By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 5, 2022) US Soccer Players – A World Cup always brings to the forefront trends in the game. It is the only time the planet’s best teams and players converge on one stage to compete for a championship. More than halfway through the 2022 World Cup, we have a decent sample size of where the game is tactically.
As is typically the case, the group stage brought exciting games, brilliant goals, and some upsets. It also helped to highlight some tactical trends. What works and what doesn’t is something National Team coaches are always experimenting with in the years and months leading up to a World Cup. This is the time we get to see it all at once.
The reality is that National Teams aren’t typically innovative when it comes to tactics. Club teams do that. The World Cup is often a reflection of what we’ve already seen every week across domestic leagues, primarily in Europe or in the Champions League. Leeds manager Jesse Marsch said on the eve of the World Cup that he finds “international football interesting, but I’m fully immersed in club football and they’re like two different sports almost.”
That’s true to some extent. It’s uncanny how tactics can spread quickly in the modern era. Thanks to such broad coverage, successful tactics can spread across the globe and fall in and out of favor during the course of a World Cup cycle. Here are three tactical trends to emerge at this World Cup:
The Dutch may have created this system in the 1970s, but it appears to have returned at this tournament. It’s a system that calls for roles to be interchangeable and that any one player can cover for another in any part of the field.
It’s why we’ve seen teams defend in large numbers but not to the detriment of goals. The World Cup averaged 2.5 goals a game through the group stage despite several scoreless draws. It’s why attacking players are tracking back more than usual whenever the ball is turned over. It’s also a tactic teams have used with increased frequency if they want to defend a lead.
The 4-3-3 system has been the most common at this World Cup. Many teams use two of those midfielders playing box to box, creating essentially a 3-4-3 when teams have possession. The USMNT did that with captain Tyler Adams functioning as a holding midfielder. England’s Gareth Southgate played with three in the back in their fourth-place World Cup finish in 2018. In Qatar, Southgate has alternated with a 5-4-1 and 5-2-3. They like to crowd the midfield and force teams to play out on the wings. The USMNT did just that in their match 0-0 draw against England.
Five in the back
The return of total football is tied to the increased reliance on defenders and building offense from the back through the midfield rather than with wing backs. Past tournaments had seen the classic four-man back line used with a high amount of frequency, while in recent years, utilizing just three defenders had become fashionable. However, this tournament, as a result of a series of tweaks in the rules, has made the five-player defensive back line a reality.
Being able to sub in five players, rather than three, has been a boon for bench players and for the evolution of tactics. It’s also allowing coaches to change formations mid-game or in the final 15 minutes, depending on the score.
Five-man back lines when teams are defending take on a 5-3-2 look with a False 9 approach. At the same time, teams have also been playing a high line with goalkeepers like USMNT’s Matt Turner serving as a sweeper-keeper. It’s why so many goals have been called back for offside and why, despite packing the defense, offense hasn’t suffered. It’s true there were six goalless draws during the group stage, but the entertainment value was there.
Little room for playmakers
Many have bemoaned the disappearance of the classic #10 playmaker that so typified the game for decades. This World Cup seems to have confirmed that the role is changing. This may be why there are fewer set-piece goals compared to the last World Cup. It’s also why creativity remains a thing, but not in the same way as the past. Giving an attacking player permission to roam hasn’t been the key to success in Qatar.
These are the early tactical trends. There’s still plenty of soccer left to play and plenty to learn with tougher match-ups across the later rounds. Who ultimately wins will give us a glimpse into what tactics worked and how the game has evolved since 2018.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of the new book “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.”
More from Clemente Lisi:
- The history of the USMNT in the third game of the World Cup group stage
- Yedlin as the veteran in a USMNT squad now looking to England on Friday
- The group stage as a tournament, Premier League experience, and the bench for the USMNT
- 5 things from the 2022 MLS season
Photo by John Todd – ISIPhotos.com