun, and Herrera's is a right-sided mirror image. They mean Mexico will probably have the territorial advantage. Netherlands will probably prefer that; if Mexico commit more men up field, their quick transition from defence to attack can be more effective. Their own midfielders are more limited in their movement and, while they pressed relentlessly against Spain, concentrated on ensuring they were not caught out of position in the win over Chile. The destructive de Jong spends virtually all of his time in his own half, as his heat map shows, but was outstanding against the South Americans.
They will dictate the shape of the side. Van Gaal described his formation as 5-3-2, which has proved accurate. Mexico's is more 3-5-2 because Paul Aguilar and Layun operate higher up the field. They are aided because Guardado and Herrera come out to combine with both more than their Dutch counterparts; indeed, Mexico use the wings to attack more than Netherlands do.
Compare the touch maps of two men who will be in direct opposition, Layun and Netherlands' right wing-back Daryl Janmaat, in their final group games and it is apparent the Mexican is far more adventurous. He plays more like a winger and Janmaat more like the full-back he often is. Layun has delivered 10 crosses so far this World Cup and Janmaat just four, which is both an indication that he spends more time in the final third and that crosses play a bigger part in Mexico's game plan. They are likely to use the combination of wing-back and midfielder -- Layun and Guardado on the left -- to try and create two-on-one situations.
They have more width -- some of it supplied by men who are actually central midfielders -- while Netherlands' left wing-back, Daley Blind, plies his trade at club level as a central midfielder. Dirk Kuyt slotted in at left wing-back against Chile but, though a striker for much of his career, had only one touch within 30 yards of goal. It is a sign of a counterattacking team for which the wing-backs rarely break forward.