Were World Cup tactical trends reflective of the direction of club football?

With Spain’s shock early ousting from the World Cup in Brazil, many have labelled it as the “death of tiki-taka”. While those assertions are lazy and wide of the mark – it was simply a failure of playing their style effectively – there was a shift from possession-based football to direct styles of play getting results. Additionally, we saw several teams implementing a back-three successfully while the very best sides boasted tactical flexibility.

Spain’s dismantling by both the Netherlands and Chile highlighted these tactical trends, as did Argentina’s run to the final and Germany’s eventual triumph, so was the 2014 World Cup true to form in being a representation of tactical shifts in world football?

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw the 4-2-3-1 (or variations of it) become the most commonly used formation in football. It was also a time where possession-based, short passing football was becoming the most successful style of play and attacking wing-backs were replacing the old model of full-backs typified by the likes of Monday Night Football analyst Gary Neville – and partner in crime Jamie Carragher when he spent time outside the centre.

2014’s installment of the world’s largest sporting event seemed to tear up the 2010 handbook of short-passing as the most exciting and impressive play came from direct, attacking sides in flexible formations. Additionally, the role of goalkeepers became the closest they have ever been to that of an outfield player.

Spain’s Demise

Spain entered the World Cup on the back of three consecutive major tournament wins, the first under the late Luis Aragones and the 2010 World Cup as well as Euro 2012 under current boss Vicente Del Bosque. They were one of the favourites for the tournament, but their opening group match against Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands side blew those assertions out of the water.

Spain’s tactics of short passing and a high defensive line were exploited by a disciplined and quick Dutch side. Xabi Alonso scored a penalty to give the reigning champions a 1-0 lead before Robin van Persie’s flying header drew the Oranje level before the break. Afterwards, though, it was completely one-way traffic. Both teams employed high lines but it was the Dutch who were able to exploit it thanks to their intention to play the ball in behind. Spain had Andres Iniesta and David Silva flanking Diego Costa, meaning there was only one player willing to break beyond the Dutch defence as they preferred to patiently look for an opening, while the Netherlands had both Robin van Persie and the extremely quick Arjen Robben breaking at every opportunity with Wesley Sneijder looking to play killer balls from behind the front two – as he did for the fifth goal.

It was a similar story against Chile, where the energy, ferociousness and relentless pressing from the South Americans was too much for Del Bosque’s side to handle. Xavi was dropped for Pedro which gave Spain more threat and pace in behind so the Chileans sat deeper than usual, but their midfield was at its energetic best. They essentially man-marked Spain’s midfield three of Alonso, Busquets and Silva – one which lacked pace and energy by comparison – and then looked to break quickly, particularly down the right where Sanchez and Isla were finding space as Iniesta typically drifted inside, with the approach bearing fruit and giving them a sensational 2-0 victory to send the world champions home.

Spain v Chile: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil
Spain could not cope with the frenetic pressing of Chile’s midfield.

The death of “tiki taka” football had been called out from sections of the press for the best part of 18 months following landmark results in club football. The all-German Champions League final of 2013 came at the expense of Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona after swift, efficient moves from both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund humbled their Spanish counterparts in emphatic victories. The Catalans’ demise in particular was one that many seemingly enjoyed, licking their lips at the failure of their famed short-passing style (one which some labelled “boring“) in the Champions League and their up-and-down league campaign last season which saw them finish behind Atletico Madrid in second place, as well as falling to the same domestic rivals in the UCL quarter-finals.

However, Tata Martino’s brief time in charge seemed to be a wrong fit for the Barca side, and the season before it must be remembered that Tito Vilanova had to leave his post as manager midway through the season to undergo cancer treatment; oh, and they still won the league at a canter. This generation of players were always going to experience a dip after their historic time at the top and there were certainly plenty of excuses.

The national team suffered a similar fate to that of Barcelona, though their underachievement was more pronounced. The world had responded to the tiki taka style of play and Del Bosque failed to adapt both his side and his tactics to move with it. He commented that all of the squad bar Koke had lacked the hunger of previous tournaments – though several players refuted those claims – and that seemed apparent in their performances as the fast, physical styles of Chile and Netherlands tore them to shreds.

Back Threes

The most notable formation trend was the prevalence of back threes in Brazil. The system, normally associated with Italian football, found several other proponents in the summer. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal was without midfield anchor Kevin Strootman and decided to completely re-shape his team. Because of the absence of one of his most important players, he employed a back-three in the majority of matches in Brazil. Meanwhile, Chile’s manager Jorge Sampaoli set his side up in a 3-4-3 shape, as both of these sides ventured into the knockout stages and played some of the most entertaining football at the tournament.

As mentioned above, both the Netherlands and Chile were very aggressive and attacking in their 3-5-2 / 3-4-3 style. The Dutch midfield would press aggressively, and they often used the “spare” centre-back to push into midfield and overwhelm with bodies – particularly against Spain whose wide players Iniesta and Silva would drift infield. The preference for playing Dirk Kuyt – originally a forward converted into a winger – as a wing-back highlighted the attacking approach of the system. The Fenerbahce man ended up playing on both sides of the Dutch formation as Louis van Gaal sought to utilise his incredible engine and link up play with the forward options ahead of the 104-time-capped player.

Chile were similar, and are perhaps the best pressing team in international football. Often using the wing-backs in the midfield line, they compacted the centre of the pitch and harried oppositions, then looked to play into the space behind for the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas to exploit.

Chile - Football tactics and formations
How Chile set up in their opening match at the World Cup, with Diaz dropping back from midfield to effectively form a back three.

Somewhat surprisingly, Italy utilised a four-man defence with Abate and Damian playing beside the centre-back pairing of Chiellini and Barzagli. Costa Rica and Mexico however did join the band of back threes, though in a more defensive manner than the likes of Chile. Both had their wing-backs drop when under pressure and were unfortunate to be knocked out of the tournament in the manner they were – both against the Dutch. Mexico exceeded expectations through their use of the system in a tricky Group A, and against Cameroon they switched from their conservative mentality and employed their outside backs higher up the pitch to pin back the Cameroon wingers – playing in a 4-3-3 – to isolate their striker. As such, Cameroon suffered with an “out ball” and the Mexicans dominated the match.

Van Gaal, who has since taken over at Manchester United, seems intent on using the same set up in the Premier League this season, though a high number of injuries in defence have left him with only one senior centre-back and a brief shift to a 4-1-2-1-2 though he insists the back three is still his preferred system for the season ahead. With many hailing the Dutchman’s flexibility and tactical genius, you may be led to believe he is the pioneer of the system in English football, but that is hardly the case; even in the last the couple of years a number of sides have found success with the formation.

Hull City under Steve Bruce and Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic and Everton sides have all employed a back three during the last couple of seasons. Bruce’s Hull made a run to the FA Cup final last season – and took an early two goal lead against Arsenal before eventually losing at the death – while Martinez’s Wigan side actually won the trophy the season before against the much more fancied Manchester City. Both managers used the system in separate ways though, with Bruce playing a more physical style and having an extra centre-back for defensive stability while Martinez utilised it to flood the centre of the pitch and enjoy possession with an extra outlet to play out of defence.

There is still some intrigue and mystery around the system, particularly in the more old-school English football community, as Harry Redknapp at QPR has brought in “3-5-2 mastermind” Glenn Hoddle to help coach and organise his side in the formation.

Directness and Flexibilty

While the back three was the most notable trend in terms of shape, it was the directness and flexibility of these teams – and others – that made them a handful for oppositions in Brazil. The group stage of the World Cup was one of the most exciting history, with goals plundered at a record rate – six more than Japan/Korea 2002. International football can often be dull, as the limited time spent together in training and working with the manager can lead to some preferring to become more organised and rigid . That was indicative of the knockout stage when the stakes were higher, but in Brazil it appeared as though caution was thrown to the wind in favour of attacking football.

Chile perhaps encapsulated this approach most, with their pressing game suffocating both Spain and Australia – who favoured a possession style – in the group stage, looking to win the ball high up the pitch and attack with the pace of  Vargas and Sanchez. Arturo Vidal, even though not fully fit, offered his usual industrious work-rate in the centre of midfield, and despite only being 5’7″, Gary Medel excelled as a centre-back thanks to his aggressive, proactive style of defending and recovery speed suiting the Chilean high line – while also offering a calm, assured presence at the back in possession.

This pattern of play isn’t exactly new though, and has become somewhat common in club football recently. While Guardiola’s Barcelona were the most successful team to adopt an aggressive pressing mentality since Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund have adopted the same approach to astounding success (and entertainment). But where the Catalans preferred possession, Jurgen Klopp’s side were very vertical and direct, using the pace of Jakub Blaszycowski and more recently Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to break in behind.  Robert Lewandowski and now – the ironically named – Ciro Immobile were no slouches either in racing into the box to finish off chances, while BVB also made use of the playmaking abilities, dribbling and vision of the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Mario Götze and, further back, the deep-lying Nuri Sahin. This form of attacking football took Dortmund to two Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final, where they are now mainstays in the latter stages, despite the limited resources at Klopp’s disposal.

Liverpool adopted a similar philosophy last season, and from December onwards the “Liverpool Blitzkrieg” made them the best team to watch in the Premier League last season. Pairing Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez up front, with Raheem Sterling roaming in behind, Liverpool thumped the likes of Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham on their way to an unlikely title challenge. Like Dortmund, they defended from the front, pressed and hunted in packs, while always looking to play killer balls whenever possible.

It’s an approach Valencia have taken under their new manager Nuno, and a common theme with these three squads is that they’re all relatively young; perhaps an explanation for the energy they expend while hunting for the ball. Valencia, like Liverpool, have been blitzing teams in the opening stages of games and now sit in second place in La Liga after a 30 minute demolition in the first half saw them overcome the champions Atletico Madrid last time out – who it must be mentioned also reached success with a direct and quick form of attack last season.

While those sides played in the same manner as Chile, it is Barcelona under Luis Enrique – funnily enough without Alexis Sanchez who has since moved to Arsenal – who seem to be the closest high-profile club side to Sampaoli’s Chile. With attacking full-backs like Dani Alves and Jordi Alba pushing high up the pitch, the centre-backs split offering space for Sergio Busquets to drop into, while Leo Messi’s new role behind the two strikers still ensures Barca have three players in the middle of the park. Ivan Rakitic’s energy is in midfield is a valuable asset to Enrique, who has brought back the aggressive pressing style of the Guardiola reign, and the former Sevilla man has become first choice ahead of the less-mobile Xavi Hernandez.

Barcelona - Football tactics and formations
Barcelona’s preferred shape this season is something of a 4-1-2-1-2 / 3-4-1-2 shape, pulling Leo Messi back as a number 10 to pair Luis Suarez and Neymar up front. Like in the Guardiola days, Sergio Busquets withdraws from midfield to create a back three and allow Alba and Alves to venture forward.

The Chileans were also one of the teams who adapted their formation to exploit weaknesses against the opposition, with Sampaoli switching from the 3-4-3 which saw them beat Australia to a 3-4-1-2 against Spain – the same shape the Dutch had success with. Equally, if the situation necessitated, they could comfortably switch to a 4-3-3 shape. Basel’s Marcelo Diaz, who would sit between Medel and Jara in possession, is technically a midfielder who drops deep and a more compact shape with 4 across the back is a natural switch. For the match against Spain though, Francisco Silva came into the side to push Diaz slightly higher up, moving Vidal further forward. This offered more defensive stability as they sat deeper against the world champions. It also allowed for greater midfield pressure too with an extra body in the middle of the park and Chile suffocated Spain’s midfield trio with their energy and then looked to break quickly after winning the ball.

Jorge Sampaoli is a hero in Chile, and was one of the most impressive managers at the tournament in Brazil.

Equally, Argentina switched styles throughout the tournament, beginning with a back three in their opening match against Bosnia and Herzegovina before opting for a four-man defence while also mixing up their play depending on opposition; probing against the weaker teams while sitting deeper and absorbing possession against stronger sides before looking to break with the pace of Di Maria, Messi and Higuain.

Chelsea have adopted a similar approach to Sabella’s Argentina. Despite possessing some of the best players in world football, Jose Mourinho is a classic “reactive” manager, aiming for defensive solidity before attacking flair. The side he has assembled this season is more balanced, with Cesc Fabregas in particular offering creativity in unlocking deep defences as well as being able to spray quick balls on the counter.

The Germany vs Brazil match was one of the most incredible results in World Cup history, as the Germans sliced their way through a hapless Brazilian defence at sixes and sevens (which is probably still an understatement). The Germans looked to score (and basically did) every time they won the ball, which was a slightly different approach to their previous games of calm, measured possession; though this result was aided by the horrendous performance and organisation of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team.

The Germans employed a high defensive line and pressed the Brazil midfield, targeting the left-hand side of Brazil’s defence by playing early through-balls into the space behind Marcelo, who was often high up the pitch, and attacking quickly after winning the ball back. The fifth goal by Toni Kroos highlighted this, as the midfielder won the ball from the defensive midfield and played a one-two with Khedira before firing home. The pressing in this historical win, adding to Germany’s ruthless quick attacking and ability to retain the ball when necessary, added to their tactically complete tournament.

And Germany’s changes under Löw are mirrored by Ancelotti’s Real Madrid. Inheriting one of the best counter-attacking sides in Europe from Jose Mourinho, Ancelotti – a tactically flexible manager in all senses, catering formations to suit his players – transformed Real into a far more balanced side and reaped the benefits, winning both the Copa Del Rey and Champions League in his first season in charge. The balancing act did prove quite difficult though, with the signing of Gareth Bale leaving no space for Angel Di Maria, but Ancelotti fiddle with his shape and gave the Argentinian a new lease of life in the centre of midfield, complementing the rest of the trio Xabi Alonso and Luka Modric expertly. By keeping Di Maria in the side, Ancelotti had the perfect mix of pace, power and controlling calm, equally adept at breaking fast or holding possession to pry an opening.

Arsenal are a side that could take note of this balance that other teams have achieved. While Wenger prefers a patient passing style which has drawn acclaim for as long as he’s been in north London, he has collected plenty of fast attacking talent in the last couple of years – Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Özil and Danny Welbeck – to go along with Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Invincibles side of the early 2000s, contrary to assumed thinking, were actually a brutally efficient team on the counter, using the pace of Thierry Henry to get in behind defences. Considering this season’s new recruits Sanchez and Welbeck possessing speed to burn – and Özil’s career best form coming in the counter-attacking Real Madrid side under Mourinho – more variety to the Gunners’ play and the desire to play on the break to go along with the short passing could take them that step further to being a genuine title challenger again.

Sweeper Keepers

While teams originally looked like 10 + 1, the role of the modern goalkeeper has changed so that they are almost an 11th outfield player. Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes were arguably two of the first examples to breakthrough in major club ranks that fit this trend, both coming through the ranks of La Masia, where emphasis is placed on being useful with the ball at feet as well as regular goalkeeping duties, and sweeping up behind a high line. Manuel Neuer has taken this to the next level, and the German custodian is the most complete goalkeeper in the world at the moment. His kamikaze forays well outside his area to sweep up surpass the likes of Reina and Valdes, and Neuer is often seen making regular, outfield-style tackles in various areas of the pitch.

Hugo Lloris is another who is quick off his line to close down and intercept opposition attacks, while Thibaut Courtois, somewhat more reserved and not as aggressive as Neuer, is another complete ‘keeper who was on show in Brazil and has been in superb form for both Chelsea and Atletico Madrid in the last 18 months. Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, another German who has signed for Barcelona to replace Valdes, is in the same mould as Neuer, and the all-round sweeper ‘keeper seems the way of the future.

While we saw the rise of these goalkeepers, Iker Casillas endured a torrid time in Brazil, though he is primarily a shot-stopper on his line, it’s pure coincidence he has underperformed in the last year or so rather than a signal that more reactive goalkeepers are ineffective; it is symbolic of a shift, however.

Manuel Neuer was arguably the player of the tournament in Brazil, and is the most competent sweeper keeper in world football.
Manuel Neuer was arguably the player of the tournament in Brazil, and is the most competent sweeper keeper in world football.


There is no right or wrong way to play football, but after many clubs and nations had moved towards a short-passing model around 2010, success of teams like Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich (under Jupp Heynckes) and Real Madrid (albeit with a plethora of stars) in club football and the likes of Chile, the Netherlands and Argentina all having relatively successful campaigns in Brazil (in performances if not results), the shift from short passing to direct penetration seems to be the way football is moving for the time being. Even Barcelona, a club with a possession philosophy entrenched in its very DNA, have moved to a quicker, more vertical style of play.

That’s not to say it is the most effective or successful way to play though, Germany, ironically the winners of the tournament in Brazil, have evolved the other way, becoming more well-rounded with a preference for possession compared to their counter-attacking style prior to Jogi Löw’s reign beginning; where they differed from Spain though is that there was desire for end product, with players like Müller floating into the channels and into the box, alongside Klose, to complement the possession game of Lahm, Kroos and Götze.

2014 was maybe more of a marker in terms of tactical flexibility and variety than another shift towards one dominant philosophy or shape, particularly with the balance and variety in formations on show, and that is what we are likely to see – and have indeed already seen – in club football this season.

Chelsea, although it must be said they possess a ridiculously strong and balanced squad, have gone top early in the season and remain unbeaten after the first seven matches. Due to the players at the disposal of manager Jose Mourinho they are more than capable of playing on the break with pace and vertical passing, as well as knocking the ball around the box at a slower tempo to find an opening (like Cesc Fabregas’ gorgeous assist showed against Burnley). Unlike last season where they struggled against the more compact and defensive units, thus far in 2014/15 they look more than capable of penetrating even the most stubborn of defences. The variety of tactical approaches should lead to more sides developing more than one variation of play, particularly at the top end of the table, if they are to be successful.

About Mark Houston 86 Articles
Mark is an editor of The Blog FC and has also contributed to other sport and music sites. He predominantly writes about La Liga but also follows Europe's other top leagues and the local A-League. There's a special place in his heart for bearded deep-lying playmakers and he's a proud member of the Goalkeepers Union.