Soccer for Dummies: A tactical guide to the 2018 World Cup

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Can Joachim Loew lead Germany to a second straight World Cup title? (Getty)

The 2018 World Cup is upon us. And over the past few days, we here at FC Yahoo have been lending helping hands to soccer novices. We have explained the rules of the game. We’ve clued you in on the terminology.

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So now it is time to expand our reach. It’s even time to nerd out a bit. It’s time to talk tactics, trends and styles, and how to recognize them at the World Cup this summer.

Formations

Soccer’s base tactical currency is the formation. It’s a set of three or four numbers that describe how many players of different types a team will field. It’s also a visual representation of the team’s alignment. It’s the graphic you’ll see before every World Cup game:

(Screenshot: WatchESPN)
(Screenshot: WatchESPN)

And it is indeed a simplistic way of thinking about how a team will play. In Russia, you will see 4-2-3-1s and 4-3-3s, 4-4-2s and 3-5-2s, and several other variations on those themes. There will be 4-1-4-1s and 4-4-1-1s, 4-3-1-2s and 4-1-3-2s, 3-5-1-1s and 3-4-2-1s.

The most common shape at the World Cup will be a 4-2-3-1: Four defenders, two deep midfielders, one central attacking midfielder, two attack-minded wide players, and a striker. Over half of the 32 nations will likely play it at one point or another.

But the dirty little secret of all these numerical descriptions is twofold: First, that no two identical alignments actually indicate uniformity; and second, that there is often very little distinction between, say, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3.

Argentina‘s 4-2-3-1, for example, is much different than Nigeria‘s. Lionel Messi and John Obi Mikel, in this comparison, theoretically occupy the same position. That obviously isn’t the case. Instead, Argentina’s will look more like Portugal‘s 4-1-3-2 than it will other 4-2-3-1s. Nigeria’s will look more like a 4-3-3.

At least two-thirds of the formations on display at the World Cup will be variants and adaptations of one another.

(GIF: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
(GIF: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

So rather than get fixated on those three or four numbers, there are two main distinguishing characteristics to identify:

1. How many defenders are on the field?

The one easily recognizable difference is at the back. The vast majority of teams will play two center backs and two fullbacks – hence the 4-#-#-#.

A few, however – England, Belgium, Russia, Costa Rica and perhaps others – will deploy three center backs and two wingbacks. The distinction is that the back-three – or back-five; they’re effectively the same thing – adds a third stay-at-home defender, but loosens chains on the fullbacks, turning them into something between a fullback and a winger.

A back-three isn’t inherently more attacking or defensive. It’s not inherently better or worse. And the reasons for employing it differ from team to team. But it is different.

2. Who is tasked with supporting and interacting with the striker?

The days of 4-4-2 as soccer’s dominant formation are gone. They’re long enough gone that very few of the 32 teams in Russia will play two true strikers. Uruguay will, because it has two of the best pure goalscorers in the world. Sweden will, because it doesn’t have much of anything. Beyond those two, Portugal, England, and maybe South Korea will roll out formations with a “2” up top as well.

But England’s “2” gets at the point here. The second of two is Raheem Sterling, a quick attacker who’ll play up top next to Harry Kane. But he’ll also scurry throughout the attacking half, sideline to sideline, back into midfield. He could just as easily be the first “1” in a 3-5-1-1. For some reason, Russia‘s front two get that distinction; England’s don’t.

On the contrary, Messi will play in the middle of the “3” in Argentina’s 4-2-3-1. But in the past, similar formations – with Messi partnering a more traditional striker – have been given the 4-2-2-2 label.

What matters with those formations, and with Portugal’s, is that the striker’s chief supporting player is the second striker, or the attacking midfielder – whatever you want to call him. That player clearly bears more attacking responsibility than any of the wide players or other midfielders.

Brazil is the opposite. Its formation will be listed as a 4-1-4-1, because the most distinct midfield role is that of Casemiro. He’s the first “1,” the holding midfielder who plays significantly deeper than the other four. But to classify Neymar, on the left of the “4,” as the equal of Paulinho, a box-to-box midfielder in the center, is absurd. If we were to nit-pick, we could call it a 4-1-1-3-1, or even a 4-1-2-3, depending on who is next to Paulinho and how much attacking/defensive responsibility he has. Neymar – and to a lesser degree Willian (wide right) and Philippe Coutinho (central) – is striker Gabriel Jesus’ main attacking partner.

So that’s the first question to ask: Where does the striker’s primary support come from? The wings? A central playmaker? Is the task shared among three or four players?

The moral of the story here is that formations don’t really mean much. So, uh, sorry to make you spend five minutes reading about them.

Styles

What matters is not the formation, but how a team operates within it – or outside of it. Spain, for example, is known for its 4-3-3. But watch the following video … can you ever pick out a 4-3-3?


Spain is more defined by its fluidity, and the constantly morphing structures its fluidity creates. It spreads the field in possession, therefore opening up space for its world-class playmakers to operate in the middle. But it often spreads the field with advancing fullbacks, meaning its “wingers” – two of the front three – don’t have to. They can instead check into and out of that central space.

This is Spain’s style, and it – not a 4-3-3 – makes La Furia Roja what they are.

Styles: Possession-based

They’re at the extreme. They’re the possession prototype. They keep the ball better than anybody, and keep it on the ground as much as possible. When under pressure, they don’t boot it long; they play through that pressure via short passes and quick movements. And when they lose the ball, they swarm to it in an attempt to win it back immediately.

Germany is the closest to Spain in this sense, though its personnel makes it a significantly different outfit. In general, the better teams will have more possession of the ball. Brazil and France certainly have the ability to keep it for long stretches. England and Belgium do as well. But their attacking approaches are all more varied. Brazil can hurt opponents in just about every possible way.

So what else can define a team’s style?

Styles: Counterattacking

International soccer styles are generally less defined than club styles, because managers have less time to implement complex ideas and tactics. That’s why you’ll see many teams – especially the ones without drilled systems like Spain’s or Germany’s – rely on individual talent in transition.

Opposing teams are most vulnerable when they have just lost possession of the ball, because their shape in possession is vastly different than their ideal defensive shape. The best counterattacking teams will station their forwards without the ball to take advantage of the three or four seconds after they’ve won it.

No counterattack at the World Cup will be as refined as, say, Liverpool’s. But Belgium, France, Colombia and Nigeria all have the potential to be breathtaking in transition. Brazil certainly can be as well. England could join that list. And Mexico, though it’s not El Tri‘s identity, could too.

Among lesser teams, Iran has the personnel to hit superior opponents on the break. Costa Rica has in the past. Morocco and Peru certainly can, because they can do a little bit of everything. Uruguay isn’t a lesser team, and won’t necessarily break as a unit, but Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani can create for themselves 2-on-4.

And others will try. Almost every overmatched team will try. But they’ll be more concerned with defending.

Styles: Bus-parking

The least complex system to drill is a rigid defensive one. That’s not to say the classic unambitious bus-park doesn’t require hours of training ground work. It does. But it doesn’t quite require as many as an intricate pressing system based on detailed triggers and cues.

So the majority of the minnows will sit back, clog up space between the penalty box and the top of the center circle, and go from there. Among these teams are: Panama, Iran, Costa Rica, Egypt, Sweden and Iceland. Several others, such as Tunisia, will likely be pinned back and forced into the strategy.

Among the more prestigious sides, Portugal will be the most defensive. It won’t necessarily park the bus. But it’s a good example of a team that restrains the attacking freedom of its midfielders to ensure they keep their defensive shape.

Styles: High pressing

Pressing simply means putting pressure on the ball, and then on opponents who receive subsequent passes. Every team has to do it at some point. But when you hear about pressing teams, they’re the teams the press high up the field. The ones who risk one-on-one situations at the back to force opponents into risky or sub-optimal decisions in their own defensive half. The best systems are very elaborate, designed to force the ball to a certain player or area of the field, then to snuff out all passing options for the player.

At international level, Brazil probably does this better than anybody. Colombia is strong as well. Mexico can be. Among lesser teams, Morocco is the best. Saudi Arabia might even (foolishly) try to apply pressure high up the field.

Spain and Germany, of course, are fearsome in this department too. Part of the reason they are is that they are so good in possession. Just as teams are susceptible to counters because, having just lost the ball, they aren’t in position to defend, teams that have just won the ball are in no position to keep it. They have often inadvertently compressed the field on themselves.

So superpowers like Spain and Germany, who force opponents to contract, are able to counterpress – they counter a loss of possession not by retreating into their defensive shape, but by attempting to win possession right back. Their first move will be to close down the ball. This is different than a coordinated high press. But it’s still high. And when it’s effective, the result is those four-, five-minute spells where an inferior opponent can’t escape its defensive shell.

The teams that have the ability to do this, and to pass through an opponent’s press, are the ones who’ll have success. This is what makes them the best in the world.

Other playing styles

Some are complete mysteries. Japan and Australia, for example, have never played competitive matches under their current coaches. Croatia, Serbia and South Korea are similar, even if they’ve played a few. And some styles, like Switzerland‘s, simply aren’t very distinct.

Teams like Peru, Mexico and England, on the other hand, are seemingly able to adapt based on their opponents. They can hog the ball and play patiently in possession. Or they can press high up the field. Or they can sit deeper and wait to pounce on the counter. Uruguay, previously a borderline bus-parker, might fall into that category, too.

And then there are a few teams, like Argentina and Senegal, who seemingly can’t figure out what the heck they want to do themselves.

What else should you know?

Let’s jump around to a few different topics …

  • We glossed over midfield structures above, but they are important. Some teams, like Croatia, will play with two midfielders (Ivan Rakitic and Milan Badelj) behind one (Luka Modric) – a double pivot. Others, like England, will put one (Jordan Henderson) behind two (Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli) – a single pivot. Some, like Belgium, will only play two central midfielders if they’re confident in the coverage abilities of those two. Others, like Uruguay, can afford to clog up the middle with four, because their confident in their strikers’ ability to generate offense.

  • Midfield roles will often by described by numbers. In a midfield three, a No. 6 is the deepest; an 8 is the box-to-box player; a 10 is the playmaker. And some midfields – like Croatia‘s, for example – do comprise one of each, even if Modric isn’t a natural 10. But many don’t. England‘s is a 6 and “dual 8s.” In fact, very few fit perfectly into a 6-8-10 alignment. But that’s nonetheless how players will be described.

  • You may or may not be interested in an analytics spiel. If you are, click here. If not, just know that they’ve changed the sport. The Expected Goals stat has educated coaches and players, and they, in turn, have improved their shot selection. You might notice at the World Cup that players let rip from 30 yards a lot less often than they used to. And that’s no accident. So data has killed the wondergoal. But it’s improved efficiency.

And finally, I got a question about which formations which teams will play. I know I told you not to care about them. But … here’s the best educated guess:

  • 4-2-3-1: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Morocco, Denmark, Peru, Australia, Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland, Serbia, Switzerland, Germany, Colombia, Poland, Japan.

  • 4-3-3: Spain, France, Mexico, Tunisia, Senegal.

  • 4-1-4-1: Brazil, Panama.

  • 4-4-2: Sweden, South Korea.

  • 4-1-3-2: Portugal.

  • 4-3-1-2: Uruguay.

  • 3-5-2/3-5-1-1: England, Russia.

  • 3-4-2-1: Belgium.

  • 5-4-1/5-2-2-1: Costa Rica.

More Soccer for Dummies: Part 1 (Terminology) | Part 2 (Rules)

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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Group previews: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

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