Everything you need to know about the shebang in South Africa
Michael Cox, editor of ZonalMarking.net, on how wingers could win (or save) this World Cup...
What are we lacking at the World Cup? The obvious answer is goals. So far, we’ve seen a rather miserable 2.1 goals per game at the halfway point of the competition, compared to 2.3 four years ago, 2.5 eight years ago, and 2.7 twelve years ago. It’s fairly easy to spot a trend.
A more specific answer might be width. This is a slightly surprising development at this World Cup, because the predominant system coming into the tournament, certainly amongst the European teams, was to play one striker supported by two wide players. Whether a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, a good proportion of teams played this way, which necessitates having two players comfortable in wide positions.
Or at least, it means having two players who are comfortable starting in wide positions. The rise of the attacking full-back, and the greater desire for midfield players to provide goals, have seen many teams playing what the Italians term ‘mezzalas’ – players on the wing who don’t naturally belong there.
This has been particularly evident this season, with the popularity of inverted wingers – playing on the opposite flank to which their foot would usually dictate. Manchester City used Craig Bellamy and Adam Johnson on the ‘wrong’ sides, Aston Villa often did the same with Stewart Downing and Ashley Young.
Roy Hodgson used Simon Davies and Damien Duff – and indeed, Fulham were one of three sides to reach a European final with this system. Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben did it, whilst Atletico Madrid won the Europa League with Jose Antonio Reyes and Simao Sabrosa either side.
Although not many teams at the World Cup have been using such a system, it does point to the attributes managers are looking for from wide players at the moment – not the ability to get to the byline and swing in a cross, but the willingness to come inside, link up with the striker, and try to get a shot away.
The natural result of this has been for defences to play very narrow. If teams are trying to get their wide players inside to go through opponents, then packing the middle of the defence is an obvious solution. Of course, this leaves the flanks unoccupied.
But not many sides have been able to take advantage of this. The most obvious example was Spain’s first match against Switzerland. In their 4-2-3-1, Andres Iniesta and David Silva both looked to come inside, move behind the striker and pass their way through the defence. Both players had very poor games because they were denied space in the centre, with the full-backs coming narrow and the Swiss defending across the width of the penalty area.
It was notable that Spain offered much more threat when they brought on a natural wide player in Jesus Navas. Although his delivery was often disappointing, he was certainly Spain’s best hope of creating a goal.
This wasn't just because he was in a part of the pitch where the Swiss were reluctant to venture, but because he suddenly offered a different point of attack, and because he helped stretch the defence. He also had a good game against Honduras, and if Vicente del Bosque insists on fielding David Villa in a wide-left position, natural width is certainly needed on the right.
Holland – who have been slightly underwhelming despite their two victories – are another side in desperate need of a winger in their first XI. The use of Rafael van der Vaart (starting left, drifting in) and Wesley Sneijder (starting central, drifting left) has resulted in their two most creative players occupying the same space.
They’ve looked far more impressive in the final 20 minutes of both games when Elijero Elia has come on as a substitute, and the return of Arjen Robben will be an even better solution. You could make similar observations about Mauro Camoranesi’s substitute appearances for Italy, and for Portugal Simao Sabrosa was 10 times more effective than Danny.
You can get past defences in three ways – you can go over them, through them, or around them. The immense popularity of defending deep and narrow eliminates the former two options, so it's up to the likes of Navas, Camoranesi, Robben and Simao - just two starts between them so far - to give this tournament a new lease of life.
More from Michael Cox:June 17: Defences on top in first roundJune 12: Back three back in fashion
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Thank you Michael. Finally the answer that I've been looking for.
Ever since the 2nd leg of the Champions League semi-final I've been trying to figure out why skilled offensive teams have been unable to get past the compact defenses that you've described - even more so now that same syndrome seems to have afflicted this year's world cup.
But now, after reading your very informative and detail-oriented article, I feel that I have a better understanding of the problem.
However, the article does beg the following questions:
Why don't managers/players adjust more quickly?
Do teams just fall into a pattern of behavior that's just to difficult to break?
Or is it hubris on behalf of the managers and players?
Thanks again for contributing to the development of my football knowledge.
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