Strike duo earn Spain top marks in finishing school

There is a strange regression going on in international football. The German football writer Christoph Biermann described last Tuesday's fixture between Greece and Sweden as being like a historical re-enactment society playing out a game from 1984, and there was something just as old-fashioned about yesterday's game here. It is rare these days, at the highest level, to see two sides lining up with 4-4-2 systems, and even the undoubted quality of the four strikers on display – Fernando Torres and David Villa on one side and Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured, right, scoring) on the other – could not prevent the game slipping into the familiar straight lines which modern football does so much to avoid.

For a long time the idea that international tournaments led the way in tactical innovation was axiomatic. The spread of 4-2-4 was directly attributable to the Brazilian World Cup winners of 1958. England's success eight years later with a 4-4-2 led directly to the decline of the traditional winger. Argentina popularised 3-5-2 when they won the World Cup in 1986. More recently, as club football has taken the lead, tournaments have become barometers of tactical evolution. At Euro 2000, for instance, three of the four semi-finalists used a 4-2-3-1, reflecting the system's growing popularity in the Champions' League.

Greece's victory in Euro 2004 with a man-marking scheme that hadn't been seen in top club football in over a decade suggested a gulf was opening between club and national football, and it is hard to escape the suspicion that the divide is even wider now. Of the 16 teams who made it to the knockout stage of last season's Champions' League, only five played a traditional 4-4-2, and of them only Schalke and Arsenal – whose system is extremely fluid – made it to the quarter-finals. At the very top level, playing two forwards is dying. Yet at Euro 2008, it seems nearly as popular as ever: in the first round of group games, half the teams employed two forwards.

The reason 4-4-2 lingers at international level, presumably, is that to use one up front as an attacking measure is very difficult. To achieve fluency without the loss of defensive stability takes hours of practice on the training ground and, as Arrigo Sacchi moaned of his time in charge of Italy: "It's impossible to do anything at international level. There's no time to work with the players, to get them to understand the system." With a basic 4-4-2 though, roles are more obviously defined, so it is easier for players who may not know each other particularly well to slot together.

The old strike pairings would typically feature either a target man and a quick man (Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips) or a creator and a finisher (Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush); now the very best modern forwards embody the old partnership in one man. Didier Drogba is battering ram and finisher; Thierry Henry – until injury hampered him – was both creator and finisher.

Football's avant garde – Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Sacchi - have always championed "universality"; this is the result. English football has been oddly reluctant to embrace that trend. "I can't believe that in England they don't teach young players to be multi-functional," said Jose Mourinho. "To them it's just about knowing one position and playing that position. To them a striker is a striker. For me, a striker is somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 or 3-5-2." Yesterday there were three of the modern school of forwards on display plus, in Larsson, one of the most versatile of the last generation. Marcus Rosenberg, the rapid Werder Bremen forward who replaced the injured Ibrahimovic at half-time, looked limited by comparison.

Spain seemed troubled all the way through their build-up by how they could squeeze in all their vastly gifted midfielders, and ended up sacrificing Cesc Fabregas to play two forwards.

Torres is a fine finisher, but is supremely quick as well as being capable of holding the ball up; while Villa is nearer the Henry end of the spectrum, comfortable at drifting wide, but also a great timer of runs and a clinical taker of chances. Torres, intriguingly, has seen his goals return shoot up at Liverpool where the style of play is more direct than it was at Atletico Madrid. Together, they can be devastating – Torres playing as (a technically gifted) target man for Villa, and Villa playing as a link man for Torres.

Against Russia's flimsy defending, they flourished, but yesterday, as midfields cancelled each other out, they struggled to create the same space, and the game for long periods was reduced to an exchange of crosses. Torres poked in one, Ibrahimovic stroked in another, but after the sparkle of Tuesday, it all felt rather anti-climactic. They struggled to create the same angles, and received nothing like the same service, but the advantage of a partnership like Spain's is that they can create something from nothing. It came three minutes into injury time, as Torres touched on a long ball, Villa ran on, cut inside Petter Hansson and finished with the confidence you would expect of a player who had scored a hat-trick in his previous game. Not particularly planned, not particularly pretty, but effective nonetheless.


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