The change of tactics and techniques down the years


BY the time the first World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930, English football was already in thrall to the third back game, or WM formation, introduced by Arsenal in 1925 as a response to the radical change in the offside law. Whereas in the past an attacker needed three players, in effect two defenders and the goalkeeper, between himself and the opposing goal when the ball was kicked, now he needed just two which in turn effectively meant one man and the keeper. But Germany apart, it would still be many years before the world game at large accepted, even understood, the new strategy, with its stopper or third back centre-half, flying wingers, so called wing halves moved into the middle of the park to play just behind the inside forwards, and full backs now out on the flanks pivoting in turn to cover the centre half. It is arguable that the Brazilians, most successful of all in World Cups, never really mastered the third back game at all. And the Italians, who would in time become obsessed by tactics, were incredibly slow to understand it.

Not till 1939, when he wrote an article on the subject in the Roman daily, Corriere dello Sport, did Fulvio Bernardini, once an outstanding attacking centre half himself, "explain" to Italy the difference between the old school which he called metodo and what an England team had just displayed in Milan against Italy, the third back game which he christened sistema. Yet England had played in Rome in 1933!

So in Montevideo there was never any doubt about what methods the 13 contestants would use. It was still a case of the two full backs covering the middle, the wing halves playing up and down the flanks rather like the wing backs of today, the centre half being fluid, always ready to support his attack, and what could often amount to a five man forward line though obviously its two inside forwards had to be ready to drop back to lend a hand in midfield. The wingers stayed wide, the centre forward would plie his trade through the middle.

Uruguay, who had resplendently won the 1924 and 1928 Olympic titles, would still be wedded to such methods in the World Cups of the 1950s. Perhaps their chief strength, besides their dazzling technique, was their half back line known as The Iron Curtain long before Winston Churchill supposedly minted the phrase after World War II. The so called la costilla metallica consisted of Jose Andrade and Alvaro Gestido in the flanks, Lorenzo Fernandez in the middle. Billy Meredith, the famous Wales and Manchester United outside right, whose amazingly long career spanned World War I, was wont to say, "Show me your half back line and I'll tell you what kind of a team you've got." In the case of Uruguay, it was a very strong one indeed.

Andrade, something of an exhibitionist at times, and the broad shouldered Gestido were exceptional ball players and Gestido's passing was immaculate. That left Fernandez to break forward when he chose. The bulwark of the strong defence was Jose' Nasazi who as the right back played in the centre as full backs then would. Up front there was an array of gifted stars to choose from such as Hector Scarone and the young Anselmo who to great disappointment of his fans would miss the Final versus Argentina, won 4-2, through injury. His place however was competently taken by the "One Armed" Hector Castro, who had part of an arm missing. He it was who would drive the final nail into Agrentina's coffin, with a powerful drive into the roof of the net.

Italy would win the next two World Cups, 1934 and 1938, under the shrewd aegis of its commissario technico, Vittorio Pozzo who by an irony had studied and developed his tactical ideas before World War I as a poor student in England. A Turin man, he wouldn't come home to his sister's wedding at his parents' behest afraid they would stop him returning to England, as he eventually found. But he remained in England, making a living by teaching foreign languages all over the Midlands, watching a lot of football, and getting to know some of its stars. In particular there was the prolific goal scorer of Derby County and England, Steve Bloomer, and the famous Manchester United attacking centre half, Charlie Roberts. Pozzo would shyly wait outside the stadia where the great men were playing, approach them and talk to them about tactics. He'd always want a centre half such as Roberts, a robust figure, capable of feeding his attack with long passes to the wings. Therefore he eliminated Fulvio Bernardini, for all that elegant Roman's talents.

"The crowds say clever Bernardini," Pozzo told him, "but you slow down the attack." He got what he wanted, somewhat dubiously, in the shape of the thuggish Argentine Luisito Monti, nicknamed the man who strolls, though he might just as well have been nicknamed the man who kicks people. Not least when he feigns to be shaking hands with him as an unfortunate Chelsea player found when playing a so called friendly against Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. Moreover, Monti like two other Argentine members of Pozzo's winning 1934 team, was most controversially qualified. Like Enrico Guaita and Raimundo Orsi, the wingers, he was an experienced international for his original country and indeed had actually captained them in the World Cup Final of 1930 in Montevideo. But he was big, tough, uncompromising, and he spread the ball to the wings.

In November 1934 after he had played a major role in the Italian World Cup win, it was a matter of the biter bit. After just 90 seconds of the match against England at Highbury, Monti was kicked - deliberately he insisted but it seems unlikely - on the top of the foot by the rugged Arsenal centre-forward, Ted Drake, and had to go off the field. What ensued went down in English football history as The Battle of Highbury with Italian boots and elbows swinging.

But Italy duly won the 1934 trophy though as the great Belgian referee John Langenus, who had so masterfully handled the 1930 World Cup Final, opined, it wasn't a popular success anywhere outside Italy itself. The 1938 Italian team in France played to the same system, but played better football with less reliance on physical means. Now the attacking centre half would be another South American in the Uruguayan Michele Androlo. No gentleman, he, either; a few months after Italy had won the Cup again, in Paris, he spat at Jimmy Jewell, referee of a match at Highbury (again!) between England and the Rest of Europe. But once more Pozzo's tactics had worked, the same clever inside forwards, Peppino Meazza and Gioanin Ferrari, keeping matters on the move, with the big centre forward, Silvio Piola, a powerful and prolific spearhead.

Much against his will, Pozzo had to go with the prevailing tactical wind in the 1940s, and go over to the third back game. Predictably he never really made it work for Italy and when the Azzurri lost 4-0 to England in Turin in May 1948 the writing was on the wall. After a 20 year spell he would be removed. Interesting however to note that in the 1934 World Cup competition, Germany were actually using the third back game, and though they hardly pulled up any trees, well beaten in the semifinals by the metodo Czechs, they did win the third place game against an Austrian team still wedded to the Vienna School tactics with an attacking centre-half.

By the time it came to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, there was a mixture of styles. Neither Uruguay, the ultimate surprising winners nor Brazil, whom they beat in Rio in the decisive, dramatic match, used the third back, but England, competing for the first time, emphatically did. Uruguay had a team which pivoted around the big 33-year-old centre-half Obdulio Varela, a valiant figure who appeared here there and everywhere, now dominating in defence, now bringing the ball forward in attack. Brazil had a defensive system known as the diagonal, which would let them down badly against Uruguay.

Brazil's "diagonal" was a somewhat hybrid system. Danilo, the centre half, had a roving commission, assigned chiefly to the opposing inside-right, the left back marking the centre-forward. Since the heavy emphasis was on dazzling technique, notably that of the three inside-forwards, Zizinho, Ademir and Jair, strongly and cleverly supported by the right-half, Carlos Bauer, Brazil were not over concerned about defensive needs. This would prove fatal against Uruguay who profitably exploited the gaps left on the left of the defence where Bigode, the left half, was expected to preside, but where the quick hunched little Uruguay right winger, Chico Ghiggia, ran riot, making the first goal for Juan Schiaffino and scoring the cataclysmic winner.

By the time it came to the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, Brazil had moved over to what they conceived as the third back game, but it ran counter to the nature of their players and never truly worked. The brilliant Hungarians played an original system then, with Nandor Hidegkuti operating as what was categorised as deep lying centre forward, just behind the two devastating inside forwards left footed Ferenc Puskas and Golden Head Sandor Kocsis, Zakarias, the left half was virtually a second stoppper, operating deep, beside the big blond centre back Lorant. But the German team which eventually beat them in the final used a third back.

Nineteen fiftyeight and Sweden saw Brazil initiate a tactical revolution: 4-2-4. It followed a disastrous 1956 European tour when England ran through huge open spaces at Wembley at will and 4-2 was no true reflection. It was all too plain that the Brazilians simply couldn't master the pivotal covering essential to the third back game. But by 1958 it didn't matter, since the four at the back plan obviated the necessity. Two full backs on the flanks, a regular centre half and what you might (like Zakarias of Hungary) call a defensive left half beside him. Two men in the middle a playmaking inside forward, the creative Didi with his passing and his "falling lead" free kicks, and a natural wing half. First, the attacking Dino then the more complete Zito. Up front, two strikers plus two wingers, but Zagallo on the left was in fact so energetic that he could cover the whole touchline and even head out from under his own bar in the final. By 1962, when Brazil won again in Chile, he was an out and out third midfielder.

Then came Catenaccio, the big bolt defence, actually invented in Switzerland in the 1940s by the Austrian Karl Reppan when manager of the Swiss national team. 4-2-4 was probably the invention of a Paraguayan coach, Fleitas Solitch when managing in Rio.

The Italians, like their most successful club team of the 60s, Inter, became wedded to catenaccio in a too negative way, the libero or sweeper playing behind two markers, though full backs such as tall Giacinto Facchetti were encouraged to go forward. He even scored goals and would prove the inspiration for Franz Beckenbauer, as a youngster at Bayern, to invent the attacking libero, breaking out from behind the markers. Though the West German team manager let him use the plan only in the 1970 World Cup when the team was unlucky, like the injured Beckenbauer himself, to lose to the Italian catenaccio team in the semi-final. In the Final against Brazil's 4-4-2 though left sided midfielder, Roberto Rivelino, would often surge into attack Italy were simply swept away. Among most European teams, however, 4-4-2, with just two attackers up, was largely the fashion.

Total football as inspired by Beckenbauer and Holland's Johan Cruyff in the early 1970s - their teams would meet in the 1974 Final in Munich - was the glorious new revelation, but it was a little too good to last. It was Beckenbauer's attacking sweeper who inspired it.

The ambitious theory behind it was that anybody could do anything, defenders attack, forwards defend. Full backs such as Paul Breitner of West Germany, Rudi Krol and Wim Suurbier of Holland, surged forward like wingers. Beckenbauer himself had after all been inspired by Facchetti, reckoning that if a full back could do it then so could a central player like a libero. Seldom has more exciting football, been played, but it did need players of the highest calibre.

Nineteen eightsix, in Mexico, saw another tactical innovation, Argentina's 3-5-2. The manager, Carlos Bilardo, was very proud of the system and claimed that it swept the world, but in fact he employed it only in the later stages of the competition, as something of an afterthought. What it meant was a couple of central markers with a libero, big Jose Luis Brown, who arrived in Mexico without a club, but ended by heading the opening goal in the World Cup Final.

There were two wing backs, much on the lines of the old school wing halves, eager to join attacks, not always so good at defending and notionally, at least, two strikers up front. Often, in fact only one, Jorge Valdan, with the brilliant little Diego Maradona lurking in ambush behind him.

By the World Cups of the 90s, indeed, numerous countries would play with a single striker, supporting him from a five man midfield.

3-5-2 did indeed become largely diffused around the world, but by and large, not least in England, it was played without a designated sweeper among the three defenders. From all this, you may deduce that wingers, so effectively used by the Brazilians all the way up to the 1970 World Cup, became increasingly rare. By the time they won the World Cup again, in the USA, in 1994, even the Brazilians had abandoned them.