Football: Brazilian midfield trend sets the fashion

Ken Jones argues that the modern passion for wing-backs is in fact rather old hat
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The Independent Online
SHORTLY before Brazil met Italy in the 1994 World Cup final, a former international player from Europe who should have known better saw it as a collision between romantic ideals and tactical conservatism. "For the game's sake, Brazil must win," he said.

In fact, Brazil were the best drilled team in the tournament, their natural gifts subordinate to a system that suppressed supporting surges from the centre of midfield. For all the imaginative flourishes associated with their football, Brazil could never have achieved global pre-eminence if they had not accommodated developments in team formation, often setting the pace themselves.

The 4-2-4 (frequently made 4-3-3 by Mario Zagallo's defensive work on the left wing) they took to Sweden in 1958, to gain the first of their four World Cup successes, still influences the way teams are set out, although there is now a heavier concentration of bodies in midfield.

In the 1994 Cup, ammunition for Brazil's strikers Romario and Bebeto came mostly from players operating as wing-backs, the role given to Cafu and Roberto Carlos in the present team. If not favoured by all the coaches in France 98, the deployment of five midfielders in front of three defenders is becoming more fashionable.

Adopted by England's coach Glenn Hoddle, it has the advantage of attacking width while securing the centre, with the drawback of leaving more space across the field than the defence can comfortably cover. England's most anxious moments when defeating Tunisia 2-0 in Marseilles last week came from attacks that developed in the space left unattended when moves involving their nominal right-winger Darren Anderton petered out. Coming after only six minutes, the first crisis saw three defenders drawn to the ball leaving Skander Souayah with an opportunity from which he should have given Tunisia the lead.

The trouble with employing wing-backs is that the position is invariably filled by attack-minded players who have been given more than a normal share of defensive responsibility. Hoddle's controversial choice of Anderton ahead of David Beckham (even allowing for reports that Beckham hadn't appeared to be giving the World Cup his undivided attention) probably had something to do with the Tottenham player's speed, but the jury is still out on him.

If similar, Hoddle's system differs from that employed by Terry Venables in the 1996 European Championship finals in that Venables selected Anderton and Steve McManaman primarily as wingers. Both were required to help out defensively but were told to get back into positions where they might pick up from regained possession.

On the left side of England's midfield, Graeme Le Saux looks a lot more like the sort of player Hoddle has in mind for the wing-back role. Le Saux too has defensive shortcomings, sometimes being lured to the ball at the expense of a sound position, but he has grown into the wing-back role at Chelsea.

Until the 1960s, full-backs seldom left their own half of the field, concentrating their energies almost entirely on snuffing out the wingers they came up against and providing cover for the central defenders. George Cohen who was at right-back when England defeated West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, recalls being coached at Fulham by a wartime international, Joe Bacuzzi. "Joe had been a solid full-back and there wasn't anything he didn't know about the position," Cohen said. "I had pace and strength to burn and always fancied getting forward, but Joe stressed time and time again that defence was my priority."

Because Cohen had the speed to get back from abortive sorties, Alf Ramsey gave him licence to push forward although always with discretion. "The number of crosses I put behind became a bit of a joke with the players and the press," Cohen chuckled. "But there was something of the wing-back in the way I played. It's extremely doubtful if I would be considered a good enough attacker today, but I'm not in favour of the system anyway because it leaves too much space for the defenders to handle. From what I've seen so far on television, a lot of the defensive work in this World Cup is bloody awful."

When coming up against the well organised Scotland in their first match here, Brazil soon feared that as much might be lost as gained from encouraging Roberto Carlos and Cafu to exploit their attacking instincts. Outnumbered in midfield as a result of holding back Dunga to cover they had to apply the brakes and send their captain further forward.

As Cohen pointed out, wing-backs are not as much of an innovation as people like to imagine. The Leeds United left-back Terry Cooper, who turned out for England in the 1970 World Cup finals, was a converted outside left. Keith Newton of Blackburn Rovers, who was only 56 when he died last week, scored the second of England's goals when they were defeated 3-2 after extra-time in the quarter finals of that tournament.

If this is the age of the wing-back, who in these finals will prove most effective in the role? Put your money on Cafu or Roberto Carlos.