The flight of the Jabulani

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A new template has been written for football teams across the globe to emulate in this World Cup, that blends caution with exuberance, says Bodhisattwa Maity

THE QUADRENNIALWorld Cup of football acts as a metronome, a time-keeper for the football fraternity to take stock of the state of the game. However, in a global football schedule dominated and influenced by a coterie of rich and influential associations and leagues, the showpiece event is increasingly becoming a fig leaf, a cover for the business that is carried on as usual, despite the World Cup. (See ‘The End of the World (Cup) as we know it’, TEHELKA, July 3, 2010). What gives hope is that ultimately all this is about a game of football — a game of glorious uncertainties, to borrow a phrase — what happens on the ground can hardly be scripted — unless by an octopus. And so, with a heavy heart — there is always a heavy heart, a ‘withdrawal syndrome’ at the end of the monthlong festivities for the fanatic — one sits down in search of time lost.

And there is much to ruminate about the edition that just ended. There weren’t too many memorable matches that will become reference points for excited fans in terms of the competitive football dished out — Italy-Slovakia in the group stages, South Korea-Uruguay in the pre-quarter finals and Germany-Uruguay for the third-place are probably the only exceptions. Some matches did gain notoriety — the Ghana-Uruguay quarter-final encounter was superseded only by the ugly, cynical final match between Holland and Spain.

Nevertheless, we did see the emergence of a distinct new template. With Fabio Capello’s England, the 4-4-2 ‘pressing’ style, revolutionised by Capello’s predecessor at Milan Arrigo Sacchi, in the late 1980s, and widely accepted as the global system for over two decades, is now dead and buried. This was a system emphasising a straight defensive line that forced up-field to create a high offside trap for opposition forwards. This also reduced the playing area, helping them to conserve energy for a high octane game in which they would try to keep possession of the ball as long as possible, and start harassing the opposition the moment their team lost the ball. The focus was on order and energy. However, the deployment of wide wing-backs by teams like Brazil in the 1994 World Cup, and Holland and France in the 1998 edition, effectively stretched the defense and necessitated the evolution towards the 4-5-1, where more midfielders, with roving roles,could increase the number of bodies in defense and attack as needed, and parry the threat of the opponents. It also meant less emphasis on attack, as exemplified by Jose Mourinho’s teams at Porto, Chelsea and most recently at Inter Milan in the Champions League of 2010.

Attack-minded teams adapted this system by breaking up the midfield line into two parts. Behind the lone striker, there would be a four-man attacking diamond, that would be buttressed at the back by a “Makélelé” (after Claude Makélelé, France), a cultured ball snatcher whose job would be to break up opposition attacks and initiate counter-attacks. Unfortunately, as teams have found out, Makélelé was one-of-a-kind and hard to replicate. The solution — deploy two defensive ‘screens’ with varying intent, mostly based on skills of the players available. Thus, as the tournament progressed, teams adapted to the new strategy, till in the final we had two teams lined up in much the same way. There was a difference, nevertheless, in how they played. Holland had the two bone crunchers in the shape of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel to destroy opposition attacks. However, given the lack of ball skills and creativity of the two, effectively this was what has been called a ‘broken’ 4-2-3-1 — the ‘enforcers’ solely bent on stopping the opposition attacks reaching deep into their own defense, but unable to initiate attacks on their own after the ball is won. Instead, their job would be to pass the ball to the three attacking midfielders — Sneijder, Robben and Kuyt, who would not only supply the lone centre forward in Robin van Persie, but, also if and when needed, surge forward and play like independent roving forwards under their own initiative.

ON THE other hand, Spain, blessed as they are with a surfeit of midfielders with superb peripheral vision and ball skills, used their ‘enforcers’ Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets not only to break attacks but also initiate their own forward thrusts. The result — the creative trio of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Pedro/ Jesús Navas would often be free of their defensive duties to switch to 4-2-1-3, with Xavi acting as the conductor of a three-man attack on occasions, or change into the base of a fourman diamond (with out-and-out striker Villa as the apex), at other times. The reason why Germany gave us adrenaline rushes is precisely because they, too, utilised Khedira and Schweinsteiger as the ‘screens’, with Özil, Podolski and Müller as the attacking trio feeding Klose up-front.

Whether by design or dearth, then, the Roberto Carlos/ Cafu (Brazil) model of attacking wingbacks, was also laid to rest in this World Cup. With Maicon (Brazil) and Ramos (Spain), we did sometimes see one-sided wing play from the deep, but mostly, this duty was taken up by the wide medios in the attacking trident of the 4-2-3-1. A fluid system, where pragmatism provides foundation for cautious exuberance, has emerged. The shift has been indiscernible, but significant nonetheless.

How does this bode for the future? Despite the sniggers at his managerial style, evolutionary tendencies converging from the Dutch ‘Total Football’, and the ‘pressing’ style delevoped at Dynamo Kyiv and perfected by Milan in the 1980s, strongly indicate that we might be heading towards the ‘headless’ 4-6-0 system that Diego Maradona often deployed with Argentina. He probably did so more as a necessity — he had an excess of non-traditional goal scorers with distribution and ball skills in Lio Messi, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ángel di María and Juan Verón — than a strategic impulse. The result was often chaotic and disastrous. But it also provided us with some thrilling socccer. Given the need for modern attackers to take part in defensive duties, i.e., evolve utilitarian skills, inadvertently, this Argentina might just have given us a glimpse into the future.

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