How Important Is Width To Victory in the World Cup?
In a word, extremely.
While many things that were once considered standard are looking out of place in the modern game, such as the 4-4-2, one that is still firmly relevant is the idea of an English winger, someone that runs out wide and makes opposition fullbacks miserable, thus using more of the pitch and opening space up in the middle.
The strain of an offense run solely through the middle of the field can be seen in Spain’s play. Many viewers thought coming into the World Cup that Spain would put on a clinic in passing and finishing, scoring goals by the truckload. Instead, after the semifinal against Germany, they have scored 7.
The reason is that Spain’s brand of attack is dependent on the creative abilities of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, two midfielders who play down the middle. Those two typically rely on their service from Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, holding midfielders, that like to get forward to support the attack. That’s four players taking up one area on the pitch, and although Villa has been playing slightly on the left (and I thought he looked less comfortable being up on his own against Germany), his preferred way of playing involves cutting inside and taking players on, not adding a lot out wide.The result? A veritable drought of goals for La Furia, and I would go so far as to say that no other team could function, let alone win comfortably, with a system as broken as theirs. Their midfielders often have little options to spread the ball out wide, unless Sergio Ramos makes runs up the right, and thus rely on hoarding the ball and playing at a snail’s pace until someone can lose his man. They’ve looked a little better when players like Jesus Navas and Pedro have played, people who can operate out wide, but mostly through the tournament they’ve made their opponents defensive schemes extremely simple.
Playing against Spain, you can either press Xavi and Iniesta so they can’t provide killer balls and are restricted to defensive passes, or you can press higher and try and stop the supply to them by focusing on Alonso and Busquets. Either way, while you effectively hand over possession for large stretches of the game, you ensure that you limit scoring opportunities to a minimum. After that it comes down to how good you are on the break as Spain have to commit more people up the pitch. Luckily, while their midfield is congested, it’s also made up of geniuses, so the European Champions have found a way to win.
However, for what Spain could have been, (and it’s not like they’re forced to play this style, I mentioned Jesus Navas and Pedro earlier, perhaps Alonso could have been left by himself and one of them used more often), one must simply look at Germany. They set the tournament on fire, thrice scoring 4 goals, and generally looking extremely fluid. The reason is that in the middle and final third of the field all their players weren’t packed into one area. Lahm was always going forward making himself a presence, Podolski and Mueller often received the ball wide as well.
Generally, the success of a football team depends on its ability to create space for its key players to operate, and it’s obviously harder to do that when too many of them prefer to operate in the same area. It just creates unnecessary clogging, and makes goals harder to come by when defenses are focused like in the World Cup.