Brazil, Spain, Germany, France failing to find attacking balance
Football tactics are generally considered a mere necessary evil in football, discussed purely in terms of hampering individual freedom and disrupting opposition play.
But tactical planning is also about attacking, about creating the right balance between different concepts to create a cohesive, harmonious but varied threat in the final third. Finding the balance in attack, combining different concepts and formulating how they come together smoothly is the most fascinating element of football strategy.
An all-round attacking force offers various qualities: runs in behind, width to stretch play, movement to create gaps in the opposition, late runs from midfield, a target in the middle, a player between the lines to link play, and some degree of long-range, goal-scoring threat to ensure you don't actually need to penetrate the defence.
Limited to only three or four attacking individuals, however, coaches have a tricky balancing act. So far, none of the four favourites for World Cup 2018 -- Brazil, Spain, Germany and France -- have found the right balance.
The obvious example is Tite's Brazil, who just about scraped a victory over a resilient Costa Rica side on Friday, after their underwhelming 1-1 draw with Switzerland in the opening game. The second-half improvement against Costa Rica was largely because Tite introduced extra attacking weapons, and yet before the tournament, he'd already made an attack-minded shift.
That involved repositioning Coutinho, bringing him back from a right-sided forward role into an inside-left midfield position. This suited both Coutinho individually and Brazil as an attacking unit, providing the midfield with extra creativity alongside Casemiro's discipline and Paulinho's running. Coutinho has responded well with two goals in two games, curling home a glorious opener against Switzerland and poking in the late opener against Costa Rica.
That created a vacancy in the forward trio, and Tite's initial plan was using Willian on the right.
Thus far, it's been difficult to deduce precisely what Willian offers to this Brazil side, other than defensive discipline which means Brazil can defend with two banks of four, when required, allowing Neymar to have a free role rather than defend the left. This might be crucial in the latter stages against stronger opposition, but against Costa Rica, it was evident from early on that Brazil desperately required proper width. Willian was sacrificed at half-time, with Douglas Costa summoned, and immediately Brazil's tempo improved. They utterly dominated the second half, with Costa providing width, speed, directness and dribbling skills. Sometimes he lost possession clumsily, but sometimes his quick darts attracted opponents and opened up space for others, chiefly Neymar.
The emphasis upon getting Neymar into space also dominates the debate about Brazil's centre-forward. Gabriel Jesus starts up front and generally plays on the shoulder of the opposition defence but, when Brazil play against opponents sitting deep, it's questionable how much Jesus contributes.
The option of Roberto Firmino, now a No. 9 at club level, will intrigue Tite. There's certainly a danger that Firmino will drop too deep, into the space where Neymar wants to operate. But equally, his link play and selflessness could be precisely what Neymar requires, almost a "wall" for him to bounce one-twos off. And so, two games into the competition, there are still major questions about the composition of Brazil's attack.
But the same applies elsewhere. Spain's experience has been somewhat similar: A draw followed by an unconvincing victory over minnows, in their case Portugal and Iran. Like Brazil, Spain's coach has also brought their creative, right-sided attacker back into a midfield position.
In Spain's case, that occurred after the opening game. Whereas David Silva started on the right against Portugal, albeit inevitably drifting inside into central positions, he was fielded in a conventional midfield role against Iran. This meant Fernando Hierro was required to introduce Lucas Vazquez to provide proper width on the right flank. The width on the left, incidentally, is already supplied by the outstanding, overlapping full-back Jordi Alba, so widening the pitch on the right made sense.
Spain didn't look entirely comfortable in this system, however, with Vazquez stretching play but failing to provide decisive balls into the box. Spain have previously suffered from a lack of genuine penetration at tournaments, although here they boast a proper, all-round No. 9 in Diego Costa, who has provided them with more options because he offers speed in behind, an aerial threat and a hold-up option. He has scored three goals in two games, and while his "strike" against Iran was highly fortunate, he always provided a penalty box target.
What Spain lacked, though, is runners looking to support, or get beyond, their centre-forward. This is a curious issue, because while David Silva and Isco aren't naturally that type of player, throughout qualification they modified their game to become more threatening in front of goal, and it appeared Costa's role would be as provider rather than main goal-scorer. Silva and Isco have been outstanding in tiki-taka terms, but they've offered little goal threat. Against stronger defences, Costa will require support.
Germany are yet another side who scraped a narrow victory in their second game, although for Jogi Low's side, it was even more imperative considering they'd lost their opener to Mexico. Low made several changes between the two matches and subsequent switches as Germany desperately tried to turnaround the game in Saturday's 2-1 win over Sweden. But is Low any closer to deciding upon his ideal front four?
Probably not. In fact, none of his attackers are truly undroppable, especially after the omission of Mesut Ozil for the Sweden game. Timo Werner has shown good movement up front, but is goalless and Germany offered more penalty box threat after the introduction of Mario Gomez, a more typical No. 9. They went wide more often, and creating more chances by drilling low balls into the box. Werner was shifted into a wide position but drifted inside to become a secondary goal threat, finding more space than when leading the line, and assisting Marco Reus' equaliser.
Having missed out against Mexico, Reus started against Sweden and provided a spark behind the lone frontman, making well-timed runs in behind despite the Sweden defence playing deep. He's likely to retain his place. The contributions of Julian Draxler and Thomas Muller, though, are more questionable. The former is hugely talented but lacks the elegance of Ozil, while the latter is a baffling player who sometimes looks useless even when scoring regularly, so it's impossible to quantify what he offers when suffering a goal drought. The good impact of winger Julian Brandt, who provides natural width, could provide Germany with more attacking thrust from the outset against South Korea.
And finally, of the four sides generally considered pre-tournament favourites, is France. This has been a classic lesson in finding balance, because Didier Deschamps started the tournament with an adventurous front three of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. This was a popular choice, since all three are speedy, technical and versatile. There's a familiar refrain when a manager opts for a triumvirate like this: They don't need defined positions! They can interchange, dovetail, rotate, and opponents won't know how to stop them!
It sounds great, it looks wonderful on paper, but is usually flops on the pitch. Barely 25 minutes into France's opener against Australia, and you already sensed that France needed Olivier Giroud, the tournament's most classic Plan B. Giroud is less talented than the aforementioned trio, but he offers something different. His presence means France can play more directly, while his movement towards midfield, combined with his neat one-touch link play for onrushing attackers, helps others to shine.
Griezmann, France's key player, loves operating just behind him, and Paul Pogba benefits from his selflessness too. After being summoned from the bench against Australia, Giroud made a typical contribution for the winner, with his first-time, back-to-goal touch for Pogba effectively an assist, even if it was eventually recorded as an own goal.
Giroud came into the starting XI for the game against Peru, and played a part in Mbappe's opener in a less typical way, running into the left channel. The crucial thing about Giroud's presence, though, is that Deschamps feels compelled to leave out one of the aforementioned trio of quick attackers, and it was Dembele who was omitted. With Giroud, Griezmann, Mbappe and Dembele, France's 4-2-3-1 would become a 4-2-4 and leave the midfield overrun. Therefore Blaise Matuidi, the box-to-box player, was fielded on the left flank. He offered little going forward, but he defended well against Luis Advincula, Peru's dangerous attacking right-back and reputedly the fastest player at this tournament, while also pressing effectively. Overall, the system looked better.
There's a common theme between the four favourites so far. All have attempted to play an idealistic style of football based around pace, movement and interplay between technically gifted players, but have overlooked the unfashionable, old-school concepts: Width, a penalty box presence, and late midfield runs. The four favourites are still trying to find the right balance two games into the tournament, with more question marks than answers thus far.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.