Beauty or pragmatism...the debate continues

The demands of competition football are such that results often determine the tactical mindset of a team. While everyone sets out teams to win, in the World Cup, there is a lot more riding on it than merely victory.

The triumph of 1978: Argentina’s captain Daniel Passarella with the trophy. The host’s 4-3-3 formation at the World Cup was defined as much by its attacking flair as it was by gamesmanship.   -  AFP

In light of Brazil’s resurgence, has there been a better time in recent years to recall the old tension which defines the country’s football? The debate between futebol d’arte and futebol de resultados — beauty and pragmatism — has raged on among football observers for decades. And not just in Brazil. It is, in fact, a question which plays out in every football culture.

However, in the history of the World Cup, pragmatism seems to have won the day. This is not to say that coaches at the tournament necessarily avoid aesthetically pleasing play. Rather, the demands of competition football are such that results often determine the tactical mindset of a team. While everyone sets out teams to win, in the World Cup, there is a lot more riding on it than merely victory.

This is why Argentina in 2014 eschewed flair to ensure that everyone worked towards creating the best situations for Lionel Messi. This was a project which proved to be productive for Alejandro Sabella. Even though he attracted criticism for the dour football played by a team of immense attacking riches, Argentina may have become the world champion for a third time if Gonzalo Higuain had not fluffed his lines.

The history of the World Cup is marked by several other teams which won the day on the basis of superior organisation and work rate. South Korea at the 2002 World Cup is a prime example, as superior teams fell by the wayside in the host’s wake. Costa Rica at the last World Cup is not a dissimilar tale.

Dream run: South Korea at the 2002 World Cup is a prime example of a team which won the day on the basis of superior organisation and work-rate. Many superior teams fell by the wayside in the host’s wake.   -  AFP

Not merely a defensive outlook

However, pragmatism cannot merely be reduced to a defensive outlook. It can mean a lot of things, as Uruguay has shown. It is not just about building a solid defensive base. Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguay at the 2010 World Cup certainly had that quality but it could also muster garra, or bite, whenever required. The feisty, physical approach helped in intimidating the opposition.

This is a trait which has defined Uruguayan football for long, and it was certainly associated with the country’s two World Cup-winning teams. But back in the 1920s, Uruguay’s football was also considered to be a welcome departure from the overly physical style which had been propagated by the British. Its opponent in the first World Cup final, though, was Argentina, a side which was defined by its individualism. Although Uruguay relied on stars like Pedro Petrone too, the first World Cup winner was a better drilled unit in the W-M formation. The 1930 World Cup triumph testified to the Uruguayans’ superiority in world football; they had won the gold medal at the previous two summer Olympics as well.

Although Uruguay gave the tournament’s following edition a miss, 1934 saw the rise of another football superpower. Italy’s flirtations with pragmatism have defined each of its four successful World Cup campaigns and they were very much in vogue when Vittorio Pozzo led the Azzurri to victory in consecutive tournaments.

As opposed to Uruguay’s W-M, Italy switched to a W-W (2-3-2-3) formation which allowed one of its defenders to push forward in attack. The bulky Luisito Monti was Pozzo’s choice for the role. However, the emphasis remained on a watertight defence. As journalist Mario Zappa wrote, “The big secret of the Italian squad is its capacity to attack with the fewest men possible, without ever distracting the half-backs from the defensive work.”

The endorsement of a pragmatic approach continued. It meant that in subsequent tournaments, teams like Austria (1934), Brazil (1950) and Hungary (1954) remained mere footnotes in public imagination. However, their accomplishments enriched the story of the World Cup. Arguably, the thread which linked the teams in questions was their use of a mobile centre-forward. Matthias Sindelar (Austria), Ademir (Brazil) and Nandor Hidegkuti (Hungary) reinterpreted their position; the forwards were not mere poachers.

Defining trait: Uruguay’s feisty, physical approach at the 2010 World Cup helped the side in intimidating the opposition.   -  AFP

 

Breaking the stanglehold

It was Brazil in 1958 which broke the stranglehold of pragmatism. Hungary had demonstrated the merits of a quasi 4-2-4 in Switzerland; Vicente Feola’s Brazilians wholeheartedly embraced the formation. With Garrincha feinting and deceiving his way into the opposition box and Pele giving basis to the hype around him, Brazil smashed 16 goals in six matches on its way to the title. Brian Glanville was moved to write, “There was no doubt this time that the best, immeasurably the finest, team had won.”

The finest team was not as fine four years later but still better than everybody else. Feola was absent, Pele was out with injury after two matches, and the older squad was no longer overwhelming opponents with pace. This led to a more conservative system, which resembled a 4-3-3. But Garrincha’s trickery was as sharp as ever. The system was devised to get the best out of Brazil’s most skilful presence, and rightly so.

Pragmatism, though, crept back in. Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’ morphed from 4-2-4 to 4-3-3 to 4-1-3-2 as the World Cup approached. By the opening game, a system which suited England had been identified. This laid the foundation for unprecedented success on the international stage. England was much aware of its limits, thanks to Ramsey who brooked no delusions. His biographer Dave Bowler summed it up best.

Even though coach Alejandro Sabella attracted criticism for the dour football played by his team of immense attacking riches, Argentina may have become the world champion for a third time if Gonzalo Higuain had not fluffed his lines.

“His detractors would point to his dissection of the game as though it were a laboratory animal, arguing that it robbed football of its poetry, reduced it to a science. It’s an assessment he would not disagree with, one which he might well take as a compliment.”

But England’s success was a blip. Over the next two World Cups, football tactics underwent an aesthetic revolution. To this day, it remains a futile exercise to box Brazil (1970) and Netherlands (1974) into a formation. They both were many things at once. In cliched terms, jogo bonito and totaalvoetbal. But more importantly, harbingers of ideas which have deep resonance even today.

Brazil embraced a scientific outlook like nobody before. Its individualism is often celebrated, but the team’s pioneering use of sports science gave it a unique advantage. As for the Dutch, it was in the realm of tactics that they were the most radical. Conventional positions were eschewed and the pitch was interpreted spatially. This had immense significance for football in the 21st century — especially in the tactical plans of later champions Spain (2010) and Germany (2014).

Argentina’s Cesar Luis Menotti was among those encouraged by the success which Netherlands found; particularly, by the increase in speed of play. The Albiceleste took those ideas on in a limited fashion. The host’s 4-3-3 formation at the 1978 World Cup was defined as much by its attacking flair as it was by gamesmanship. A dark cloud hovers over the triumph due to its association with the dictatorship, but Argentina’s win over the Dutch in the final was certainly not another instance of pragmatism shutting out beauty.

Flag bearer of realism

The emphatic statement for this debate arrived four years later when all-conquering Brazil was undone by the flag-bearer of realism, Italy. In their 4-2-2-2 avatar, the Brazilians represented a football of freedom — not chained by the imperative of winning. Victory, it was thought, would be a natural by-product. But defensive lapses meant that Italy knocked Brazil out in the second group stage. As journalist Jonathan Wilson wrote in Inverting the Pyramid, “it was the day that system won.”

Never again did teams merely pick their best players and expect them to do the job. West Germany’s triumph in 1974 had not dimmed the aesthete’s resolve but Italy’s success was a blow. For Brazil’s squad in 1982 was generally accepted to be the definition of beautiful football. Although its defeat was not a direct consequence of what transpired at the next two World Cups, it was not missed that those tournaments were won by teams which posed their faith in defence. Three at the back had returned and it was a rare sight to see a team not play that system at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

FIFA steps in

International football’s sterility persisted thereafter. Although Croatia surprised observers by playing the 3-5-2 formation with three playmakers in midfield at the 1998 World Cup, tactical innovations were largely restricted to club football. Even as FIFA stepped in to help international football regain its vitality, through changes to the backpass and the offside rule in the early 1990s, it became obvious that the game at the highest level was systematised heavily.

Winning tactics: Croatia celebrates after defeating Holland in the third place play-off match in 1998. The side surprised observes by playing the 3-5-2 formation with three playmakers in midfield in the world Cup.   -  Getty Images

 

However, the rule changes eventually caught up. 4-2-3-1 is the embodiment of football as we know it today and the shift towards it was perceptible even during the 1998 World Cup. Particularly with the French team where Aime Jacquet chose a 4-3-2-1 system to ensure Zinedine Zidane was relieved of defensive duties; his role as a second striker-cum-playmaker was a glimpse into what 4-2-3-1 could offer.

By 2010, the transition to 4-2-3-1 was complete. Even along the way, the signs for a more fluid style of play were growing in visibility. The 2002 Brazil side was marked out by its flair players in Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. Four years later, Italy was uncharacteristically attacking in its football.

However, when Spain won the World Cup in 2010, the assumption grew strong that top football prizes were going to be fought over by sides which had moved on from a traditional understanding of tactics.

The goals-laden 2014 World Cup emphasised this idea, especially thanks to a generation of footballers who were comfortable on the ball irrespective of their position on the pitch. Conventional roles were being dismantled. But as it has become apparent in recent years, this change had implications for defensive work too and that contributed to the rise in goals.

With Germany’s triumph, though, systematised football acquired a new dimension. For the traditional superpowers, it signified an end to obsessive preoccupation with the opponent when it came to arranging tactics. Moreover, Germany combined hard-nosed pragmatism with a football which had decisively turned towards flair, quick passing combinations, and a constant exchange of positions on the pitch. It could be argued that Germany’s victory was the middle ground in the debate between beauty and realism. It stirred the aesthetes; it pleased the materialists, too.