One-man bands

Initially an all-out striker, though not a lone one, Francesco Totti modulated into what Italians call a three-quarter player, “in the hole” behind the frontline.

It seems to have become all the fashion now. Globally. Just one man, one striker, up, globally, both at club and international level. Yet, is the fashion justified, even rational? I had cause to wonder when I recently, at Arsenal’s stadium, watched Brazil play Sweden in a friendly. In the first-half, Fabiano, a biggish fellow, was what you might call the lone ranger for Brazil. In the second-half the Brazilians brought on the 18-year-old who seems, after Kaka, to be their next scintillating young star. Already a first choice with Milan, Pato, a little fellow, duly lined up as Brazil’s solitary striker.

And, to give him credit, it was he who scored the game’s only goal. A notable piece of opportunism, when the Swedish ’keeper, Isaksson, came rashly out of his area and swung at the ball. It hit Pato, who promptly spun on the ball and hooked it with his left foot into the empty net. A memorable moment, yet my sympathy went out to Pato, obliged to plough such a lonely furrow, outnumbered by defenders much bigger than he. And my mind goes back to former Brazilian formations.

Notably 50 long years back; to the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden. It was there that Brazil introduced us to the tactics which, outside Italy where catennaccio was king with its cautious sweeper, would capture the world, let alone the World Cup. 4-2-5 was the revolutionary formation, destined to sweep aside the old third-back game which Arsenal had invented after the radical if rushed change in the off-side law. The ‘W’ formation, to give it its other name, decreed that the old wing-halves, though still called such, moved into the middle, behind two inside-forwards. At the back, the full-backs who used to operate in the centre now went to the flanks, though they were expected to pivot around a centre-half who would now be named as the third-back, marking tight the opposing centre-forward. Arsenal swept the board with such tactics, with an emphasis on counter attacking, breakaway football, but the Brazilians never did master the method. Zonal defence was its other name and how well I remember Brazil coming to Wembley for a friendly in 1956 and deploying a fiasco of an open defence. Cover was often non-existent, huge gaps emerged. England missed two penalties but still won 4-2. The defensive system was simply not native to Brazilian players and by 1988 it had so radically changed.

4-4-2 wasn’t quite what it seemed, chiefly because Brazil, in the tireless shape of its future national manager, Mario Lobo Zagallo, had an outside-left of exceptional stamina, who could more or less cover the whole of that flank at will. One remembers him in the final against Sweden heading out from under his own crossbar; then tearing upfield to strike for goal at the other end! By the time it came to the Brazilians defending their title in Chile in 1962, their method had officially become 4-3-3; which, thanks to Zagallo, it had often been in Sweden.

4-4-2 notionally at least meant for defenders in line across the back, two full-backs, a centre-half and beside him what might best be described as a defensive wing-half. The 1958 line-up in Sweden was adventurously geared to attack. Having just two men in midfield’s central positions for much of the time inevitably ran risks, though by and large the statistics show that the Brazilian defence conceded relatively few goals. But in due course, as we know, 4-3-3 would itself modulate into 4-4-2, which for years became the favoured style in Europe, even in Italy, where after stifling years of being in vogue, even catennaccio went to the winds.

As time went by, there was much dispute about the merits or otherwise of 4-4-2, some English coaches even at international level, feeling it was out of date. When it came to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the England manager, Bobby Robson, now so bravely fighting the ravages of terminal cancer, proclaimed in advance that English players would never consent to a sweeper formation. This, some years after the brief but brilliant spell of Total Football, so-called, practised by the Dutch and the Germans. A bold football philosophy which insisted broadly that anybody could do anything, attackers defend, defenders attack. But it essentially needed players of huge versatility and eventually proved a little too good to be true.

Despite Bobby Robson’s insistence, he allowed his senior England players to talk him into playing with a sweeper. In Cagliari, it tended to look a half-baked, half-understood policy, with the so-called sweeper often to be seen operating at right-back, though by the time it came to the semifinal against Germany, the system looked more solid. As against that, how well one remembers the quarterfinal in Naples against Cameroon, when injuries forced a struggling but finally surviving England to drop the sweeper defence. At the Press Conference next morning in Salerno, I was there to hear Robson say, “A flat back four saved us.”

But what of the lone striker? We know that when it comes to playing for England, Wayne Rooney hates it there. He surely did so in the 2006 World Cup in Germany when not fully fit. Ericsson placed him there; and his discomfort had much to do with his sudden bout of violence and sending off in the quarterfinals, against Portugal. Most recently, in Paris, Capello put him there again, but it didn’t work. It will do so only when he has the ebullient support he gets at Manchester United.

Surely only certain types of big, robust players can truly succeeded as one-man bands. Such as big, powerful John Hartson, when in full form with Wales. How well I recall the bleak day in Belgrade against Serbia when, Hartson absent, manager Mark Hughes mistakenly decided to play one up again, with the smaller, slighter and far less adapted Nathan Blake; on whom attack after attack broke down. Of course, there are exceptions. Francesco Totti is a salient example. Initially an all-out striker, though not a lone one, he modulated into what Italians call a three-quarter player, “in the hole” behind the front line. But last season he had prolific success as the one man up front. Perhaps it can indeed work if you have the power of Hartson or the skills of Totti.