The first six days of the FIFA World Cup are over, and most analysts feel that up to now the matches have – with some exceptions – generally been pretty boring to watch. Very few goals, teams playing in a very tactical, organized way, not giving any room to move to their opponents resulting in some kind of mutual neutralization.
This motivated me to look a bit deeper at the tactical formations the teams at this World Cup play in. I try to be not too theoretical so that even those of you who are not too much into the game and tactical formations will get the point. I will also show a very surprising parallel between soccer tactics and the world of business. So let’s go:
The most popular tactics at the World Cup until now have been the so called flat 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1 formations. What does that mean? Well, when sketching the positions of the ten players in front of their own goalie from back to front, divided into the different parts of the team like defense, midfield and attack, you get a number of players in each of these parts of the team. So 4-4-2 simply means four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards. 4-2-3-1 stands for four defenders, usually playing on one imaginary line to be able to build an offside trap, two defensive midfielders (#6 position), three offensive midfielder (one on each side and one in the center, the #10 player of midfielder) and only one forward. Both these tactical formations are known to be quite defensive yet still offer some kinds of flexibility.
4-2-3-1 is a formation that could be seen quite a lot recently on a club level and even at this World Cup, many teams (France, South Korea, Greece, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Honduras, Chile, Spain) played in this formation. It started to become popular during the 2006 World Cup, when France reached the final playing in a 4-2-3-1 setup. In that final, they lost against Italy, then playing in a flat 4-4-2 system (comparable to the system played by the US, England, Serbia, South Africa, Slovenia, Serbia, Australia, Paraguay and Switzerland in their respective first match at his World Cup). Flat because the defense and midfield were playing on imaginary lines, building two defensive walls.
In the four years between these two tournaments, the systems of choice evolved from 4-4-2 flat to a 4-4-2 diamond formation. That’s basically the same setup like a 4-4-2 flat, but instead of having the two central midfielders on the same line, one plays in front of the other so that the four midfield players build some kind of diamond. This system was e.g. played by Spain for large parts of the European Championships 2008. When they won the final of that tournament however they were playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation, which is pretty much an intermediary solution between the 4-4-2 diamond and the now popular 4-2-3-1.
Why am I telling you all this in so much detail? Well, mainly to demonstrate one thing: In soccer tactics there is some kind of development over time, some tactics are fashionable at some times while a few years later the common perception of how to play best may be completely different. At the first World Cup in 1930, the two finalists both played in the “Pyramid” formation: two defenders (“fullbacks”), three midfielders (“halfbacks”) and five forwards (three in the middle, one on each side). Playing this way today would for sure result in a humiliating defeat.
Is there something similar in the business context? Are there tactics or strategies that may be “en vogue” today and dead tomorrow? Yes, definitely. And there’s a whole industry built on creating and bringing these developments across: Management Consulting.
I did the effort to compare the soccer tactics that were successful at a time with the developments in management strategy and was able to identify some parallels. I will not go into more detail exploring these parallels like e.g. identifying general tendencies in society at the same time in order not to over-stretch the illustration. I also won’t go back as much as until the 1930s, but maybe the last 40 or so years may also be an interesting case. Here it is:
Strategic Management Consulting as we know it today really started blossoming in the late 1960s/ early 1970s. In 1968, the Boston Consulting Group, which was founded five years earlier, introduced the classics growth-share matrix, which on the one hand kicked off the selling of strategy models and on the other hand built the basis for life cycle analysis and portfolio management. One basic ideas of it was that businesses of the company may play completely different roles in the development of the company based on their state and the state of the market.
While this view of companies had a huge impact on management in the early 1970s, soccer saw the advent of one of the strongest teams on club level ever: Ajax Amsterdam and the “Totaalvoetbal” (“Total Football”) approach created by coach Rinus Michels. The basic idea of this approach played in the classical Ajax 4-3-3 formation was that no player was fixed in his position, every player (except for the goalie) should be able to play any role for the benefit of the whole team – a defender was able to play in a midfield or up front end vice versa. Flexibility when needed based on the own state and the state of the opponent (“market”) – Totaalvoetbal was to soccer what portfolio management was to business.
The Dutch team was probably the most complete team of its time and playing some of the most attractive soccer around, which led them to two consecutive World Cup Final appearances, however they lost against teams that were not as versatile as they were but very result oriented instead, namely Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978.
Germany was lead to the victory by Franz Beckenbauer, whose name stands as a synonym for a “sweeper” – an additional defensive player mostly playing behind the actual line of defense as an added security. The Argentinian system in 1978 was quite more offense oriented, but from a tactical standpoint the most important switch was not that they fully dropped the sweeper, they just moved him up in front of the defensive line. Americo Gellego, who played in that position, was credited by many, including Diego Maradona, to have been the creator of the defensive midfield shielding position, now known as #6 position.
Four years later, Italy won the title playing with five defenders even though everybody considered Brazil with its great offense the best team of the tournament (for a deeper analysis please see my article on Italy vs. Brazil 1982).
On the business side, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw the rise of the shareholder value concept. A company was considered successful when the shareholders, i.e. the owners of the company, received a good value for the money they spent, so basically a return on their investment. The parallels to soccer are amazing: In both fields at the time, the bottom line shifted towards a full orientation on the final result, not on how beautiful the course towards the result has been pursued.
The following two World Cups were won by teams that were heavily influenced by their respective play makers. Argentina played a 3-5-2 formation in 1986, putting a strong emphasis on their midfield which was conducted by Diego Armando Maradona (for more on Maradona please see my post “Why Diego Maradona fascinates“). In 1990, Lothar Matthäus lead Germany to success as the central player in a more defensive 5-3-2 formation (for more on Matthäus please see my post “The loneliness of an egocentric leader“).
Two big strategists leading their organizations in the late 1980s and in 1990 – a time in which business theory was also dominated by strategic thinking. Michael E. Porter’s landmark books “Competitive Strategy” and “Competitive Advantage“, releases in 1980 and 1985, respectively, looked at market dynamics and how to differentiate from and succeed against the competition by creating relevant, unique and sustainable competitive advantages. Maradona and Matthäus were both the strategists leading their team and the team’s main competitive advantage at the same time, as their capabilities could not be matches by their opponents.
The following years saw companies and their consultants trying to operationalize strategic management theory by bringing it into a measurable context. “Value based management” was one of the big buzzwords at the time, internalizing the shareholder value idea and breaking it down by analyzing the value created by individual activities. The approach was very quantitative and controlling oriented, putting less emphasis on soft management factors and creativity.
The next World Cup in 1994 mirrored this perfectly. Considered by many as one of the most uninspired tournaments ever, it ended in a final in which a defensive Italian team took on Brazil that was playing a flat 4-4-2 formation completely untypical for the country of the soccer artists, highly organized and compact. The final unsurprisingly ended in a 0-0 draw, even after 30 minutes of overtime no goals were scored. Finally Brazil won the penalty shoot out, ironically after the probably most creative player of the tournament, Italy’s Roberto Baggio, missed his penalty.
Just a few years later, the time had changed. With the Dot-Com Bubble building up in the second part of the 1990s, anything that was a good story and promised to be potentially perceived as superior to anything else, no matter if that perception was based on solid grounds or not, was hyped and sold.
Soccer’s Dot-Com company was the Brazilian National Team in 1998. Marketed and exploited like probably no team before by sponsors such as Nike, sold by the press as a team of superstars of extraterrestrial dimensions it was, like in the business world, just a question of time when the bubble would burst. Soccer’s bubble burst on July 12, 1998 at the Stade De France, when Ronaldo and his team mates couldn’t manage the pressure and failed to deliver what they were expected to do. France only played with one forward in a 5-4-1 formation (one could argue that Djorkaeff was a second forward) and simply scored two goals from headers following corner kicks – a standard trained over and over again – to seal their victory (they added another goal in stoppage time).
The Dot-Com-Bubble bursting left many businesses in shock and without orientation. One of the key learning was that a) a solid basis for any company and b) flexibility to cope with a changing environment should be important. The Brazilian team winning the World Cup in 2002 incorporated this spirit perfectly. Their 3-4-2-1 formation allowed for a mixture of zonal defense and man-on-man coverage, an agile and flexible defensive setup, while at the same time being aggressive in offense. The beauty of the system is that it can easily be shifted to e.g. 3-5-2, 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1, depending on the situation in the game.
Not only soccer tactics but also the financial sector got over the Dot-Com shock rather quickly. The mega growth in Asia created fear within the established markets in the Western World, as everybody was trying to secure his basis. Companies merged to be better able to defend themselves and prices for basic commodities skyrocketed. The 2006 World Cup saw both some very aggressive, forward oriented (in a sense “speculative”) teams and some that were more concerned about their own safety. One of the latter teams won the tournament, Italy, playing in a 4-4-2 (actually a 4-4-1-1) formation. Zone defense in perfection with two defensive lines that were extremely hard to overcome.
So here we are back to where we started from. But what happened since the last World Cup?
On the economical side, the crisis that started in 2008 clearly had the biggest impact. Until today, economists and politicians call for less risk-taking and more control.
Now guess what – the development of soccer tactics exactly followed that approach. The most popular system at the 2010 World Cup so far – like 4-2-3-1 – try to keep the opponents away from the goal by gaining control in midfield. As a result, when watching the matches it feels as if the ball would never leave the third of the pitch around the midfield line.
Yes, it looks boring. Maybe it is. But next time you watch a boring match at the World Cup you might remember this article. I would be happy if I would have helped you a little bit to appreciate highly tactical matches. And even if not: Always remember that soccer tactics are like fashion: They only last for a certain time until new ones come up. Maybe not during this World Cup, but who knows?