With the World Cup at an end, coaches, directors, and players are all beginning to look back at it and see what it portents for the future.
Looking amongst the four best sides this year—Brazil, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands—the first thing that jumps into your mind is that they all share the same shape: 4-2-3-1. While it is not uncommon for many top sides to share similar or the same shape over the years, they tend to simply be variants of the 4-4-2 and the 4-3-3.
Having these sides all share the more sophisticated 4-2-3-1 from nations that tended to play vastly different styles over generations is something that the football world is surely to take note from.
Now one may ask why this particular set-up is more sophisticated than any other shape; particularly the 4-4-2 or the 4-3-3. The reason is that while watching a team use it appears to be extremely fluid and offers the most versatility (which to some may mean players simply get freedom to express and in fact make it less sophisticated) it is the very fact that the fluidity of it comes from an extreme discipline to know exactly how each zone is supposed to move and how every player is supposed to be marked.
In addition, the formation only uses four truly set positions: the goalkeeper, two centre-backs, and one pure striker that can perform hold-up play.
At every other position each player is required to perform the function of at least two positions in order for the shape to work which gives the team the fluidity to attack, counter-attack, and defend en masse.
Take for example the role of the wingers and where the width comes from in each of these teams.
How many pure wingers are there? Robinho? Robben? The Spanish team dropped David Silva from the line-up and instead use a combination of Andres Iniesta, David Villa, and Pedro for width; all players that can drift into the center and create plays (ignoring Pedro’s terribly selfish display against Germany).
Germany used Thomas Mueller, Lukas Podolski, and Mesut Ozil; all of which are more converted players that drift in and out that pure wingers. The same can be said for Dirk Kuyt for the Oranje and Kaka’s almost floating playmaking role for Brazil.
That leaves us with just Arjen Robben and Robinho as pure wingers; just two!
Even then, Robinho can play any forward position and can even drop deep to pick up the ball and attack into space instead of waiting on the touchline.
Robben has a tendency to stay at the touchline, but even then he is playing on the opposite wing. Look at his goal against Slovakia to see why: the ability to cut into your strong foot and shoot provides an added threat and requires the winger to line up on both sides of the pitch.
So if the classic winger is all but gone, where does the width come from?
All these sides require their fullbacks to be able to charge up the field and get involved in build-up play and cross into the box. With the exception of the Dutch, you can see a list of the top fullbacks in the world lined up in these sides: Sergio Ramos, Phillip Lahm, and the best of them in Maicon.
So if the fullbacks dedicate that much to the attack, what happens to the defense?
This is where one of the two deep midfielders comes into play. Called a ‘double-pivot’ by some (specifically ZonalMarking which has excellent tactical articles), I can say that I was not a fan when the Cup started of this style. Why waste two players in the back instead of just one in the ‘Makelele’ role and play an extra forward?
While there are lots of theories and answers to this, for the purposes of this article the ‘double-pivot’ allows the team to suddenly become a 3-3-3-1. You not only clog the midfield of the other team’s attack, but when your fullbacks start going forward, you still maintain a solid defensive line, push the other deep midfielder up, and use one of the creative midfielders to either side to have an advantage on the cross.
This leads into the next point about the death of the pure playmaker. Looking at the four sides again, the only one that played that role this summer was Kaka, who lacked form and at times looked lost in Dunga’s set up. Sneijder, Xavi, Iniesta, Ozil, and the rest do not strictly play as classic ‘no. 10s.’
Each of these players either drops deeper into the midfield or floats onto the wings depending on where the push is coming from, and all are expected to be able to put at least some defensive pressure on their opposition.
So what does this all mean for the transfer window? Look for a reverse of what Real Madrid and Manchester City did last season.
Gone are the days where pure strikers are worth more than players that can line-up all over the front.
The use of attacking fullbacks are no longer a luxury, but an absolute necessity.
Pure wingers are no longer in vogue, but midfielders that can drift into the center or to the touchline will be the toast of the town.
And most of all, the switch from the brilliant attacking number 10 to be supplanted by a cadre of multi positioned playmakers from the front all the way to the back.
Because if the World Cup is any indication of what the future holds for football, then the 4-2-3-1 will be king of the pitch and all other shapes will bow before its flexible will.