Skip to main content

Single-striker formations will be predominant in South Africa


For a long time, the World Cup was where new tactics were uncovered. When Brazil unleashed its 4-2-4 on the world in 1958, for instance, it marked a radical change in the development of the game. As the rest of the world adopted a back four, Brazil leapt ahead, changing to a 4-3-3 to win the 1962 World Cup. Four years later, England won the World Cup with a 4-4-2 formation its manager, Alf Ramsey, had carefully kept hidden until the quarterfinal. Total Football in the '70s and the 3-5-2 in the late '80s equally burst onto the world consciousness at the World Cup, and the team that won the tournament could be expected to have a significant influence on how the rest of the world played for the following four years.

Since around 1990, though, club football has overtaken the national game as the preeminent form of football, and the World Cup's status as a trendsetter has been diminished. That is partly because the World Cup has lost its status as an exotic showpiece; with every major league televised, it is no longer possible for a formation to develop in isolation and catch the world unawares. But it is also because the increasing systematization of football at the highest level requires deep mutual understanding, and that can be developed only by players who train together on a daily basis -- as opposed to seven or eight times a year, as happens with national teams.

This is a point made strongly by Arrigo Sacchi, whose AC Milan side, playing a hard-pressing, systematized game, won the European Cup in 1989 and 1990 and effectively set the prototype for modern football. As Italy national coach, he found the rhythm of coaching a national team difficult, for he could not spend every minute of every day schooling his players, working on their understanding. "It's impossible," he said. On top of that, his insistence that good footballers did not necessarily make good players meant an uneasy relationship with certain star players, most notably Roberto Baggio.

The result is that these days, the World Cup tends to reflect changes that are already happening in the club game. We are unlikely, then, to see anything new in terms of formations at the tournament in South Africa; instead the domination of single-striker formations -- 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 -- already apparent in the club game is likely to continue.

It is only recently that 4-4-2 has begun to recede at the international level. At Euro 2008, for instance, eight of the 16 teams began with twin strikers, but by the end of the tournament, for varying reasons, Spain, Germany and Croatia had switched to a lone striker. In fact, it is Spain's persistence with 4-1-3-2, in order to accommodate both David Villa and Fernando Torres, that could leave it vulnerable. In 2008, the injury to Villa in the first half of the semifinal forced Spain into a 4-1-4-1, and it was then that it produced its best football of the tournament; the injury to Torres may end up doing Spain a favor.

Brazil's formation, in Brazil at least, is still commonly referred to as a diamond with a 4-4-2, but, to European eyes at least, it appears more of a 4-2-3-1, with either Robinho or Nilmar cutting in from the left to support Luis Fabiano. This reveals one of the major problems of tactical discussions, which is that the numerical terms used are crude and their designation often reveals as much about the cultural heritage of the person doing that designating as the team described; nonetheless, the fact remains that Brazil plays with one central striker.

SI Recommends

In African football the shift has been even more rapid. At the Cup of Nations in Ghana in 2008, 13 of the 16 teams started with twin strikers; this year in Angola 4-4-2 had all but disappeared. Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Nigeria played 4-3-3; Ghana played 4-2-3-1 (with occasional switches into 4-4-2); and of the World Cup-qualified teams only Algeria used a 4-4-2, and even it is still in an awkward transition away from 3-4-1-2.

Three at the back will be almost entirely absent in South Africa, undone by the prevalence of single-striker formations. (The idea of three at the back is that two markers pick up the opposing center forwards, with a spare man left free to cover. Against only one center forward, there is a marker, a spare man and a defender who is redundant; he could step into midfield, but then if he's going to do that, he may as well be a midfielder, and so it makes little sense to play with more than two central defenders).

Marcelo Bielsa, the Chile coach, persists with the attacking 3-3-1-3 formation he used with Argentina in 2002. It is bold and, when it works, exciting, but quite apart from the defensive problems when facing a single striker, it is very reliant for penetration on the two wingers. Mark Gonzalez and Alexis Sanchez are gifted, but neither has yet performed consistently at the highest level, and the fear must be that Chile ends up like Argentina in 2002, dominating possession but unable to make much of it.

Despite some recent murmurings from England's Fabio Capello, the only other team likely to play three at the back is North Korea, whose isolation means it is the only nation that really could spring a tactical surprise. In qualifying it tended to play an unusual 3-3-3-1, which offered defensive solidity, but little in the way of creative support for lone striker Jong Te-Sae.

What would be fascinating is if any side had the courage to attempt a strikerless formation. Both Manchester United and Barcelona won the Champions League playing with a false nine (or in United's case, with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez both dropping off as two false nines). The tactical avant garde has since reverted to more orthodox styles, with less success.

Strikerlessness, though, is difficult, partly because it offers no easy out-ball for defenders seeking to make a clearance under pressure, and partly because the level of mutual understanding it requires takes intensive work on the training field, something for which international teams probably don't have time. Still, if injuries forced the issue and a side were fortunate enough to settle into a rhythm right away, it could be devastating, particularly against international defenses, which tend -- again for reasons of time and unfamiliarity -- to be less well drilled than those at the club level.

In terms of planned formations, though, this is likely to be the tournament of the single striker.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.