Midfield General

Adapt or Die

National soccer styles still exist. They’re just changing all the time.

This is the World Cup of the shape-shifters.

There was a time when each country had its footballing identity, reflected in a stern, unflinching ideology. England used the 4-4-2 formation. For many years, the Netherlands -- coached off the field by Rinus Michels, and on the field by Johan Cruyff -- used a 4-3-3 formation, the players swiftly swapping positions in a delirious, exhilarating ballet known as Total Football. Italy was the master of catenaccio, literally the deadbolt, which would stifle all opposing attacks once its players had the lead. Brazil, even more so than the Netherlands, was expected to win in a particular style -- fast, fluid, and flamboyant.

Indeed, it has been extraordinarily difficult for world football's traditional big guns to be as tactically flexible as their coaches might like. The Dutch, though they reached the World Cup final in 2010, were much criticized by their own fans for doing so in a dour, cynical fashion. Brazil made their way into the quarterfinals, yet their progress was greeted with muted applause; not only was it a subpar performance for a nation that had won the whole tournament five times, but they had also committed the unpardonable sin of setting themselves up as a counterattacking team. Managed by Dunga, whose defensive nous on the field had steered them to a World Cup victory in 1994, the Brazil of 2010 were largely unrecognizable from their stylish forefathers of 1970. Everyone seemed to forget that the competitive pressures of international football were such that winning games was hard enough without having to be joyfully entertaining in the process.

This year, many Dutch fans were horrified prior to this World Cup when the national team coach, Louis van Gaal, announced that he would deploy his men in a 3-5-2. Five in midfield! Of course, the horror of the purists at van Gaal's iconoclasm was soon drowned out, doubtlessly with the aid of several pints of Amstel, by the roars of their countrymen as the Netherlands eviscerated Spain by five goals to one.

Van Gaal's tactical deconstruction of the world champions, so traumatized by that loss that they succumbed meekly to Chile in the next match, highlighted a vital point: teams that refuse to adapt their styles are more likely than not to fail. Spain can plead that Xavi Hernández, their main orchestrator, was out of sorts this tournament, and that their team's elimination was due not to their playing philosophy -- the one that took home three major trophies in four years  -- but to their mental and physical exhaustion. Yet this would give too little credit to Chile, expertly coached by Jorge Sampaoli, whose exposure of Spain's flaws was arguably even more ruthless than that of the Dutch.

Other nations' supporters, having tired of their respective tactical heritages, are somewhat happier when their teams spurn the old ideas. Though England were out of the tournament after their first two matches, there was a thrilling period during the game against Italy when they played with more attacking abandon than they had for years. Roy Hodgson, a coach of great savvy but also noted for his conservatism, had named four forwards in his starting line-up. They set about the Italian defence with a relish reminiscent of a cat addressing a ball of wool. What's more, they were proactive and assertive for most of the game, which was a marked change from their fearful play in recent times. Sadly, they eventually reverted to type -- the same type that hadn't won a major tournament since 1966.

Their conquerors the Italians, by contrast, have themselves been the beneficiary of a smart tactical shift. They have built many of their greatest victories upon formidably firm defensive foundations, but lately they've chosen to build their team around the expansive playmaking of the holding midfielder Andrea Pirlo. This step is arguably due more than anything else to the shortage of truly world-class centerbacks in the current generation of Italian players -- you need three to play the Italian system -- but all the same it is a team unrecognizable from many previous editions.

In an era when coaches are better prepared and more tactically astute than ever before, national teams may be best served by being unpredictable and not binding themselves stubbornly to one particular way of playing. Certainly, the World Cup has so far rewarded those teams that have been the most expansive and creative in their thinking. Sticking with tradition for the sake of national identity is all very well, but will it still be demanded by fans if it means an early plane ticket home?

Damien Meyer / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

The Game Is the Same

National soccer styles are disappearing -- good riddance?

For England, it was a watershed moment. With a 6-3 defeat to Hungary at Wembley Stadium in 1953, the self-proclaimed motherland of the game was beaten on home soil by a team from outside the British Isles for the first time. It was a technical and tactical thrashing. Confronted by the brilliance of Ferenc Puskas and the revelation of nominal forward Nandor Hidegkuti switching positions during the match, England had no answer.

Despite the fact that Hungary was the reigning Olympic champion, the schooling came as a seismic shock to English football. With no Internet or television, there had been no scouting to aid the hosts -- no early warning system. Hungary was simply unleashed on England and was playing a hitherto unseen brand of football, turning the English world upside down. In today's era of Total Footballing Awareness, could it ever happen again?

Football is a game that can throw up delicious contrasts: possession-based teams versus counterattacking teams; teams that value dribbling and creative freedom against the organized outfits that focus on the collective. Different cultures give rise to different tactics. For instance, though teams from the Balkans and Argentina traditionally place huge value on the importance of the playmaker -- the enganche -- Britain has rarely found room for the role at all.

More than 60 years on from the defeat against Hungary, and the England team is as far away as it has ever been from the top of the football world. Yet that world is changing in other ways. These days, the identities of those delivering the fatal blows are no mystery. England was eliminated from the World Cup in Brazil after just two matches, courtesy of winning goals by former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli of Italy and current Liverpool hero Luis Suárez of Uruguay.

Globalization means familiar battles but also familiar styles. For example, the notion that Brazil plays carnival futebol no longer seems rooted in reality. The host nation's squad has more players operating in England alone than in South America, with prototypically functional, battling midfielders -- the kind England used to be known for -- such as Ramires and Paulinho among them. And it's not just players working abroad who have homogenized the football culture. Seven members of the Selecao have played under Jose Mourinho, a coach as far removed as possible from the Brazilian legend of joga bonito.

Of course, Mourinho has also won the league in four countries. His kind of peregrination is becoming commonplace for top coaches, and it brings a cross-pollination of ideas. Deploying the 4-2-3-1 formation has become the footballing equivalent of assembling a McDonald's restaurant -- quickly constructed and instantly understood. Whatever happens to be the geographical accident of his birth, the professional football player soon becomes accustomed to similar tactics and teammates wherever he goes.

Just look at the numbers. In terms of quality, the Champions League in Europe is now regarded as the pinnacle of the game, and the 2014 World Cup includes 91 players owned by the eight clubs that made last year's quarterfinals. That's just eight teams. In total, more than half of all the players in Brazil's squad are owned by clubs in Europe's top five leagues. Under those circumstances, cultural differentiation is becoming more and more unlikely.

This homogenization is a nightmare for the lazy football commentator or armchair pundit. The dubious cliché of naïve African defending can't be applied to Ivorian duo Kolo Touré and Didier Zokora, who boast a quarter-century of European experience between them. And professional clubs are hardly naïve of African players' talent, either. When one captures the world's attention at the 2014 World Cup -- as Nigeria's Kenneth Omeruo and Ghana's Christian Atsu have -- he tends to be owned already by Chelsea.

And yet, this is not merely a lament. Though globalization and homogenization go hand in hand, they can still throw up intrigue. The sort of shock that greeted England back in 1953 may be a thing of the past, but the spread of the game can still spring a surprise on the punters. Iran had no foreign-based players when it went to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, but the team that so nearly secured a dramatic draw with Argentina in 2014 included five stars from Europe. The next watershed moment might not be so far away.

AFP / Getty Images