10 June ~ The level of knowledge saturation in the global game means no teams will be able to spring radical tactical surprises at the World Cup, but there is nonetheless likely to be plenty of diversity on show when it comes to formations. The 4-2-3-1 was the dominant shape in 2006 and will probably be so again in South Africa, with England, Brazil, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands among the sides predicted to adopt 4-2-3-1s or hybrids thereof.
France, however, are set to ditch their usual 4-2-3-1 for a 4-3-3, while Italy and Argentina are both believed to be flirting with the idea of a three-man defence. Chile are strong contenders to be the tournament's most pioneering team with the 3-3-1-3 system.
There is variety in the Premier League too, with champions Chelsea leading the way last season by flitting between a 4-1-2-1-2 (midfield diamond), a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree and an ultra-attacking 4-3-3 over the course of the campaign. And yet, despite Sam Allardyce's belief that it has become "antiquated", the formation of reference for England's top clubs remains the hardy 4-4-2.
Amid the soul-searching sparked by England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008, the 4-4-2 was held up in some quarters as a symbol of the country's slavish devotion to an outmoded tactical formula. José Mourinho had already wreaked havoc in his first two seasons at Chelsea by deploying a counter-attacking 4-3-3 that gave his side numerical domination in the middle of the pitch, and seemed to emphasise the lack of tactical awareness in the English game. "There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop this," he said.
Modern tactical thinking typically concludes that formations are sliding ineluctably towards one-striker systems with massed midfield configurations. But of the sides that finished in the top 12 last season, only Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and Allardyce's Blackburn consistently played with only one central forward.
By contrast, of the teams outside the Big Four that met or exceeded expectations – namely Fulham, Tottenham, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Birmingham and Stoke – two-striker formations were the order of the day. There are caveats. With Carlos Tévez dropping deep and playing with two genuine holding midfielders, City's shape was probably more akin to a 4-2-3-1, while Roy Hodgson occasionally set Fulham out in a distinct 4-4-1-1. Nonetheless, all six sides deployed a pair of central midfielders, a pair of genuine wide players and a pair of central forwards in the majority of their Premier League games, and all enjoyed seasons that rank among the best in their recent histories.
Improved fitness has probably played a part in the recent triumphs of the 4-4-2, while the popularity of "inside-out" wingers – who cut infield from the flanks into the middle of the pitch – prevents opponents who play in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 enjoying a numerical advantage in central midfield. A lot of it simply comes down to good organisation. Simon Davies says that at Fulham: "Every day in training is geared towards team shape."
Chelsea's tactical flexibility suggests that an old-fashioned 4-4-2 might not be enough to cut the mustard over the course of an entire Premier League title race, but Fulham and co have demonstrated that it need not be the barrier to success that it is often automatically assumed to be. Tom Williams twitter.com/tomwfootball