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Richard Jolly profile picture Posted by Richard Jolly
Jul 14, 2014

Tactical trends for the 2018 World Cup

A breakdown of the tactical deficiencies of Brazil and the Netherlands that led to both sides losing their semifinal matches.

Sixty years ago, tactics were transformed. Opponents were dumbfounded. "It was like playing people from outer space," said England defender Syd Owen, who had actually faced people from behind the Iron Curtain.

Hungary's team of the 1950s fielded a false nine, Nandor Hidegkuti, long before the term had been invented. If 21st-century defenders aren't sure how to stop a deep-lying forward, their post-war counterparts were utterly baffled.

The safe prediction is that the 2018 World Cup in Russia will have no equivalent to the 1950s Hungarians, no team with such a revolutionary impact or as radical a game plan. Secrets are harder to keep in the global game now; news and ideas travel quickly in a technological era. Even when North Korea, the world's most reclusive regime, sent a side to the 2010 World Cup, they contained fewer surprises than the post-war Hungary team.

Advances in scouting ought to prevent a repeat of mistakes made in the past. For years, clubs could confuse opponents in European ties by switching their shirt numbers so that, for instance, a right-back would go and mark the No. 11 under the misguided assumption he was the left winger. It wasn't just the adoption of squad numbers that changed that.

While managers are better prepared now, predicting precisely which men will be in the Russian dugouts in 2018 is rather harder. Usually, more than half of the World Cup teams change their coach in the following weeks; many will at least once more before the next tournament. And, of course, not all of the same 32 countries will qualify.

If the tactics of the tournament are dictated by the coaches, the reality is that the part-time nature of international football attracts those at the end of their career. It is a generalisation, but they don't tend to be a fount of new ideas. Vicente del Bosque, Roy Hodgson, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Ottmar Hitzfeld and Fabio Capello did little original in this World Cup; only the tactically flexible 62-year-old Louis van Gaal has brought invention at an advanced age.

International football can lag behind the club game. The only exceptions, perhaps, are on the American continent, where the sheer volume of games played by the CONCACAF and CONMEBOL sides gives them a greater chance to establish the sort of understanding more associated with domestic teams. It is particularly notable with a distinct style of play, such as Chile's striker-less pressing game.

So the broader issue is whether trends from this World Cup will continue in the next or bring a backlash. The three-man defence, which seemed on the brink of extinction in 2010, has been revived by Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico and the Netherlands. It is a policy that makes more sense against opponents that field two forwards, of which there are comparatively few.

The question, perhaps, is if more managers want to accommodate a playmaker at the back, in the mould of Mexico's Rafael Marquez, or simply adopt a policy of safety in numbers to compensate for the absence of outstanding individual defenders, as Van Gaal did with the Dutch. If not, they will probably stick with a back four featuring attacking full-backs.

If defensive midfielders have become more significant than centre-backs, it is a consequence of the rise of the No. 10. Perhaps it is simply cyclical and a higher proportion of the future match-winners will be the No. 9, the furthest man forward, or maybe it is a general trend that the greatest talents will gravitate to a slightly deeper position. At any rate, while the No. 9 attracts fewer plaudits than in previous generations, the threat of extinction has receded. Even Spain ditched the false nine, and Germany reverted to an orthodox one in Miroslav Klose; only Chile's nonconformists played without a real striker.

But the primacy of players with a freer role also incorporated Arjen Robben. The Dutchman wasn't a specialist No. 10 like Lionel Messi or James Rodriguez. In a tournament where few attacking players hugged the touchlines, he was a central winger. Time will tell if he proves a one-off or a trend-setter.

Messi, Rodriguez and Neymar brought plenty of mentions of one-man teams. It is worth watching in 2018 to see if managers blessed with two similarly gifted attacking talents are willing to incorporate both or if it provides them with an unwanted problem, as it was when Italy platooned Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera in 1970.

The Netherlands were the closest to a side built around two stellar players, in Robben and Robin van Persie. Tactically, they were the most significant side of the 2014 World Cup for several reasons. Their direct counterattacking was an antidote to tiki-taka and may provide a pointer to 2018. Long passing could be making a comeback.

Louis van Gaal started the death of tiki-taka.

The Dutch beat Spain 5-1 with just 36 percent of possession and defeated Chile with only 32 percent. It followed on from Real Madrid's 4-0 win at Bayern Munich, when Carlo Ancelotti's team was on the ball for only 31 percent of the game. It all suggests that possession is no longer nine-tenths of the footballing law, although a younger generation of Spanish playmakers, such as Koke and Thiago Alcantara, may prove otherwise in the next World Cup.

Another antidote to the short passing game came via set pieces, not least because many defended them so poorly. They brought Germany's comparatively prosaic breakthroughs in both the quarterfinal, against France, and the semifinal, against Brazil. It will be instructive if it brings a reaction, if more set-piece specialists are chosen, sides have greater height in attack and defenders are picked in part for their ability to head corners away.

As it was, in a tournament marked by progressive football, few attempted to field a blanket defence. Iran were arguably the most negative team in Brazil, but even they attempted to beat Argentina on the break. It is to be hoped that there is no reversion to the caution that marked much of the 2010 World Cup, let alone the catenaccio of bygone eras.

The major factor that will determine tactics in four years' time is simple: players. International football denies managers the chance to sign. Whatever ethos they have, their sides have to be shaped by the resources at their disposal and the limited amount of time. Within that, however, there is scope for left-field thinking. The Netherlands progressed as far as they did because Van Gaal could switch from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 to 4-2-4, from his first-choice goalkeeper to his penalty-saving substitute.

Perhaps that is a glimpse of 2018. Maybe the search will be on for more managerial match-winners so that, if there are no new tactical developments, variety can compensate for an absence of originality.