Identity is underrated in football, but style is revered. However, style comes directly from the identity of a team, which can come in two forms – formation and player type. Over the years so many successful teams have had a strong identity coupled with a unique style of play, stemming from a good relationship between the formation and players used within it. In short, think of Barcelona from 2009-2011.
Identity is the nitty-gritty aspects of the game. Drills, formation training, the thinking behind how quickly opponents should be shut down, who to mark at set pieces – zonal or man mark? The basics that come with identity allow for style – the tricks and flicks.
That Barcelona team had a formation that was implemented and perfected over a number of years under Rijkaard and to a more prominent extent, Guardiola. Guardiola in particular was especially good at identifying the correct style of player to use in his formation. A simple square peg, square hole philosophy. Over time, Barcelona grew an identity that was desired by clubs worldwide; their high pressing, quick passing, through the lines football was quite simply breathtaking. No club side has come close to emulating the Catalans so far.
In South America, we’ll include Mexico for now, international teams are steeped in tradition. Managers will come and go on a regular basis, but formation and player type will almost always remain. Chile and Mexico are prime examples of sides who have used the same formations for a number of years and as such have claimed success in recent times. Using the 3-5-2 or 5-3-2 systems, each team built on their impressive World Cup appearances with silverware over the summer.
Chile have been particularly impressive and under Marcelo Bielsa disciple Jorge Sampaoli have really pushed on in the last two years, culminating in Copa America success this summer. Their style is derived from a formation that concentrates on utilising the players to the best of their ability. Although they rely heavily on Sanchez, Vidal and Vargas as a collective they are a force to be reckoned with and their defeat of Australia in the World Cup demonstrated how Chile can turn on the style at the drop of a hat. Their high pressure game draws similarities with Barcelona, but the style is wholly different as their ball retention is a slower and a lot less methodical. It can be argued that with their 2-0 victory over Brazil in the opening stages of CONMEBOL qualifying that Chile are now the strongest force in South America, in a formation and philosophy they have implemented over a number of years.
Mexico have also been under long-term guidance but this has changed in very recent times, since Miguel Herrera was removed from the hot seat after punching a reporter post their Gold Cup win. El Tri were desperately unlucky to lose to a resurgent Netherlands in the last 16 of the World Cup, but their electric style won them many fans. However, after Herrera’s dismissal Mexico have struggled for form, mainly due to a change in formation. Ricardo Ferretti is current caretaker boss and his orthodox 4-4-2 style is not suited to his squad, as a result Mexico suffered a humiliating draw with Trinidad and Tobago. With a crucial play off against the USA for the final Conferations Cup spot just around the corner it is almost certain that they will revert back to their traditional 5-3-2.
In Europe, things are starting to change. Long term philosophy was not necessarily the key for a number of sides, rather trying to fit players into formations that they were not suited to. However, Wales have taken the first steps to implementing a long-term identity by changing their formation to suit a squad, that outside of Bale and Ramsey, is really quite limited. Their adaptation of the 3-5-2 has come with a ‘hint of World Cup 2014′, as their use of wing-backs echoes the playing styles of Mexico, Chile and the Netherlands in the tournament. As such, their defensive record has improved massively, as two goals conceded in seven goals certainly suggests. Players such as Jazz Richard (full-back), Joe Ledley and of course Gareth Bale have particularly impressed over Wales’ outstanding qualifying campaign.
The Netherlands, have gone in a completely opposite direction. The team that impressed so greatly in the World Cup has been dismantled and reverted back to a 4-3-3 that simply no longer suits them or the player pool available to Danny Blind. It is noticeable that Blind is well out of his depth at this level.
Success almost always comes from long-term processes that are put in place, continuity between formations and playing style is wholly undervalued. Smaller teams are starting to adapt to long-term strategies and are achieving success, thus closing the gap in world football. Until big teams adapt this strategy, there will continue to be upsets.
About the Author – Ben Jarman
Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.