Players matter, but formation is how a team wins

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Players matter, but formation is how a team wins

While it will take a couple of months to decide on the roster for the national team that will play in the 2006 World Cup, another thing that needs to be decided is the formation that the team will use against the opposition.
Last week, Dick Advocaat, the coach of the national squad, said that he would stick with the 3-4-3 formation for a while and give young players the opportunity to prove themselves in exhibition games. Speaking to local coaches, he said that when selecting a formation it’s important to opt for one that befits the players’ abilities, not just the coach’s preference. This is a good sign, one that gives a fan some hope. Sometimes, you find coaches that are stuck with one idea that they refuse to change until it’s too late. At the 2002 World Cup, England’s Sven-Goran Eriksson almost always insisted on a 4-4-2 lineup despite lacking the players who could exploit such a formation to its utmost.
The smartest thing to do is to use a formation that plays to a team’s strengths and covers its weaknesses. Coaches sometimes forget this simple lesson, but Advocaat has shown that he is flexible. In the first half of the game against Iran, he used a three-back based formation, but switched to a 4-4-2 formation in the second half.
Personally, I like the idea of employing a formation that has three defensive backs. (Defenders are listed first and then midfielders and forwards. Goalkeepers aren’t counted, as the position doesn’t change.) This gives the team more manpower in the midfield so that more pressure can be applied on the opponent. Today’s game is won or lost in the midfield. A team that lacks a strong midfield presence will lose possession and thus have fewer chances to score. It’s no surprise that many teams nowadays use as many as five midfielders.
In case of the 3-4-3 formation, there are up to six players available who can be used in the midfield if one defender is kept back for cover. Nevertheless, this formation also means that the three forwards need to do a lot of running, as they have to actively engage in defensive play as well. In addition, the three fullbacks have to be constantly supported by the midfield players, with at least one midfield player permanently playing in a defensive back position.
Modern soccer is seeing lots of three-back based tactics. At the 2002 World Cup, the top four teams preferred the three-back system. It was not a 3-5-2 system that emphasizes man-to-man coverage but some variation of the three-back system that stressed zone defense. With more midfielders available, passing lanes are blocked, as the opponent is tied down in the midfield and the routes for the opponent’s forwards are dominated.
Needless to say, there might be situations when a three-back system needs to be changed. If the defense is weak, four backs need to be employed. Players should be ready for such changes when playing at world-class level.
I know for the novice this may sound too technical. And there is still one thing that needs to be done first: Finding the right players to do the job is a precondition to all this talk. Let’s hope Advocaat can find the jewels in the next coming months to implement a three-back system. It’s the best formation to survive in today’s game.

by Brian Lee
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