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Formations: Never Before…Never Again

Tactical innovation has played a gargantuan role in the development of football over the last century. Only a scarce number of people are still alive who have witnessed some of the formations used in the first half of the 20th century.

These formations ranged from the incredible 2-3-5 pyramid to the intriguing WM formation used by Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal in the early 1930’s. These formations received plenty of accolade at the time but in today’s football, managers even barely mentioning these formations would get a therapist recommendation instead of a Christmas Card for Christmas.

Even though various formations came into play throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s such as the hugely successful 4-2-4 formation used by colossus at the time Hungary and then the great Brazil, one man really changed the tactics of football. Rinus Michels truly developed the way of football by introducing the phenomenon of total football.

Interchange-ability and flexibility were words that rarely cropped up in football dictionaries but after he applied his ideas on a global stage in 1974, it has sparked a love affair between flexible tactics and football.
Even though his Dutch team can be regarded as one of the best teams to have graced this sport, with players such Cruyff, Neskeens and Krol, they were unable to fulfil their target in winning the World Cup. En route to the final, they displayed some extravagance and breathtaking movement but were left with nothing at the end of the day in a final in Munich against an unfancied German side on home soil.

The German team that day was led out by icon Franz Beckenbauer whose name is synonymous of the word “sweeper”, which is an additional player positioned behind the defence for added security and they were very result oriented. At that time a lot of teams deployed “sweepers” due to the success of various Italian teams deploying the principles of Cattenacio. The German team that day were stereotypically German, i.e extremely result orientated. This eventually led to a trend of result orientated teams holding aloft the World Cup trophy bar one or two exceptions.

Four years later, on home soil, Argentina turned up with a tactical shift that caused the birth of one of the most important positions on a football pitch, the defensive midfielder. An act of astute thinking from the Argentinians saw the “sweeper” moved in front of the defence as opposed to behind it. Americo Gellego is accredited by many to be the first person to play in that position which is fundamental today. The ‘Albiceleste’ also went on to win the competition but were probably one of the only few exceptions in the trend, as they displayed attack minded football instead of result orientated football.

The World Cup in Spain 82 was won by a very resilient Italian team which fit the trend of substance over style to the ‘T’. This Italian team played a 5-3-2 formation and had the mental stability to overcome many obstacles like the Brazilian team they faced in the second round. The ‘Selecao’ only needed a draw against the Italians but the Italians somehow managed to get a win in what can be regarded as one of the greatest games you’ll ever see.

The following two World Cups were won by teams who had solid foundations but relied on the heavy influence of Diego Maradona and Lothar Matthaus. Argentina’s manager in 1986, Carlos Bilardo, recognised the fact that they needed to have a strong defence to have any chance and hence shifted towards a relatively new formation at the time and placed Maradona as the enganche of the 3-5-2 formation. This formation allowed Maradona to influence games which led them to World Cup glory. Germany in 1990 used Lotthar Matthaus in a 5-3-2 formation and he was the driving force in a pragmatic system.

During the 90’s, a lot of teams started to employ a 4-4-2 formation including the winners of World Cup 1994, Brazil, and also the French team that won on home soil in 1998. Both these teams won the World Cup with caution being imprinted on their foreheads. 4-4-2 became the predominant formation during this period because of the balance between attack and defence that it enabled. It offered an advantage in attack and defence, as the central midfielders can drop back as defensive midfielders when defending, or they can push up as attacking midfielders when the team is on the attack. There are many variations of this formation but the fitness levels of the players need to be really high otherwise the system tends to falter. Italy also won the World Cup in 2006 playing a variant of the 4-4-2, with zone defence at its best and two impenetrable banks of four.

This World Cup (2010) has seen the 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation being extremely successful as more teams are putting fluidity and movement high up on their list of priorities. The 4-4-2 formation is now less successful as the formation is destructed with play between the lines. The 4-5-1 allows more possession of the ball because of extra numbers in midfield but it needs a striker upfront which can guarantee movement and all-round play. With the way football formations are changing, a 4-6-0 formation may be a formation that we may see in the near future.

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