Euro 2012: The intelligent person’s guide to football tactics

Now that England have started winning, the excitement is beginning to rise. As well as our tactical guide, we unscramble the commentator speak and celebrate the fashions on show

Been watching Euro 2012 but not been able to follow the tactic-based gobbledegook they spout in the studio at half-time? Don't understand why 4-4-2 is considered British? Can't comprehend what on earth is more fluid about Germany's 4-5-1? Or why Spain has a complete zero up front? (And no, it's not because no one's heard of the player.)

To make it easier for those without a formal football education to appreciate the rest of the tournament (and get by in a conversation at the pub), Steve Tongue breaks down the most heavily used formations, how they came into being, what they're good for, what they might be called – and why fans grumble about them as soon as an attack breaks down.

4-2-4: Nickname: The egg-timer

What is it? Four defenders, two mobile midfielders and four forwards, two of them wingers. Until the late 1950s, most teams used only three defenders, two of them full-backs with a big centre-half in between, all with thighs the size of tree trunks. By withdrawing a midfielder into defence, they gained extra protection and had numerical equality with the opposing forwards. And by retaining four attackers, teams could still apply pressure of their own, two wingers who are either skilful dribblers or speed merchants keeping the opposing defence stretched across the pitch.

The glory years: In 1958, Brazil, with the 17-year-old boy wonder Pelé up front, won the World Cup in Sweden using the formation – then it was copied by just about everyone else.

Tip from the gaffer: Get it wide!

Grumble down the pub: We've lost control of the midfield.

Most likely to be used at Euro 2012 by: Any team that's losing badly and needs to get back in the game.

4-3-3: The handbag

What is it? As the 4-2-4, but one of the forwards has been moved back into midfield. Its advantage over 4-2-4 is that it strengthens the defence, by having one midfielder sit just in front of the defence. It also suits wingers, whether of the old-fashioned Stanley Matthews wizard-of-the-dribble variety or the more modern, up-and-down trundler (as in Manchester City and England's James Milner). The one centre-forward, preferably a physical specimen such as Didier Drogba, has to be able to keep two centre-halves busy and bothered.

The glory years: Alf Ramsey's "wingless wonders" who ended – and then began again – all those years of hurt by winning the World Cup for England. The formation has recently undergone a retro revival thanks to Jose Mourinho, self-styled Special One and natural trend-setter, who used it to great effect at Chelsea.

Tip from the gaffer: Feed the channels!

Grumble down the pub: The big lad up front is completely isolated.

Most likely to be used at Euro 2012 by: Portugal, Russia, Greece, France (and Spain with a twist – in its first game, Spain didn't use a forward at all, using a 4-6-0 line-up, with three of those midfielders in advanced positions).

4-4-2: The bungalow

What is it? Four forwards, to three forwards, to two forwards. Do we sense a trend? As money and a manager's job security became more important, football grew more defensive and yet another attacker was moved further back. Simply put, from 4-2-4, the two wingers had dropped much deeper. The extra player in the middle of the pitch can ferry the ball from defence to attack, but as there are only two forwards, they have to work hard and be capable of keeping the ball while being hacked at and tugged.

The glory years: England at the 1970 World Cup, and most English clubs thereafter. Even Fabio Capello at the 2010 World Cup was still in thrall.

Tip from the gaffer: Close 'em down!

Grumble down the pub: This is too rigid. There's not enough width. They need to play between the lines! (See glossary.)

Most likely to be used at Euro 2012 by: Croatia, Ireland (unsuccessfully).

3-5-2: The space invader

What is it? Three outright defenders play centrally, one slightly behind, sweeping up anything that gets past the other two. Five midfielders sit across the width of the pitch, the outside pair shuttling back and forth, doing the jobs of both fullback and winger. The wing-backs must be fit enough to keep charging up and down for 90 minutes, because the system won't work if there are big holes in the corner of the pitch.

The glory years: England, briefly at the 1990 World Cup, and six years later under Glenn Hoddle, before karma bit him.

Tip from the gaffer: Keep the ball moving!

Grumble down the pub: Why have we got three men marking one striker?

Most likely to be used at Euro 2012 by: Italy.

4-5-1 and variations: The cupcake

What is it? This formation retains the four defenders for stability at the back, but has just one up front, allowing for a lot of flexibility in the midfield.

The glory years: Terry Venables, football's original cheeky chap, has always been an innovative thinker and did well with a so-called "Christmas tree" formation when England reached the semi-final of Euro '96. It was a sort of 4-1-3-1-1, making that bulging-in-the-middle yuletide shape with the suitably bulging Paul Gascoigne at its centre. More recently, most teams in the Premier League and at international level favour 4-2-3-1, with two holding midfielders "sitting" in front of the defenders to offer strength, two players on the wing and one in the "hole", just behind the centre-forward.

Tip from the gaffer: Support the striker!

Grumble down the pub: The centre-forward can't hold the ball up.

Most likely to be used at Euro 2012 by: Germany, Holland, Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark, Ukraine.

4-4-1-1: The tank

What is it? England began the tournament using the 4-4-1-1 formation with Ashley Young just behind the centre-forward, before reverting to 4-4-2, though with Wayne Rooney coming back from suspension for the third game, it's likely that we'll see the 4-4-1-1 again. This formation avoids the rigidity of 4-4-2, as it allows for a man to float between the "lines" of players, while keeping two solid banks of four and having the option of two wingers, who can stay out wide or drift in to stabilise the midfield.

The glory years: Now, if England get lucky ....

Tip from the gaffer: Give the ball to Rooney!

Grumble down the pub: The opposition have flooded the midfield; we just can't get hold of the ball.

Most likely to be used at Euro 2012 by: England, Sweden.

Strip tease

Forget football – which team has the best kit at Euro 2012? It was the question on everyone's lips at London Men's Fashion Week – and now, finally, we have the answer. According to a new poll for the website goal.com, soccer's sartorial reigning champions are:

France (home kit) with 36.65 per cent of the vote

Germany (away kit) with 17.59 per cent

Poland (home kit) with 10.94 per cent

But, we hear you ask, what about the other side of the fashion equation? Football is, after all, a game of two halves. So, in the interests of balance, we asked our resident style gurus to pick out the championships' real stinkers. The classified results are in:

Portugal (away kit) That's some cross to bear, guys!

Denmark (home kit) Shoulder pads are so Eighties!

England (home kit) No wonder the lads wore red in 1966!

The pundits' clichés and what they mean

"Between the lines"

Rather than playing in straight lateral lines (defence, midfield, attack) across the pitch, this is about players finding space between the opponents' own lines, dragging them out of position. Hard to fathom, apparently, for players as well as fans.

"Defensive screen"

Aka the "holding man": a midfielder who stays in front of his own defence to break up attacks. Likely candidate for first yellow card of any match.

"False number 9"

Nasty foreign trick of pretending to have a centre-forward who actually drifts all over the place, such as Cesc Fabregas for Spain.

"Final third"

The section of the pitch nearest the opposing goal, where coaches want the ball to be, and where passes more often than not go astray, to the disdain of commentators and fans alike.

"High line"

Defending as a unit high up the pitch, i.e. close to the halfway line, as opposed to "dropping deep". Employed to useless effect by Chelsea last season.

"Pressing"

Concerted harrying and tackling of opponents to win back the ball; traditionally what Brits pride themselves on, as it means running around like a terrier.

"Second ball"

Less sophisticated teams (England, Ireland) tend to whack a (first) long pass up the middle, then wait for the ball to drop and win it in the ensuing tussle.

"Tiki-taka"

Death by 1,000 passes: a tactic favoured by Barcelona and the Spanish national team, as players pass and pass in quick succession, normally with just one touch and over short distances. Can be devastatingly mesmerising (see Spain 4 Ireland 0).

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