FIFA’s 289-page Technical Report on the 2010 World Cup – in 15 points

September 3, 2010

Iker Casillas: "very reliable goalkeeper with good reflexes and excellent composure, excelled in one-on-ones"

This week, FIFA have unveiled their ‘technical report’ on the 2010 World Cup.

Technical reports are, in FIFA’s words, “published after each and every FIFA competition in order to analyse how the game is progressing”. Some of the information is not particularly fascinating, an example being the revelation that “all successful teams have excellent strikers who arecapable of converting goalscoring opportunities that come their way”. Nevertheless, the document does identify some intriguing patterns, and offers a variety of interesting theories about the success, or otherwise, of the 32 teams competing in the tournament.

Even the most ardent football fan would struggle to find the motivation to read all 289 pages of the document, so here’s 15 key quotes, and some comment.

Formations

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.

3. “To sum up, it is fair to say that the most successful teams at this World Cup all stayed true to their basic tactical formations. Although they did make minor adjustments whenever necessary, such as when Uruguay brought on a third striker, Sebastian Abreu in their quarter-final, as a general rule they did not stray too far from their beliefs.”

In other words? Teams who have settled systems do well. England, Italy and France were faffing around with new formations days before the tournament started, whereas the likes of Spain, Holland, Germany and Brazil were always going to play their individual shapes. Again, Uruguay are slight exception – they did start with a three-man defence.

Strategy

Diego Forlan: "dominant striker, dangerous in front of goal, good vision, dangerous at set-pieces and from long range"

4. “Teams were successful if they started a game with a set strategy but were able to adapt during the match. It was interesting to see Brazil, an experienced and well-drilled team, lose their focus after the Netherlands’ equaliser in the quarter-final as they were unable to adapt.”

A plan B is essential. Brazil are the most obvious example, of course. Their game was based around both patient passing and rapid counter-attacks, at different times. Unfortunately, neither of these lend themselves to situations where you desperately need a goal – the former because you need to get the ball forward quickly, the latter because the opposition are reluctant to come forward, and instead sit back and defend. Spain constantly shifted their focus in games – in all four of their knockout ties it was 0-0 at half-time, before second half changes resulted in them winning 1-0.

5. “An increasing number of teams are now able to adapt their tactics according to the state of play and the scoreline.”

Similar to the above point, this seems an obvious one. A special mention should go to Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile here – they immediately responded to Honduras switching to 4-4-2 (from 4-5-1) by switching their 4-2-3-1 into a 3-3-3-1. Keeping basic principles are important, as discussed above, but flexibility is also key.

Attacking

6. “In modern football, it is difficult to get in behind the opposition defence, as teams are often very compact at the back with eight or nine players behind the ball. That is why teams now need outstanding individual players who can make their mark in one-on-on situations down the centre of the pitch, but particularly down the wings, there they can drive as far as the opponent’s goalline  to create space that often does not exist down the centre of the pitch.”

Here we have an apt description of (despite the predominance of 4-2-3-1 formations) the decline of the classic number 10. Whilst Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Oezil and Xavi all played broadly in that position, Sneijder and Oezil were so close to the forwards that they were more reminiscent of withdrawn forwards, whilst Xavi played a unique role where his priority was ball retention, rather than creativity. It is notable that Germany and Spain, probably the competition’s two best sides, featured players in wide positions (David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Thomas Mueller, Lukas Podolski) who had all spent the previous domestic season playing in central positions – Villa and Podolski as strikers, Mueller as a ‘link’ player, Iniesta (generally) as a creative central midfielder. There is a need for width, if not necessarily a need for ‘natural’ width, because players cutting in from wide positions can be more dangerous than players who start from central zones.

Thomas Mueller: "Dynamic and hard-working midfielder, dangerous in front of goal, good technique and passing"

7. “Balls played in behind the defence from the centre created a significant number of goals (31) and chances, mainly because the weaker teams did not stagger their defence, which meant they were easier to bypass.”

On first glance this might seem to contradict the above point, but a large proportion of these goals surely stem from balls played from the central midfield zone in behind the opposition full-backs (rather than the centre-backs), for onrushing wingers and wide forwards to run onto. This is a better ball to play than a straight ball through the centre of the pitch – in that situation, the ball is always running away from the  forward, and towards the goalkeeper, but these diagonal balls from in to out are extremely difficult to stop.

8. “Successful teams were also able to switch quickly between defence and attack. Counter-attacks were successful if teams could bypass the midfield quickly and make accurate, well-timed final passes.”

Counter-attacking is the predominant strategy in top-level football at the moment. Counter-attacks are often thought of in their most extreme extreme example, of a side getting the ball in their own third and getting to the other end of the pitch quickly. But even moves originating from midfield positions can be, in effect, counter-attacks. Lukas Podolski’s goal against England is a good example of a side attacking quickly.

Defending

9. “Most of the teams had compact defences and used a zonal marking policy, but could switch to man-marking if necessary. This is a general trend in international football at the moment. Nevertheless, there were some relatively significant differences in terms of how the teams interpreted this tactic. Teams such as Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Spain and Ghana had very powerful defenders, but they also received support from the midfield and from one of the strikers (when they played with two men upfront.) This enabled these teams to switch quickly between defence and attack.”

The two interesting points here are the first and last sentences. The final sentence makes the case that teams who defend in numbers were more successful at quickly building attacks, which is an interesting point on the subject of counter-attacking. The mention of compact defences is also interesting, and this does seem to be overwhelmingly the best option to defend against top-level sides who want to use precise passing and pace to break down the opposition. A  good example of this was the Switzerland v Spain game, where the Swiss defence was extremely compact, and Spain were unable to score:

Swiss compact defence

10.There were two main tactics to gain or regain possession. Teams such as Algeria, Uruguay, Portugal and Switzerland lay in wait in their own half of the pitch before launching quick counter-attacks to catch opponents off-guard. Other teams, such as Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Chile aggressively tried to win the ball back in the opponent’s half of the pitch, or close to the halfway line at the latest. This tactic prevented opponents from building attacks as they were not given time to construct moves.”

This is probably the most interesting issue, the biggest ‘debate’ in football tactics at the moment. The latter stages of last season’s Champions League was a particularly good example of the differences here – on one hand Barcelona’s incredibly intense pressing high up the pitch seemed to be devastatingly effective, but then they were knocked out by an Inter side that didn’t press until the final 25 metres of the pitch, to the point that Jose Mourinho claimed, “We didn’t want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position – I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn’t want us to have the ball, we gave it away.”

Xavi: "tireless playmaker with impressive vision and excellent passing"

11. “Players who slide in only put their own team at risk. Defenders need to stay on their feet and try to win the ball back with controlled aggression without clattering into opponents.”

ZM’s Team of the Tournament was particularly favourable to Portugal’s defenders – they were probably the best defensive side in the competition, along with Spain. Under Ricardo Carvalho’s entry, it was noted that “he seems to be more inclined to stay on his feet these days – his occasional rash tackles were the one downside to his game.” This was a notable part of Portugal’s defending – although one might suggest that it’s somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation, since it was their excellent organisation in the first place that means they didn’t need to slide in. But the point must be reiterated that scrambling last-ditch tackles doesn’t equal great defending – cool, calm precision does.

12.In 46 of the 64 games, the team that opened the scoring also went on to win the match. As there were also six goalless draws and another eight matches in which the team that conceded first came back to equalise, this meant that there were only four matches in which a team came back to win after conceding the first goal. The psychological effect of a lead was undoubtedly why teams wanted to avoid falling behind at all costs, and why they generally played it safe by making sure their defence was solid.”

Little to add here, but it does put forward a good case for why teams were, on the whole,  so negative. Four in 64 is an astounding figure.

Cohesion

13.Successful teams work together when on the attack, but they also try to stay compact and defend as a unit too. Playing in this manner means that players have to have high levels of fitness and stamina. It should also be mentioned that full-backs have an extremely important role to play in this regard. Not only do they have to operate well in defence, they also have to be able to switch quickly into attacking mode. This position is extremely important in modern football as all successful teams have excellent full-backs or wing-backs.”

The focus on full-backs is particularly interesting, particularly their key role in constructing attacks. It was notable how many attacking full-backs had good tournaments – Maicon, Sergio Ramos, Mauricio Isla, Joan Capdevilla, Maxi Pereira, Philip Lahm, Ashley Cole, Carlos Salcido, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Fabio Coentrao and Simon Poulsen all excelling. And equally, it was painfully obvious when teams had problems in that area – take Jonas Gutierrez’s stuttering start to the competition and Argentina’s lack of quality there in general, Patrice Evra’s disaster against Mexico, or Michel Bastos looking uncomfortable throughout the tournament.

Arjen Robben: "right-sided attacker, quick off the mark, good dribbling skills, passing and shooting"

14.The teams that were particularly successful were those with excellent technique and passing. They also worked hard to regain possession after losing the ball, showing a high level of aggression. Argentina did not do this during their quarter-final against Germany, for example.”

Defending in numbers is crucial, and another reason for the death of the 4-4-2 system (unless one striker drops back), because you can no longer afford to defend with simply eight outfield players (and two strikers offering no variation in their positioning). Argentina tried to do so with simply five against Germany – the back four and Javier Mascherano, with two attacking players (Maxi Rodriguez and Angel di Maria) fielded as carrileros on the sides of the diamond. Joachim Loew commented after that game that Germany found it easy to play through Argentina because their side was not cohesive enough – there would be some level of pressing from the front three or four, but then the rest of the side would sit back, leaving 50m of space in front of Mascherano and the back four.

15.The best and most successful teams have a number of excellent substitutes who are the equal of their team-mates on the pitch.”

Three points to make on Spain here. First, Vicente del Bosque used 20 of the 23 players in their squad. Only the two back-up goalkeepers and central defender Raul Albiol did not get playing time. Second, three of the four goals Spain scored in the knockout stages came after they had made a substitution, and shifted their system slightly. Third, their substitutes bench was comprised of players who gave them a different option, rather than being lesser versions of their first choice XI: Cesc Fabregas gave them driving runs that are not Xavi’s forte, Fernando Llorente was a traditional targetman and thrives on balls in the air, not a particular feature of David Villa or Fernando Torres’ game, and Jesus Navas was an old-fashioned winger that liked to get to the byline, whereas Villa, Andres Iniesta and Pedro Rodriguez liked to come inside. Fabregas is the best example of a useful substitute – he didn’t start a single game, but was a crucial factor when he came off the bench on four occasions.

FIFA’s complete technical report can be viewed here, in PDF format

FIFA’s 289-page Technical Report on the 2010 World Cup – in 15 points

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