4-2-3-1 was the buzz formation of the World Cup so you may see a big move to that formation on the field this season. It’s a difficult one to pull off with kids though. I played it for most of last season and went away from it as I found the two holding mids got confused about coverage responsibilities and I couldn’t convince our outside backs it was safe (indeed, good) for them to get forward. That and the gaps between the holding mids and the three attacking mids became problematic.
And much as I like Zonal Marking I find it surprising how eager they are to pigeon hole everyone into specific formations. I watched all of Spain’s games, critically, and I can’t honestly say what formation they played. It seemed to me like a 4-5-1 at times (Busquets, Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta and a deep lying Villa in midfield) and at others it was a 4-2-3-1 or a regular 4-4-2. In the end, I don’t think there was so much a formation and specific roles and responsibilities given to the players. Some had tight reins on those roles (like Busquets and Capdevila) and some were given a very free role (Iniesta in particular).
In fact, for me, the most significant tactical development was the anti-formation. That is, the teams that gave one or more of their players the freedom to go where they wanted in an effort to lose markers, unbalance defenders, create space and generally wreak havoc. Besides Iniesta, Forlan seemed to have this role. It was also difficult to tell if Robben was playing as a striker or wide midfielder most of the time (same with Villa). Might even say the same of Germany’s Ozil but that may just have been undisciplined positional play at times
1. “Of the four semi-finalists, only Uruguay played in a formation that resembled 4-4-2, although the position occupied by Diego Forlan merits further examination. Although he was in principle a striker, he mostly played in an advanced midfield position, behind the team’s main striker, Luis Suarez. In effect, Forlan had a free role and was always looking to keep play moving before driving forward.”
This was the tournament that confirmed the decline of the 4-4-2. Not simply because of the above statement, but because so many sides playing 4-4-2 did poorly and had problems stemming from the system – England, the US and Switzerland notable cases here. Although Uruguay did play with a fairly basic 4-4-2 in some games – in particular the penalty shoot-out win over Ghana, we should note that in addition to the factor of Forlan dropping deep, Uruguay also fielded the Arevalo-Perez combination in every game. Those two are both holding players, both sat very deep and rarely ventured forward, and acted no differently to the double pivot in most 4-2-3-1s. Therefore, even though Uruguay have been identified as playing 4-4-2, the system was not much different from a 4-2-3-1.
2. “The Netherlands, Germany and Spain all used a 4-2-3-1 formation, but even so they all interpreted this system in their own way.”
This is an extremely important point. Jonathan Wilson noted, in his tactical lessons of the World Cup, “what has been noticeable in South Africa has been the vast range of 4-2-3-1s.” The key is that those three sides were adapting the shape to suit the individual players they had at their disposal. Spain and Holland, in particular, played lopsided systems – Spain often had Andres Iniesta on one flank, level with the midfielders, and David Villa on the other, looking to connect with the strikers. Holland ended up playing something similar by the final, with (in the first picture here), Dirk Kuyt level with the central midfielders, and Robben practically playing as a striker. And Brazil, probably the most impressive side in the tournament until their second half horror show against Holland, also had a lopsided 4-2-3-1. The formation may have reigned, but it was the subtleties that made it successful.