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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices