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Lessons Of The World Cup: Why Is The Premier League So Far Behind?

The final may not have been a classic, but it was a display of tactical mastery from both sides that proved their worthiness of inclusion in the most grandiose of football fixtures.

They, Netherlands and Spain, and their fellow semi-finalists also, were remarkably similar in approach – little wonder then that the finalists almost canceled themselves out – so it begs the question, is the method utilized by the successful sides the way forward? If so, what other tactical lessons have been taught? And what can the Premier League and England learn from it?

Well, the most obvious aspect of this World Cup has been the dominance of the 4-2-3-1. Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Uruguay all formed up a five-man midfield at some point during the tournament, although Uruguay had a very distinctive South American take on the formation.

Netherlands vs Spain with added triangles

4-2-3-1 For Beginners

For the uninitiated, this nuance partitioning of the players on the pitch is no better illustrated than the way the Netherlands lined up in the final against Spain. Firstly, there is the ubiquitous back four, Mathijsen and Heitinga at the centre, with Van Der Wiel and Van Bronckhorst on the flanks. In front of them are the two holding midfielders De Jong and Van Bommel, whose job it is to break up the play and feed the attacking midfielders just ahead of them. As you can see, Sneijder, Robben and Kuyt take up a similar horizontal position on the pitch (vertical on this diagram), giving the clear distinction of the two from the three. This leaves Van Persie on his own up-front.

The dominance of this method should be no surprise though. In the Spanish league, the 4-2-3-1 formation is the most used by a country mile; last season, teams lined up in that partitioning on no fewer than 418 occasions, with only 197 opting for a 4-4-2.

Elsewhere, in Serie A, variants of the five-man midfield similarly outnumber the 4-4-2. In the Champions League also teams predominantly field a 4-2-3-1. In fact, 4-4-2 is no longer the dominant formation outside of the Bundesliga or the Premier League. Bundesliga teams fielded a 4-4-2 219 times, but with a greater array of other formations; unlike the Premier League, where teams stuck with 4-4-2 over 330 times with fewer tactical variations than any other major European league.

This isn’t an argument that puts forward the hypothesis that 4-2-3-1 should suddenly become the default for every team. After all, in England certainly, 4-4-2 has become the default of youth development and only a gradual switch away from it will prevent any self-harming results.

Furthermore, the 4-4-2 has demonstrated the ability to, by rigidly drilling the two back lines of four, stifle a 4-2-3-1 – think Spain versus Switzerland. Defensively therefore, although utterly tedious – both to watch and to play, a 4-4-2 does have its merits. However, in order to dictate play, to attack, to keep possession and to dominate (and to be successful it seems), as Jonathan Wilson points out in his recent article for the Guardian, the creation of interlocking passing triangles is a necessity in the modern game; 4-2-3-1 offers this in abundance in comparison to the flat midfield of a 4-4-2.

The ‘Number 10’

The preponderance of the 4-4-2 in the Premier League has probably also stinted another important innovation in the modern game, that of the nuanced ‘number 10’. Some of the best players in the tournament have been employed to take up position just behind the main striker. Sneijder, Mesut Ozil, Xavi, Messi, even Diego Forlan occupied the space between defenders and midfielders just behind the lead striker or strikers.

There’s more information on the importance of this evolution of the ‘number 10’ (trequartistas) here, but for now it’s suffice to say that they have been a vital asset to the progression of their respective teams.

Notably, none of the above are Premier League residents. In fact, it is perfectly arguable that the only player currently taking up this position in the English league is (Barcelona bound?) Cesc Fabregas. Scan the rest of the Premier League and you’ll be hard pushed to find someone similar to those mentioned. Steven Gerrard, who briefly operated just behind Fernando Torres for Liverpool a couple of seasons ago, could be given a case, but, compare his manner and expertise to those previously mentioned and he’s more-or-less incomparable.

The Premier League, it seems, is unsurprisingly lagging behind its European neighbours when it comes to tactical innovation once again.

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Article title: Lessons Of The World Cup: Why Is The Premier League So Far Behind?

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