Tactics at the World Cup: a battle between aesthetics and results

Spain’s revitalisation of ‘beautiful football’ in recent years has been extremely successful. How have football tactics evolved over the years? EPA/Zurab Kurtsikidze

The football World Cup may be yet to kick off, but there have already been innumerable discussions on the various playing styles that each country will adopt. Will they play a 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1, or a straight 4-3-3?

For those not completely au fait with football tactics, a 4-4-2 refers to a formation with four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards; while a 4-2-3-1 formation has four defenders, two defensive midfielders, three attacking midfielders and one forward.

Debates around formations sometimes mask the fact that the World Cup has always been a battlefield for tactics, which support what the Brazilians refer to as “futebol d’arte” (simple, attacking football) or “futebol de resultados” (defensive football). The tension between these styles, in their various manifestations, determines the world football landscape.

A couple of contemporary examples highlight the battle between the two styles. The Brazilian teams from the 1958 to 1970 World Cups produced some of the most exhilarating and creative football ever played. This is where the terms “futebol d’arte”, “samba football” or “beautiful game” were first coined. Not only did these Brazilians entertain the masses but they also won the World Cup three times: in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Brazil’s 1970 team featured players such as Pele and Jairzinho.

Janet Lever’s Soccer Madness gives an insight into the role of “samba football” in shaping Brazil’s national consciousness during this golden period. She argues that Brazilian football transcended the country’s racial, ethnic and religious structures – not because they won internationally, but because of the style in which they won.

Other attacking tactics included the Dutch philosophy in the 1970s, which became known as “total football”. In this approach there were no fixed positions except for the goalkeeper, and the aim was to keep possession of the ball and deny opponents the ball. The Dutch were losing finalists in both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.

In the 1978 final, the Dutch lost to the Carlos Menotti-coached Argentina. Menotti was as committed to entertaining football; he saw the game as an artform, which would inspire youth because of its beauty. He famously said:

You can lose a game, but what you cannot lose is the dignity earned by playing attractive football.

The Dutch team of 1974.

In this era, it was clear to many national teams that they could not match the attacking flair of the Brazilians or the Dutch. New defensive tactics were devised to counter this attacking dominance. The philosophy shifted to being just about winning and nothing else: if you wanted entertainment you should go to the theatre.

Teams such as Italy, which won the 1982 and 2006 World Cups, were based on a system coined the “catenaccio” (“the chain”), which aimed to nullify the attacking forces and prevent scoring. Not surprisingly, other teams quickly adopted this approach. Many matches during these period were dour affairs characterised by “no-risk” or “anti-football”.

Italy won the 2006 World Cup with a defensive approach to the game. EPA/Thomas Eisenhuth

So dominant and successful was this “futebol de resultos” that even the Brazilians moved away from flair and invention and adopted a more physical approach, with set roles meaning more positional discipline and less freedom for players to express themselves. Advocates of this style within Brazil pointed to triumphs in the 1994 and 2002 World Cups to contrast with the 1982 World Cup quarter-final exit of perhaps the greatest “futebol de arte” Brazilian team of all, which included Socrates and Zico (among others).

Brazil abandoned their widely admired attacking style after 1990 in the pursuit of winning at all costs. As a consequence, Brazil’s defensive playing style in recent tournaments has divided the nation and pundits’ opinions.

However, to the surprise of many, Spain revitalised the aesthetic form of the game at the 2010 World Cup. The underachieving Spanish (who previously had a best finish of fourth in the 1950 World Cup) adopted a system that would eventually be termed “tiki-taka”, a short-passing game, keeping possession of the ball with one-touch passing and movement.

Spain won the 2010 World Cup using this tactic. Its World Cup success was complimented by European Championship wins in 2008 and 2012. Players such as Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta are now the standardbearers of the “futebol d’arte”. They demonstrate that there is a place for attacking football characterised by creativity and exhilarating play.

The hotly contested war between “futebol d’ arte” and “futbol de resultados” will once again take place in Brazil in the coming weeks. A battle between aesthetics and results will be waged.

With all the problems now plaguing FIFA with its handling of the legacy of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Qatar corruption scandal and the unrest in Brazil, it would perhaps pray for a Brazil win playing “futebol d’arte” against a “tika-taka”-playing Spain. That is the beautiful game.