Teams prepare for tactical tinkering
Perhaps it is the triumph of tactics over talent. The lack of goals in the first round of fixtures in the 19th World Cup suggests organisation has prevailed and that carefree attacking has been at a minimum. It could be deemed systemic gridlock, but while there has been a general sense of caution, it is inaccurate to say that sides have simply cancelled each other out.
Because there are some notable anomalies. The back four exerts an unhealthy dominance in managerial thinking, with fielding three centre backs a deeply unfashionable policy. North Korea may well be in a time warp, which could explain their unconventional choice. But Kim Jong-Hun's blanket defence, featuring equally disciplined full backs, proved a well-drilled quintet ruthlessly depriving the Brazilians of space.
Another underdog also opted for a trio of central defenders. For New Zealand, too, the policy had merit, not least because one of them, Winston Reid, got forward to equalise, a freedom that pairs of central defenders rarely enjoy. Whereas the Koreans' system was 5-4-1, however, Ricki Herbert's was a more progressive 3-4-3.
Otto Rehhagel may claim that is how Greece lined up against South Korea. It was, however, a statement of negative intent that the midfielder Kostas Katsouranis began behind the orthodox defenders and continued there after the concession of an early goal.
They are the three exceptions. Even Chile's Marcelo Bielsa, long an advocate of a back three, opted for a four-man rearguard in a display of progressive passing.
That said, perhaps the side with the most positive shape have been Mexico, who often only actually had a trio protecting their goalkeeper. Their 4-3-3 has been distinctly Barcelona-esque, and not just because Rafael Marquez plays his club football at Camp Nou. Both full backs, Carlos Salcido and Paul Aguilar, were sufficiently advanced they could be called wing backs with Marquez, the holding midfielder, often dropping in to make a back three; both wingers tended to cut infield rather than hugging the touchline.
It is a sign that while the back four reigns supreme, it permits greater variance further forwards. Formations such as 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 are related, proving more fluid and flexible than a rigid 4-4-2, and offer the possibility of a two- or three-tier midfield.
Their popularity is understandable. It has been a feature of the first 16 games that the side with a numerical advantage in the centre of midfield is disproportionately successful. Ghana (4-2-3-1) overcame Serbia (4-4-2), disrupting Raddy Antic's plans to such an extent that he removed a striker, Nikola Zigic, to bolster his midfield. Argentina (4-3-1-2) defeated Nigeria (4-4-2) with a regular failing of the latter's system exposed: the trouble picking up players who operate, in one of Rafa Benitez's favourite phrases, "between the lines".
The Nigerians' difficulties were exacerbated by the identity of that elusive individual - Lionel Messi - yet with central midfielders occupied by their Argentine counterparts, it was a predictable problem. Germany's Mesut Ozil, granted a playmaking role in a 4-2-3-1 formation, found himself similarly unchecked by the Australians and, if anything, exerted a still greater influence.
The Australian approach merits further examination. It was described, understandably, on these pages as 4-6-0, for the simple fact that both supposed strikers, Tim Cahill and Richard Garcia, are midfielders by trade and tended to drift back. Yet it was also notable for the high line the back four took, reminiscent of the 1980s, in a tournament where most have defended deep; allowing such space behind the one-paced Craig Moore backfired.
Pim Verbeek may nevertheless note that Japan fielded a midfielder, Keisuke Honda, rather more successfully, serving as the spearhead of a 4-5-1 system and scoring. Denmark ended without an out-and-out forward against Holland, suggesting the striker is an endangered species in some places. There may, though, be direct correlations between the shortage of centre forwards and the lack of goals.
Where two have been fielded, it can provide problems retaining possession. England and USA both played 4-4-2; both lost the ball with regularity. Paraguay's may have been the second most efficient 4-4-2 seen thus far, albeit defensively. Marcello Lippi noted the essential defensiveness of the South Americans' midfield. Imitation nonetheless benefited the Italians; they went like for like after the introduction of Mauro Camoranesi and prospered with a direct match-up.
Switzerland, however, provided the greatest endorsement of the 4-4-2, and its sole tactical triumph for Ottmar Hitzfeld. His side showed a North Korean level of organisation in overcoming Spain; having a second striker was justified both in their goal and when they hit the post, but it required a sterling effort from the twin holding midfielders.
So, too, did the vanquished Spanish. A plan of perpetual passing worked wonderfully at Euro 2008. It has been less effective thus far. Vicente del Bosque will have a decision to make, however; when Fernando Torres is fully fit, does he switch to two strikers? If not, as Brazil, Spain, Germany, Holland and Italy favour it, there is a high chance this World Cup will be won by a team playing 4-2-3-1.