Three strikers is a risky tactic for New Zealand

June 1, 2010

New Zealand are the rank outsiders for this tournament – or 32nd favourites, if you like – available at up to 2000/1. They would see a single point as an achievement in South Africa, and their saving grace is that they are in a relatively weak group, alongside three fairly defensive sides.

What strengths can they draw upon? Well, they are not entirely lacking in top-level experience. Ryan Nelsen captains a top-half Premiership side, his defensive partner Ivan Vicelic spent seven years in the Dutch Eredivise, and others have had spells at the likes of Celtic, Fulham and West Brom, with varying levels of success. The World Cup will still be a huge step up, but New Zealand are not as unaccustomed to superior footballers as the last side to be embarrassed at the World Cup – Saudi Arabia in 2002, where all of their players were playing in the Saudi national league.

Another positive is the fact that they appear to have a solid, settled first team. They maintain a fairly standard 3-4-3 system, and the XI that started last week’s friendly against Australia was the same XI that started the playoff games against Bahrain last year.

Furthermore, there should be a good understanding within the side because of club connections. Five of the first XI play together at Wellington Phoenix, where they are managed by Ricki Herbert – who doubles up as the national team manager.

Their starting line-up appeared entirely predictable until this week’s shock 1-0 win over World Cup dark horses Serbia, where Herbert was notably keen to praise the performances of some fringe players.

“It’s always been about performance for us, but a win like this over a top-class nation like Serbia is a great bonus,” he said. ”We made four changes and I thought Tommy Smith and Winston Reid, who only have three caps between them, did extremely well at the back alongside Ryan Nelsen.”

“Jeremy Christie came into midfield and did well and Chris Wood in his first start against a big team was outstanding.”

Certainly, the win with these players raises questions about how Herbert will start the first game against Slovakia, but the smart money will be on him reverting to his usual side – so whilst the win against Serbia was more impressive, the recent last-minute defeat to Australia is the more salient game when considering their formation.

The basic shape

Here is the basic shape of their side – a simple 3-4-3. The three centre-backs are marked in red, and generally stay central at all times – Vicelich, the left-sided centre-back, is the only one who occasionally looks to bring the ball forward – the other two look to play the ball to the wing-backs, who are marked in yellow. They play wide, between the lines of defenders and central midfielders (marked in pink). The left-wing-back, Tony Lochhead is nominally a left-back, whereas the right-wing-back, Leo Bertos is a winger, so Bertos naturally gets forward slightly more. The three forwards (marked in green) play quite close to each other, with Rory Fallon the central of the three.

They like to play diagonal balls across the pitch – the left-centre-back to the right-wing-back, and then the right-wing-back to the left-sided striker. And vice-versa. Meanwhile, Fallon plays a traditional target man role, and one of the outside strikers make sure they are in close attendance.

Split roles for the central midfielders

Although the central midfielders play alongside each other when defending and when the ball is dead, the two have very different jobs when in possession. Simon Elliott (in pink) plays what is effectively a holding role in front of the three centre-backs, looking to receive short passes and dictate play from deep in the midfield…

…whereas Tim Brown (in pink) is a much more attacking player, looking to make late forward runs in a Tim Cahill-esque way, and joining up with the three strikers.

Three central strikers

Playing three strikers all over 6′ has obvious advantages when it comes to chucking the ball into the box at head height, but New Zealand’s strikers do little defensively. One expects the outside forwards in a three-man defence to drop wide and occupy the full-backs when out of possession, but they remain fairly central and leave the wing-backs to man the flanks on their own.

This leaves the opposition full-backs with acres of space (see the Australia left-back at the bottom of the above picture) which could cost New Zealand dear against sides possessing attacking full-backs, or against a Paraguay side who could play both wingers and wing-backs. Chris Killen sometimes drifts back towards his own goal, but this appears to be in order to create a different attacking option rather than to help defend.


New Zealand’s technical deficiencies are obvious considering the relative weakness of their players, but their formation probably won’t help them either. Although it appears well-structured and all the players understand their jobs fully, keeping three strikers high up the pitch creates problems further back (see Milan’s 4-0 thrashing at Old Trafford), especially considering the Kiwis are likely to spend large parts of the game without the ball. The midfield will have to get through an awful lot of running.

That said, a goal is not an unrealistic prospect – the strikers are good in the air and the late runs of Brown provide a further goal threat.

Fitness levels will be key, something hard to judge from low-tempo friendlies. If New Zealand are able to perform for 90 minutes they could provide more problems than opponents expect. If the midfield tires late on, then they could find themselves on the end of thrashings that the balance of play doesn’t completely merit.

But in their first World Cup since 1982 and with no expectations – they may as well go for it, attack in numbers and hope to go out in style.

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