Tik Tact Tales

World Cup 2014 is still fresh in our memory. So what new did we come across? Which teams impressed us with their discipline or attacking flair? And which managers did impress us with their tactical maneuvering? Debojyoti Chakraborty analyzes all these and more here with GT.

With the FIFA 2014 World Cup finally coming to a close, there has been a great deal of debate going on about whether this World Cup was the greatest ever. There were several indications that it was definitely one of the best in post world war era. If on the one hand we had loads of goals  (at least in the group stages), plenty of drama and endless emotions, captivating us for more than a month, on the other hand we also witnessed some fascinating tactical battles throughout the campaign. Let us take a look at some tactics that left a lasting impression.


Germany started the competition in 4-3-3 formation with Philipp Lahm, possibly the best right back in the world playing as midfield anchor. Joachim Löw had a fluid front three of Mesut Özil, Mario Götze and Thomas Müller with the licence to roam and interchange at will.

Germany formation in the final - dictating the middle of the pitch
Germany formation in the final – dictating the middle of the pitch

Germany stormed through to the second round but looked slow and susceptible against an attacking opponent. In the round of 16 match against Algeria, the German full backs –Höwedes and Shkodran Mustafi, centre backs in their club teams, started venturing forward but without any substantial impact. It exposed their centre backs and Löw , the mastermind, unleashed Manuel Neuer in an extremely aggressive sweeper keeper role. It was a move which could have backfired but he trusted his keeper who never let him down with 17 perfectly timed clearances outside his penalty box. Germany, however, looked more threatening and settled as Lahm moved to his natural right back role to replace the injured Mustafi, thus paving the way for Sami Khedira in the midfield. The latter added much needed pace in the Die Mannschaft middle third while Bastian Schweinsteiger looked far more comfortable in the deep ball playing role than his captain –  the move ultimately elevated Germany to another level but happened more by chance than planning.

Löw made another decisive switch in the next match against France by introducing an out and out striker in Miroslav Klose upfront. He provided a focal point to the German attack, and allowed Müller to start at his usual right hand channel and drift inside. Although Klose had little impact on the game in the attacking third and more precisely, inside the penalty box, he helped push back the French centre backs, and thus freed up the space for German midfielders to maintain the goal threat.

With Khedira getting ruled out during warm up and his replacement Christoph Kramer having a poor game before leaving the field due to an injury , Germany were set back in the final with the shortage of central midfielders. Özil had to fall back to the midfield trio where he was never at ease. Löw  though had the final say as his super subs André Schürrle and Götze combined to clinch the title.

Germany had a very peculiar team – from an ultra-modern goalkeeper to the old-fashioned goal poacher. But just like the previous two winners Italy and Spain, Germany also had a variety of attacking threats– they seemed to find a goal scorer from virtually every corner of the field during critical moments. Joachim Löw should be credited for not only winning the World Cup, but also nurturing so many young talents en route.


Alejandro Sabella made a huge tactical error as he started the campaign with a 3-5-2, but he quickly went for damage control at half-time. With Bosnia and Herzegovina using only a lone striker upfront, Sabella spared an extra man from the back to add more solidity and control in the midfield. Lionel Messi definitely enjoyed the hybrid 4-3-3 formation and his own false 9 role.

Angel di Maria taking on Swiss defenders succesfully – Source: Squawka

Sabella drastically changed things around in his next match and moved to a 4-2-4 system against an Iran side expected to sit back and defend for their lives. Iran showed tremendous discipline and robbed Argentina of any space. Once again Argentina failed to impress.

Finally Sabella addressed the core issue, albeit through an injury to front man Sergio Agüero. Ezequiel Lavezzi was introduced and though he did not produce a tangible end product, he was honest in his wide position and provided a proper 4-2-3-1 balance to the team which gave Messi the licence to roam around. Messi, as expected, was heavily marked throughout the World Cup. However, he constantly managed to drag at least two of the opponent midfielders out of position, which was opening up a vast area between the lines for others to drift into. Unfortunately, more so after the injury to Ángel di María, none of his team mates managed to take advantage. All of Argentina’s movements were distressingly linear playing into opposition hands.

Messi dictated much of the tempo for Argentina. His reserved, calculated and sudden burst of speed while attacking meant that Argentina’s tempo changed from the qualifiers, where they preferred breaking quickly. This tactical shift was very critical for La Albiceleste – the more classic eloquent Latin American display with Messi playing  an archetypal Argentine #10 devoid of any strong European influence.

Pegged by injuries to key players, Sabella opted for Lavezzi and Enzo Pérez– a central midfielder –on the wings, semi final onwards. Lavezzi, a forward, was naturally more effective venturing forward. It showcased how two makeshift wide players, given virtually similar roles, carried them out quite differently. Especially against Germany in the final, Sabella missed a trick by not asking Lavezzi to stick to the right side taking on an uncomfortable German left back Benedikt Höwedes, a right central defender.

In the finals against Germany, Sabella made an inexplicable change at half time, a switch which tilted the balance of the game in Germany’s  favour – in came a half fit Agüero for a very lively Lavezzi and Argentina changed to a midfield diamond.  They lost all the width and pace down the flank, and played to the German hands by being extremely narrow in the central areas. Sabella opted for a star player sacrificing the team shape and it cost him the World Cup.


Louis van Gaal deployed three centre backs with a high-risk strategy – high defensive line, ready to keep possession in deep areas in own half and launch direct balls forward bypassing the opponent midfield and defensive lines. There was clear instruction for two outside centre halfs to track down the two most forward players from the opponent team, even if it meant going beyond own midfield line. This paved the way for a high pressing game with an open channel for kick starting quick counter attacks.

This strategy had some loopholes though. Australian midfielders were ready to make runs deep from their own half to exploit the zone vacated by Dutch centre backs high line. But this, in effect, opened up the game more as Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben found themselves one on one against the opponents’ mid fielders. Van Gaal closed down the game by bringing in a pacy winger Memphis Depay to keep the Australian full backs more occupied. A change of formation to 4-3-3 also deprived the Australian front three any open space, resulting in a slower game, where gap in quality eventually won.

Dutch center backs - de Vrij and Martins Indi - tracking quite high up the pitch in both the halves against Spain
Dutch center backs – de Vrij and Martins Indi – tracking quite high up the pitch in both the halves against Spain – Source: Squawka

One masterstroke by van Gaal was using Dirk Kuyt, a forward by position, as an auxiliary wing back. It allowed the Oranje to transit seamlessly from a three centre back to classical 4-4-2 during different phases of the match. This was pretty apparent in the round of 16 match against Mexico. After a stalemate in the first half where both the teams cancelled each other out in a 3-5-2 set up and were producing a slow drab game, Van Gaal switched Kuyt to a conventional full back and introduced an out an out winger. The team played an immensely attacking 4-2-1-3 formation, though at the cost of a weaker midfield , as the Dutch won the game through wide areas by pushing the opponents’ wing backs even further – rather 3-4-1-2 to very attacking 4-2-1-3.

A very courageous move was already made by substituting Van Persie for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a natural penalty box poacher, perfect for getting on the end of crosses. But the move of the match came during the water break, after which Kuyt moved upfront from his right-back position, with Georginio Wijnaldum covering the right of the pitch. This tactical switch resulted in the late Dutch dominance and a 2-1 comeback win.

The Dutch were good against teams taking the game to them which meant more space to work in counters. But in the quarter final they faced Costa Rica, a mirror image of themselves,  albeit with less attacking flair and prowess. It could have produced a stalemate but not with Netherlands involved. Van Gaal moved his wing backs further up to push back the opposition wing-backs, stretched his forwards with Wesley Sneijders’ across the pitch and kept the Costa Rican centre backs occupied to basket their build-up play.

Costa Rica were content at keeping their shape at the back, and hence did not have anything to offer going forward. The Dutch were controlling the game but had a redundant defender in a 3 v 1 at the back, with none of the three centre backs stepping up into midfield to dictate the game. The Oranje, surprisingly took second half of the extra-time to address this issue, but rightfully changed from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-4, with and Huntelaar coming on up front at the expense of Bruno Martins Indi.

Then came the most talked about substitution of this World Cup. within the 119th minute, van Gaal substituted sub goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen  with Tim Krul. It was more of a psychological move than anything else : Krul is not a penalty specialist, but the iota sub convinced Costa Rica that he was.

And what an inspired substitution it was! Except for the first kick, Krul came out of his goal every time the striker walked towards the penalty spot to place it, normally walking to one side. Then Krul dived in the opposite direction of his walk. And Krul guessed it right every time, saving two in the process.

Netherlands were brilliant throughout the tournament, with van Gaal relying upon an uncommon, tight man-marking system. He was refreshingly flexible to change his formation each game to match his opposition midfield, with wing backs dropping back to have an overload in defence.


Luiz Felipe Scolari changed the way his three attacking men lined up, a tactic that surprised everyone. Oscar, most effective when operated centrally, was drifted to a wider role on the right. Neymar loves to operate from left but he was effectively used as a support striker to centre forward Fred. Hulk, who started right behind the lone striker Fred during, last year’s Confederations Cup win was shifted to the left wing. This change may be due to Neymar’s increased stocks since last year which prompted Big Phil  to offer his star player more time with the ball. But this overhaul complicated things for their most creative player, Oscar, who was visibly not comfortable playing out of position.

There is no denying the fact that nowadays Brazil lacks real skilful, creative, attacking footballers, and Scolari, hence, rightly set up the Seleção as a primarily counter-attacking team. He showed his experience by playing a midfield shuttler in Ramires and sacrificing one of the front men against teams fielding three men at the back.  But sometimes he was let down by the inexperience of Neymar, who played more like a second striker than a number 10, making himself vulnerable to marking.

Brazil front four heat map during first 30 min of match against Germany
Brazil front four heat map during first 30 min of match against Germany. Not tracking back even when the defence surely could do with some help – Source: Squawka

In the annihilation at the hands of Germany, everything that could go wrong for the hosts went wrong. The most perplexing decision was the inclusion of Bernard  in the starting XI. There has been questions on whether it was solely because he is a local Belo Horizonte boy, and Scolari, having lost Neymar already, was desperately trying to cash in on his popularity.  The whole team performance was bizarre. Brazil were atrociously broken into two sections –six defenders, four attackers, and no midfield link between them. The defence could not pass the ball to the attackers, and the front four could not retain possession much longer to ease the pressure on the back six.

In the second half, Scolari made some changes – Paulinho and Ramires replaced Hulk and Fernandinho, switching to more of a 4-3-3, with Luiz Gustavo behind Ramires and Paulinho. In hindsight, this is probably the team and shape Scolari should have started with.


Chile were one of the most versatile sides in the tournament. Jorge Sampaoli dished out a midfield diamond with plenty of variations. Marcelo Díaz, the holding midfielder would often drop deep making it a three centre back allowing the full backs to operate more like wingbacks. From there, long diagonal switch of play across the width of the field was one of the characteristics of quick Chilean counter attacks. Up front, at top of the diamond, Jorge Valdivia played further up more like a false nine rather than in a number 10 role. Striker duo of Alexis Sánchez and Edurado Vargas regularly drifted wide dragging the opponent centre halves with them and creating space for Valdivia to run into. Sampaoli also proved his worth as a clever tactician by introducing a fast, direct centre forward Jean Beausejour late in matches and switching to more traditional 4-3-3 to exploit tiring defences.

At times, Chile showed they can be reactive and can adapt very quickly. Sampoli fielded 3-4-1-2 against Spain, to replicate the Dutch pressing game against Spain. He was not copying blindly though – Chile were cautious, giving due respect to Spain as often they sat back deep to form a five man defensive line. But they overloaded when attacking and quickly changed play by passing the ball from one flank to another, a highlight of their famous win.


Jose Pékerman, the veteran Argentine coach, was widely expected to field a narrow 4-2-2-2 in the World Cup but was handicapped by last minute injury to star forward Radamel Falcao and shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation. Star of the campaign was James Rodríguez – not only he dazzled forward but always came deep to collect the ball and play some glorious through balls. Rodríguez was thought to be uncomfortable in a converted winger position but he showed tremendous adaptability and his longitudinal awareness was absolutely brilliant. It also helped that they had two skilful full backs in Juan Camilo Zúñiga and Pablo Armero who besides providing width and making overlapping runs, were comfortable with the ball deep in opponent territory, holding and dribbling past defenders. Colombia displayed tremendous discipline with the back four and the two holding midfielders, and lit the stage with Rodríguez and another trickster in Juan Cuadrado. But they suffered up front as both Jackson Martínez and Teófilo Gutiérrez failed to impress. Had they got a decent striker in the final third to support Rodríguez, Colombia might just have gone all the way.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica shocked everyone the most with their honest and disciplined display of tactical football. Jorge Luis Pinto, in his second stint as the national team coach, deployed a back three in a counter attack based system. This was in stark contrast to all other teams in the tournament having a three centre half system – Netherlands, Mexico et al were comfortable with the ball, pressed higher and had a possession based approach. On the other hand, Pinto’s team defended deep and relied on direct counter attacks – not through long balls but refreshingly eye catching speedy passing to wide areas. Sometimes they did press high up but generally they allowed the opponent teams to come at them, get exposed at the back and then break free.


Costa Rica were brilliant at setting up off side traps – their tally of 41 successful traps till the quarter final stages was more than double of the second ranked team (Germany) in this category. It shows how cohesive their defensive unit was. But the same unit struggled to switch to a conventional flat four after going down to ten men against the round of 16 match against Greece. Pinto’s tactical shift to 4-4-1 took a while to get going as the wing backs continued to play very wide instead of playing close to the centre backs. They eventually rectified themselves by playing narrow, helping out the stoppers and leaving the flanks to be taken over by the wingers. They eventually won the match on penalties, but did not have enough tricks up their sleeves to progress further in the competition.


Didier Deschamps succeeded in bringing France out of the 2010 World Cup debacle and spearheaded a well-knit unit. France’s star performer was Mathieu Valbuena who occupied the right-sided position in a three men attack but often drifted inside into pockets of spaces in more central positions. He carried out the double role of a right winger as well as a perfect #10 – on top of a midfield diamond – with aplomb.

Benzema did not track back and his passing also was lacklustre when played wide - again Nigeria in Round of 16
Benzema did not track back and his passing also was lacklustre when played wide – against Nigeria in Round of 16 – Source: EPLINDEX

But Deschamps struggled to fit in his striker duo of Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud in the starting XI efficiently. First of all, Valbuena had to be shifted in the left wing where his utility was compromised. Then, Giroud could not hold up the ball up front effectively enough, and often he mistimed his runs to create space for others. Benzema also became less effective whenever asked to operate from the left in a 4-3-3 system, did not offer any width at all, and could not go behind the last defender into goal scoring positions. In effect, his narrowness resulted in Valbuena’s diminished return.

But Benzema playing as a wide man was even more problematic due to his minimal defensive contribution. Against less disciplined teams such as Switzerland (at the group stage) this approach was still workable, since Swiss right-back Stephane Lichtsteiner was regularly getting caught in the French half and Benzema could exploit the space in counter-attack. But against more tactically sound sides like Nigeria in the round of 16 match, Efe Ambrose had a more balanced role to carry out. He attacked the French left wing with no one tracking him and combined well with Peter Odemwingie to create problems for Patrice Evra.

Les Blues were playing a lop-sided 4-4-2 and were going nowhere. Deschamps addressed the issue by taking off Giroud, introducing Antoine Griezmann, and shifting Benzema upfront in a classic 4-3-3. This move changed the game – Griezmann’s directness and verticality in possession proved decisive as he linked well with both Benzema and Valbuena. France won courtesy a Paul Pogba header from a corner but ran out of ideas in the quarter final against eventual winner Germany.


Marc Wilmots biggest tactical genius was perhaps the use of his substitutes. In the opener against Algeria he struggled in the first half with a 4-4-1-1 and an inept toothless attack. At the half time, Kevin de Bryune was shifted to a central position, and Belgium now had a potent target man with super sub Marouane Fellaini playing as the second striker. Fellaini did not disappoint and pulled Belgium level with a brilliant header.

Wilmots then put up an example for everyone – he did not hesitate to start with Divock Origi upfront, ahead of his number 1 striker, an underperforming Romelu Lukaku in the knock out stages. But he was not stubborn to prove himself right as he changed things whenever required. The round of 16 match against USA was turning out to be a frustrating one for the Belgian faithful. USA kept on losing the ball frequently and Belgium kept on squandering chances against an impregnable Tim Howard. Wilmots could do nothing much but still he shook things up by introducing a bit of pace by introducing Kevin Mirallas in place of Dries Mertens. In extra-time Lukaku was called off the bench to inject even more pace upfront at the expense of Origi. And Belgium finally got the crucial breakthrough as Lukaku teed up De Bruyne on the break. Ten minutes later the reverse sequence happened and Lukaku’s cameo helped Belgium overcome a stubborn USA side. Belgium created a lot in the match, but a clinical striker made all the difference late in the match.

Wilmots was handicapped with the lack of natural full backs – everyone in his back four was a centre half.  So there was no consistent overlapping runs, no overload in the wide area and one cannot succeed at the World Cup without such a basic weapon.

Notable mentions:

    • England coach Roy Hodgson excited all of us with four attackers in a 4-2-4 system. But obvious downside of this formation was lack of defensive responsibilities and less protection for full backs which cost them a lot. Also Wayne Rooney’s positioning was an issue – he was shifted constantly during and in between matches from either flanks to the behind the striker position. World Cup was no place to decide the best position for the team’s most influential player.
    • Paulo Bento used Cristiano Ronaldo more as a second striker and shifted Raul Merieles towards the left to cover for his vacated space. This was effectively a 4-4-2 but with neither forwards tracking back, it was always a lost battle in the central midfield where the opponent always created a 3 on 2 overload.
    • Greece are one of the most defensive sides the World has ever seen. But they showed their attacking flair too against a 10-man Costa Rica while trailing by a goal. Like any other side, they introduced strikers, moved up the # 10 to play more like a 4-2-4. But they did not simply hit the long balls – instead they pushed the ball wide, stretched the play, forced Costa Rica to work hard, tired them out, and lashed some brilliant crosses into the box. They were patient throughout and finally were able to equalize.
Greece chasing the game in last 30 min against Costa Rica in Round of 16 - Long balls to stretch the play
Greece chasing the game in last 30 min against Costa Rica in Round of 16 – Long balls to stretch the play – Source: Squawka
    • This World Cup saw a return of three centre back formation. But at the end, many of the teams shifted from 3-5-2 to 5-3-2 as the wing backs were instructed to be more responsible defensively. At the end of the day, it was evident that the same system could look very different by the roles carried out by individual players.
    • Another notable aspect was that how cagy an affair it can become when two sides fielding the same 3-5-2 formation lock horns (Uruguay vs Italy in the group stage, Netherlands vs Costa Rica in the last eight). Strikers become well marked by the insurance of an extra sweeper; there is no free width to be exploited as the wide areas are well guarded by the wing backs creating 1 v 1 all the time. Midfield area becomes too predictable and three CMs cancel each other out.
    • As we advanced in the tournament, teams got more cautious. Full backs / wing backs were instructed to track their opposite numbers more closely rather than being used as an outlet for attack. This reduced the possibility of having a 2 v 1 overload in the opposition wide areas and the game got more predictable.  Same was the scenario in the middle of the pitch – the midfield triangles were formed much lower; sometimes entirely well within own half by the central midfielders and very few ambitious balls were played forward.  As a result goal scoring opportunities diminished and so did the goals.

At the end of the day it really comes down to the individual players. The coach can always come up with the best of plans to tackle the opponent. But it depends on the players’ adaptability and discipline if they can execute that plan. And how well individuals can execute the tactics differentiates the winner from the rest of the bunch.