Changing times, changing systems

By 1994 World Cup in the USA, Brazil had given up on their glorious wingers and relied on their overlapping full-backs to attack. A system with which they would persist. France, winners in 1998, deployed just a single striker, but right to the end, couldn’t find a decent one. By 2010, in South Africa, a one-man attack had become increasingly the vogue, though Spain, the winners, had a glittering and penetrating midfield to back up their lone spearhead, writes Brian Glanville.

The 1930 World Cup in Uruguay was played five years after the radical change in the offside law. Made with peculiar haste, by a dominant Football Association in England, after one mere trial game at Highbury — in which one half was played under the old three man law, the other under the two man law. Arsenal under Herbert Chapman invented the ‘third back game’. That meant a stopper centre-half, rather than the versatile pivot, previously familiar throughout the game.

The full-backs moved to the flanks, the ex-wing-halves into the middle. But the great Uruguayan team, which had so impressively won the Olympic football title in 1924 and 1928, stuck to the traditional system, as did all the other competitors in the 1930 tournament.

Uruguay had a celebrated genuine half-back line — a proper definition then — in their so called “Iron Curtain,” ball-juggling Jose Andrade on the right, Lorenzo Fernandez in the middle, always ready to attack, and elegant Alvaro Gestido on the left. Argentina the eternal bitter River Plate rivals had at centre-half the bruising, ruthless Luis Monti, whose nerve would go in the final under death threats. Four years later, Vittorio Pozzo, the Italian supremo, pitched him for the Azurri as an Oriundi, a player of Italian origin, because he wanted in that role a player, who would swing the ball about rather then keep it close, like the talented Fulvio Bernardini. Monti was a thug but an effective one; this time he would not relapse in the final.

The ironic fact is that at the very time English teams had gone over to the third back and the ‘W’ formation, Pozzo was determinedly applying the older tactics he had learned in England as an impoverished student before the Great War. Then he managed to make the acquaintance of such major stars as Steve Bloomer, the prolific goal-scorer, and Charlie Roberts, an adventurous centre half, and base his own eventual strategy on these discussions. They were tactics good enough to win the World Cup both in Italy in 1934 and in France in 1938. But in 1934, the Germans were already implementing the third back game.

When it came to the resumption of the World Cup in Brazil in 1950, a mixture of styles was to be found. The Brazilians favoured a defensive system known as “The Diagonal”, which in the final proved to give too much space, fatally, to Uruguay’s Chico Ghiggia on the right wing. The eventual Brazil inside-forward trio, which dazzled in the first two games of the final pool, scoring 13 goals, was made up of three essential strikers — not a word yet in use — Zizinho, Ademir and Jair. For their part, Uruguay still favoured the all purpose centre-half in the mighty figure of their captain Obdulio Varela, a titan in central defence, when Brazil applied constant pressure in the first-half of an amazing final, a powerful and propulsive figures in attack as the game began to go Uruguay’s way. Zizinho, the effervescent Brazilian inside-right, thought his team was playing ‘WM’, alias third back tactics, unfamiliar to him in their last four games: “Uruguay’s system was crazy but it wasn’t as bad as ‘WM’. That’s why we lost the World Cup.”

In fact Brazil never did master the third back game and it was not until they adopted a 4-2-4 pattern in the World Cup of 1958 that they found a satisfactory formation.

The Hungarians, whom you might call the moral victors and certainly the best team in Switzerland in 1954, deployed to great effect the deep-lying centre-forward in Nandor Hidegkuti, scorer of three goals in the 6-3 rout of England, at Wembley in November 1953. In front of him played the two formidable inside-forwards Sandor “Golden Head” Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas. Jozsef Zakarias was a defensive left-half operating beside Mihaly Lantos, the stopper.

Brazil’s successful 4-2-4 system was purportedly the invention of Manuel Fleitas Solich, once a Paraguayan football star, nicknamed “The Wizard,” when coaching Flamengo of Rio. The double centre-back the team featured meant that the Brazilian team was no longer so vulnerable to long balls through the middle. But when in Sweden in 1958, the tireless left wing performance of Mario Zagallo, arguably as in Chile four years later, could be seen as a 4-3-3.

By 1962 and the tournament in Chile, “Catenaccio”, alias the “Great Big Chain” defence, had Italian football and Italy’s competing team in its iron grip. Essentially defensive and breakaway oriented, it features a libero, a free player as a sweeper, operating behind man-marking centre-backs in defence, a system usually attributed to Karl Rappan, when he was managing Switzerland. Even when “Total Football”, so called became the exciting vogue in the 1970s, the Italians, and most notably the Inter Milan team, stuck stubbornly to “Catenaccio” to the determent of spectacle and excitement.

1966 saw the victory of Alf Ramsey’s so called “Wingless Wonders” of England at Wembley, where they played all their games. Later Ramsay, who did try wingers at the start of the competition, insisted that the reason he had done without them was because none had proved effective. Be that as it may, his team’s success tended to have a negative effect on an English game, which unimaginatively followed the pattern with even those wingers who survived being absurdly termed midfielders. It would take a long time for the pendulum to swing.

In 1974 there was the splendid innovation of “Total Football”, as practised by the West Germans and the Dutch. Its inventor was surely the young Franz Beckenbauer at Bayern Munich. Watching the raids of Inter and Italy’s Giacinto Facchetti at left-back, he reckoned that the same thing could be achieved by an advancing libero, and put it into dynamic practice with this club. It would be sometime before he was allowed to put it into practice for West Germany, but by 1974 he was doing so. The philosophy behind the style was of complete versatility; defenders would attack, attackers would defend. Germany had Beckenbauer, Holland had the versatile and elusive Johan Cruyff. Coruscating football would be seen particularly by the Dutch, although they lost the final to Germany.

Carlos Bilardo, manager of Argentina in the 1986 tournament, would boast after wining the Cup in Mexico City, of his tactical innovations, but they were, in fact, forced on him by circumstances. They comprised a sweeper in Jose Luis Brown, behind two stoppers in Oscar Ruggeri and Cuciuffo and two wing-backs, better going forward than defending, in Ricardo Giusti and Hector Enrique. It wouldn’t catch on.

By 1994 World Cup in the USA, Brazil had given up on their glorious wingers and relied on their overlapping full-backs to attack. A system with which they would persist. France, winners in 1998, deployed just a single striker, but right to the end, couldn’t find a decent one. By 2010, in South Africa, a one-man attack had become increasingly the vogue, though Spain, the winners, had a glittering and penetrating midfield to back up their lone spearhead. Alas, one-man attacks are becoming more and more common in the world game.