Three at the back
The Renaissance, as far as the Premier League is concerned, occurred when Antonio Conte rediscovered the 3-4-3 as Chelsea surged to the title in the 2016/17 season but, of course, three-man back lines have been in and out of vogue for years. There are various reasons why a team might switch to a three-man back line: Belgium have done so under Roberto Martinez to mitigate their lack of full-backs; Gareth Southgate’s England have players used to the system from their Premier League teams and have found they can achieve greater movement between the lines this way; and sides like Panama tend to fall back into a five-man defence from a nominal starting back three, because it affords them greater defensive cover.
Back threes have strengths and weaknesses, like any formation. The temptation to fall back can make a side hard to break down, but also reduces attacking options. Width must come from the wing backs and the opposition can double up on them with a full-back and wide midfielder or winger, which reduces the effectiveness. Having said that, it also allows teams to win or at least match the numbers game in midfield and, as with England, can create a degree of unpredictability going forwards that teams find hard to defend against. None of the favourites for the World Cup, Brazil, Germany, Spain, or France, play with a back three, but that does not mean it will not be an effective counter-measure to such sides.
Verticality is one of those terms in football that people use to sound clever – in essence, it simply means getting the ball forward quickly and directly. Tournament football is an odd beast, and managers have limited time with their players, so expect a number of sides to play directly, rather than build cleverly from the back. Mexico will play long balls from a deep-lying playmaker or from wide splitting centre-backs to get the ball to their mercurial wide men like Hirving Lozano or Carlos Vela. Nigeria will try to achieve the same, looking for direct central passes to midfielders who then progress the ball wide, and quickly to the dangerous Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses, or Ahmed Musa. Senegal play with a very disciplined double pivot ahead of a back four – the back six keep the ball while the front players, Sadio Mane, Balde Keita, Moussa Sow, or Ismaila Sarr, make runs.
The idea is to get the ball to the danger men while maintaining a compact shape through the centre. These teams all have tactically intelligent, combative midfielders: players like Mexico’s Diego Reyes and Hector Herrera, Nigeria’s Ogenyi Onazi and John Ogu, and Senegal’s Cheikh Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye are there to win the ball and recycle it. These teams may seem limited because they do not build as carefully as, say, Brazil, but they are playing intelligently to their strengths. A whirlwind of movement up front being supplied by long, direct passes from deep works in attack, and keeps things tight in defence – expect to see it a lot.
As any fan of Liverpool will tell you, it takes time to get a pressing game right but, when a team does, it can be mighty effective. Nonetheless, this facet of the domestic game is unlikely to feature as highly in the World Cup for two main reasons: most sides do not have an abundance of players who press heavily in their domestic sides and can thus get used to it as a team in the short period of time required, and because the thick-and-fast nature of tournament football means that the physical demands can be severe.
Sides like France, Spain, Germany, and to a lesser extent, England, Brazil, Australia, the Korean Republic, and Japan, will all press, but do not expect to see the sort of organised and consistent pressing that has become such a feature of the top sides in Europe. Marking will generally be more man-orientated, because it is easier to coach in a short timeframe, though the downside is that sides can lose their shape more easily. There is a reason why it is the better sides that will press, but the ability to press is more a function of having a good and cohesive squad, a sign of overall quality rather than the match-winning quality in itself.
A few other things to note
While it might be seen as outdated, expect something from 4-4-2 at this World Cup. Sweden’s is reminiscent of RB Leipzig’s with Emil Forsberg cutting inside to make more of a 4-2-2-2 in attack, while Iceland’s is far more traditional, but affords them a well-drilled, and very solid, basis for counter attacks. The Korean Republic may use a 4-4-2 and Portugal’s lop-sided version, with the left-hand midfielder tucking in and the right-hand midfielder pushing up, was a winner at Euro 2016; Uruguay’s version is similar. It is a formation that could upset the apple cart.
TSG Hoffenheim showed the value of big, quick strikers who run the channels out wide and provide for advancing midfielders, and this will be a feature of the World Cup too. Russia’s Fedor Smolov, Sweden’s John Guidetti and Ola Toivonen, and Denmark’s Andreas Cornelius or Yussuf Poulsen all pull wide to hold up the ball and cross it, providers as much as they are goal scorers. This works especially for teams that play vertically as described above, as these players are a good out ball to relieve pressure, and can turn defence into attack.
You can trade thousands of footballers on Football INDEX: https://www.footballindex.co.uk/stockmarket/team