The first set of games have seen the unveiling of some interesting tactical deployments:
1. Mexico -- Since 1994, the World Cup has been won by the team with the best pair of attacking fullbacks (Jorginho and Branco for Brazil in 1994, Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu for France in 1998, Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002 and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso for Italy in 2006), something perhaps best explained by a comment the Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton made after the 1994 World Cup. He pointed out that when a back four meets either a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2, the fullback is the player on the pitch most likely to have space in front of him, and thus time on the ball, or the opportunity to make relatively risk-free runs into unexpected areas.
As more and more teams have started operating with a single striker and wide forwards either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, the fullback no longer has that same space. I had speculated that might mean one of the center backs in a back four became effectively the free man (as the two center backs in a back four facing a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 have only one forward to mark), leading to the reinvention of the libero. What I hadn't anticipated was that a side could do what Mexico have done and field attacking fullbacks and a libero at the same time.
The system manager Javier Aguirre has introduced is remarkable, partly because it is, as far as I'm aware, unique in world soccer at the moment, but mainly because it is a modern interpretation of the system with which Vittorio Pozzo won two World Cups with Italy in the thirties. Ricardo Osorio and Francisco Rodriguez sit deep as the two center backs, with Rafael Marquez operating almost as an old-fashioned (by which I mean pre-War) center half, just in front of them. Paul Aguilar and Carlos Salcido are then attacking fullbacks, so the defense is effectively split into two lines, a two and a three. Efrain Juarez and Gerardo Torrado sit in central midfield, behind a front three of Giovani dos Santos, Guillermo Franco and Carlos Vela.
When I saw Mexico lose, unluckily, to England at Wembley just before the World Cup, I couldn't work out whether its formation was a 3-4-3 or a 4-3-3. It was only seeing Mexico again, in a friendly against the Netherlands, that I realised it was both and neither, a hybrid of the two perhaps best described as a 2-3-2-3, or Pozzo's W-W. This was like a window into another age, and sure enough it has the same strengths and weaknesses as Pozzo's system. The even distribution of players across the pitch allows for wonderfully fluent passing moves -- the "pattern-weaving" style for which the great Scottish teams of the twenties were so noted -- but defensively it is vulnerable to long diagonals in behind the fullbacks.
The two goals Dutch striker Robin van Persie scored in that friendly in Amsterdam, and the chance Katlego Mphela hit against the post for South Africa in the World Cup's opening game, I realized, were both a result of a defence being "turned;" that is, being sucked to one side of the field, and then caught out by a sweeping pass to the other side. It was precisely to counter this that back fours were introduced in the first place, and the realization it was happening in this World Cup was akin to the moment John Paxton first sees the pterodactyl in The Lost World.
It's a bold move, and I'm not sure it'll work, but it's fascinating to see.
2. New Zealand -- Minnows are supposed to sit back, defend, try to keep the score down and perhaps nick a goal on the break, but New Zealand, recognizing it has to squeeze any decent player it has into the side, operate with three out-and-out forwards in a bold 3-4-3. "We don't have 23 players playing in the Italian first division or the Premier League," All Whites' manager Ricki Herbert explained. "What we do have is excellent front runners. We've backed those players to go and win games for us, rather than one up front and hope. We elected to go that way [in the playoff] against Bahrain and it worked, and we've developed that."
This week the barrage of long balls and crosses aimed at the front three of Rory Fallon, Chris Killen and Shane Smeltz, and Chris Lochhead''s overlapping runs from left back caused Slovakia persistent problems, culminating in Winston Reid's late equalizer. Killen believes they might be able similarly to unsettle Italy's comparatively short defense. "That's definitely an advantage for our team," he said. "We've got a lot of big strong boys, and hopefully we'll get chances if we put it in the box."
3. North Korea -- Some minnows, though, do just defend. That it took a thunderous strike from Maicon that may have been born of genius or good fortune to break North Korea down is indicative of just how well it played. North Korea set out with three central defenders -- Ri Kwang-Chon, Pak Chol-Jin and Ri Jun-Il -- with Ri Kwang-Chon effectively picking up Luis Fabiano and the other two spare. The two wing-backs, Ji Yun-Nam and Cha Jong-Hyok then dealt with Robinho and Ramires respectively.
The three central midfield players, Pak Nam-Chol, Ahn Yong-Hak and Mun In-Gok, then sat very deep with Mun taking responsibility for Kaka. That meant North Korea effectively played with eight defensive players, four marking and four filling space, and it was only a rapid switch from left to right and a bold overlap from Maicon that led to the opener.
The issue now is whether Kim Jong-Hun sticks to those defensive tactics in the remaining two games. Is his aim to avoid embarrassment, which his side looks perfectly equipped to do, or does he actually have the belief that North Korea could nick the win and a draw that would give it a chance of making the second round. The quality of Jong Te-Sae and the way Ji Yun-Nam took his goal suggests that North Korea might have an unexpected potency.