Before each and every World Cup there is a great deal said by observers about the tactics employed by the various teams taking part and the relative merits and/or flaws of those systems. This time around, as the 32 qualifiers prepare for kick-off in South Africa on Friday, much of the talk has centred around Chile’s fascinating 3-3-1-3, Brazil’s pragmatic blueprint which has been interpreted as a variety of different shapes in different sections of the media, and whether Spain should opt for a one or a two-striker system.

Over the coming weeks, one team and one plan alone will emerge as the victor in South Africa and, perhaps, will set in motion a new cycle of tactical trends in both international and domestic football over the next four years. With the debate over which tactics are the most likely to yield success on the international stage as fervent as ever, The Equaliser takes a look back at the systems employed by the teams that have won the World Cup over the last two decades and analyses the elements which have constituted succesful footballing theories at this level over the years.

1990: West Germany

Often criticised for being the most defensively-minded and bland of all the 18 World Cup-winning sides, Franz Beckenbauer’s team was, despite perhaps not providing the entertainment levels many observers are obsessed with in the modern game, absolutely fascinating from a tactical perspective.

Football Fans Know BetterSet-up in what was essentially a 3-5-2 shape, Beckenbauer utilised Klaus Augenthaler in the sweeper role at the centre of the back three, a role which he himself had played with such adeptness during his own career.

Of course, in the defensive phase the wing-backs – Thomas Berthold and the versatile Andreas Brehme – dropped deeper and saw the team’s shape change from its default 3-5-2 to a 5-3-2, the flexibility of the West German system being arguably its greatest strength.

This evolution was also achieved through Thomas Haßler and Lothar Matthäus, the two deep-lying central midfielders, being regularly used in a defensive capacity, shielding the back line and giving the West Germans the ability to be extremely defensive and difficult to break down when necessary.

Although his side had little in the way of “flair” players – FC Koln’s Pierre Littbarski was relied upon to provide the vast majority of the team’s creative spark – Beckenbauer did find room in his starting eleven for two forwards (Rudi Voller and Jurgen Klinsmann) who, despite having fairly limited service from the wide areas, were able to link effectively with the midfield and attack opposition defences in a very direct fashion, as the ten goals the team scored in the group phase attested.

They may not have been the most imaginative side to win the World Cup, but Beckenbauer’s West Germany showed (some might say to the detriment of the game) that discipline, organisation and a degree of tactical flexibility can be just as effective as more fluent, attacking interpretations of football.

1994: Brazil

Another team to win football’s greatest prize without conventional full-backs, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side are remembered as an unglamorous but efficient group of players characterised by a dominant midfield and the prolific strike partnership between Bebeto and Romario.

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Dispensing with the idea of full-backs entirely, Parreira favoured a flat back three shielded by the captain Dunga who acted as a spoiler in the centre of the midfield trio alongside Branco and Jorginho, converted left and right-backs respectively.

This set-up gave the team extra bite in the defensive third, whilst also giving the attacking quartet more freedom to get forward in what was a 3-3-2-2/3-3-3-1 formation.

In an almost direct contrast to the West German side of 1990, the Brazil of ’94 were extremely potent in the wide areas, with Marzinho and Zinho providing pace and good delivery from the flanks. Though the wingers had relatively poor goalscoring records, they were more than compensated for by Romario and Bebeto who scored eight goals between them during the tournament and added an element of vibrancy to what is often seen as an “ugly” Brazilian side.

This is the only one of the five teams featured in this article to have won the World Cup without recognised full-backs, surely the most striking tactical aspect of this system, something which, considering the increased importance the position is coming to have on the modern game, is unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

1998: France

With an experienced group of players and the help of home support, Aime Jacquet’s French team marched to success in 1998 playing a classic 4-3-2-1 system which managed to maximise the creative talents of Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeef whilst also giving the team a strong base in the form of a physical and dynamic back four.

Football Fans Know BetterWhereas the two teams we have already analysed struggled for creativity amongst groups of very pragmatic players, Jacquet’s France enjoyed a plethora of creative players, at times struggling to fit them all into a functional starting eleven (Pires, Henry and Trezeguet all warmed the bench throughout the tournament).

In the midfield only the captain, Didier Deschamps, provided anything approaching a defensive influence, with Emmanuel Petit and Christan Karembeu getting forward with great regularity (often in the wide areas) to supplement the advanced triumvirate of Zidane, Djorkaeef and Stephane Guivarch.

Although playing a lone striker (Guivarch) may appear to be a slightly negative tactic at first glance, it was anything but in the case of this French side. With Petit and Karembeu playing high up the field in possession, France occasionally appeared to take on a 4-1-4-1 shape when going forward, something which proved particularly effective during the group phase before adopting a slightly more cautious approach during the knock-out stages.

This French side was one based around individual creative talents within a relatively loose and flexible team context, something which bucked the trend of the West German and Brazilian World Cup triumphs, campaigns which had been far more rigid in their organisation. Perhaps more importantly, France’s victory also marked the return to prominence of the conventional full-back after several years of the three-man defence being in vogue in European football following both the 1990 World Cup and the German victory at the 1996 European Championships. This was a team that had a far greater tactical impact than it is often given credit for.

2002: Brazil

This may be the second Brazil side featured, but Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team bore very little resemblance to its predecessors of 1994. Playing a system that has been described as a 3-4-1-2 but was extremely flexible in nature, the team was built around the robust central midfield pairing of Gilberto Silva and Kleberson, two of the most impressive players at the 2002 tournament in Japan and Korea, who allowed the likes of Ronaldinho and Rivaldo to express themselves in the advanced areas of the field and not be concerned with defensive duties as they provided the service to Ronaldo, the greatest striker of his generation.

Football Fans Know BetterWhere the 1994 Brazilians played without full-backs, the position, or rather an attacking adaption of it, was crucial to the success of the class of 2002.

Given the role of wing-backs, backed-up by a trio of centre-halves and ordered to get forward as much as possible, Cafu and Roberto Carlos found themselves free of the majority of their defensive shackles and able to bomb forward to supplement the team’s incredibly gifted attacking trident. Indeed, the wing-backs’ movement became a key feature of Brazil’s run to the title and gave the side a range of options going forward that simply overwhelmed the majority of opposition defences.

In terms of the front three, although it often appeared to be Ronaldinho and Rivaldo supporting Ronaldo as the lone forward, Rivaldo actually spent most of his time playing as the second striker, with Ronaldinho dropping back to collect the ball from the midfield and act as the teams playmaker. With five of the outfield players (Roque Junior, Edmilson, Lucio, Gilberto Silva and Kleberson) focused mainly on defensive organisation, the talents of the attacking trio and the wing-backs were allowed to flourish and give rise to possibly the most lyrical World Cup-winning side since 1970.

2006: Italy

Where the other four teams featured have all had their tactical quirks, the Italian side which triumphed in Germany four years ago was tactically fairly straightforward. Marcello Lippi’s Azzurri played a relatively basic 4-4-1-1, Luca Toni being deployed as the sole centre-forward with Francesco Totti in a deeper creative role within a team that, despite not scoring a great deal of goals, was defensively impeccable and both streetwise and efficient in its attacking play.

Football Fans Know BetterThe back four was built around the world-class goalkeeping of Gianluigi Buffon and the substantial defensive talents of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta (before the latter was injured and replaced by the capable Marco Materazzi) at centre-half, with Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso displaying typically intelligent movement and positional awareness at full-back.

In the middle, Gennaro Gattuso shielded the defence is his typically bullish style, freeing up space for Andrea Pirlo to move in to and build the team’s attacking play from deep with his superb vision and range of passing.

The central pairing were flanked by Mauro Camoranesi and Simone Perrotta, wide players who, despite being limited in terms of their pace, worked hard in the wide areas to provide Totti with support and Toni with a good standard of service. Perrotta and Camoranesi were also useful defensively, showing a willingness to sit back if necessary.

Although Lippi’s team was hardly packed full of tactical ingenuity, it was an extremely efficient and compact unit, a group of experienced players who knew each others strengths and weaknesses well and demonstrated fantastic cohesion throughout the tournament in Germany. The Italians were also an intriguing blend of practicality and flair, a team somewhere between the West Germans of 1990 and the Brazilians of 2002 in terms of their style. Even the more creative attacking players in Lippi’s squad such as Totti and Del Piero were fully aware of their defensive responsibilities and gave the side a balance, class and resolve rarely seen at international level.


So, what conclusions, if any, can we draw from this analysis of World Cup-winning systems? Well, it’s patently obvious that there is no single tactical plan that has been dominant over the last 20 years, but there are certain elements that have appeared with something approaching regularity.

Of the five teams featured, four used full-backs in some capacity, some in a classical sense, others deploying wing-backs to supplement the midfield. This trend could be said to reflect the significance the position has come to have in the modern game, with the likes of Maicon, Phillipp Lahm and Ashley Cole all being central to the plans of their respective national teams. In fact, Jonathan Wilson has gone as far to say that the team with the most effective full-back partnership are the most likely to win this year’s World Cup, a hypothesis that will have to wait to be proved one way or the other.

Three of the teams could also be said to play with just one out-and-out centre-forward, Luca Toni and Stephane Guivarch running the line for Italy and France respectively, with Ronaldo the focal point of the 2002 Brazilian side, albeit with Rivaldo and Ronaldinho in very close support. Indeed, the teams with one centre-forward often afforded more space for playmaking creativity from deeper areas of the field, Zidane, Ronaldinho and Totti all pivotal figures in their country’s runs to World Cup success.

However, despite these mini-trends within the five systems, the clear message is one which has resonated throughout the history of tactical innovation, that the system should be chosen to fit the available players rather than the system being selected first.

With the correct balance between defence and attack, any formation which efficiently maximises best the talents of the players available to the manager is going to be in with a chance of success. Sometimes, though, it takes a spark of individual genius to make the difference at the very top level. We await the tactical battles of the forthcoming World Cup with great interest, it looks set to be yet another fascinating tournament.