Adapt or Die

National soccer styles still exist. They’re just changing all the time.

Damien Meyer / AFP / Getty Images
Damien Meyer / AFP / Getty Images

This is the World Cup of the shape-shifters.

There was a time when each country had its footballing identity, reflected in a stern, unflinching ideology. England used the 4-4-2 formation. For many years, the Netherlands — coached off the field by Rinus Michels, and on the field by Johan Cruyff — used a 4-3-3 formation, the players swiftly swapping positions in a delirious, exhilarating ballet known as Total Football. Italy was the master of catenaccio, literally the deadbolt, which would stifle all opposing attacks once its players had the lead. Brazil, even more so than the Netherlands, was expected to win in a particular style — fast, fluid, and flamboyant.

Indeed, it has been extraordinarily difficult for world football’s traditional big guns to be as tactically flexible as their coaches might like. The Dutch, though they reached the World Cup final in 2010, were much criticized by their own fans for doing so in a dour, cynical fashion. Brazil made their way into the quarterfinals, yet their progress was greeted with muted applause; not only was it a subpar performance for a nation that had won the whole tournament five times, but they had also committed the unpardonable sin of setting themselves up as a counterattacking team. Managed by Dunga, whose defensive nous on the field had steered them to a World Cup victory in 1994, the Brazil of 2010 were largely unrecognizable from their stylish forefathers of 1970. Everyone seemed to forget that the competitive pressures of international football were such that winning games was hard enough without having to be joyfully entertaining in the process.

This year, many Dutch fans were horrified prior to this World Cup when the national team coach, Louis van Gaal, announced that he would deploy his men in a 3-5-2. Five in midfield! Of course, the horror of the purists at van Gaal’s iconoclasm was soon drowned out, doubtlessly with the aid of several pints of Amstel, by the roars of their countrymen as the Netherlands eviscerated Spain by five goals to one.

Van Gaal’s tactical deconstruction of the world champions, so traumatized by that loss that they succumbed meekly to Chile in the next match, highlighted a vital point: teams that refuse to adapt their styles are more likely than not to fail. Spain can plead that Xavi Hernández, their main orchestrator, was out of sorts this tournament, and that their team’s elimination was due not to their playing philosophy — the one that took home three major trophies in four years  — but to their mental and physical exhaustion. Yet this would give too little credit to Chile, expertly coached by Jorge Sampaoli, whose exposure of Spain’s flaws was arguably even more ruthless than that of the Dutch.

Other nations’ supporters, having tired of their respective tactical heritages, are somewhat happier when their teams spurn the old ideas. Though England were out of the tournament after their first two matches, there was a thrilling period during the game against Italy when they played with more attacking abandon than they had for years. Roy Hodgson, a coach of great savvy but also noted for his conservatism, had named four forwards in his starting line-up. They set about the Italian defence with a relish reminiscent of a cat addressing a ball of wool. What’s more, they were proactive and assertive for most of the game, which was a marked change from their fearful play in recent times. Sadly, they eventually reverted to type — the same type that hadn’t won a major tournament since 1966.

Their conquerors the Italians, by contrast, have themselves been the beneficiary of a smart tactical shift. They have built many of their greatest victories upon formidably firm defensive foundations, but lately they’ve chosen to build their team around the expansive playmaking of the holding midfielder Andrea Pirlo. This step is arguably due more than anything else to the shortage of truly world-class centerbacks in the current generation of Italian players — you need three to play the Italian system — but all the same it is a team unrecognizable from many previous editions.

In an era when coaches are better prepared and more tactically astute than ever before, national teams may be best served by being unpredictable and not binding themselves stubbornly to one particular way of playing. Certainly, the World Cup has so far rewarded those teams that have been the most expansive and creative in their thinking. Sticking with tradition for the sake of national identity is all very well, but will it still be demanded by fans if it means an early plane ticket home?

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