On just the second day of the 2014 World Cup, football fans around the world were treated to an enthralling game that will likely become one of the most famous in tournament history.
Spain travelled to Brazil as one of the favourites to defend the crown they had won inSouth Africa four years earlier. However, in the repeat fixture of the 2010 final, La Rojawere simply blown away by a Dutch team whose own national media had written off their chances before the game.
The 5-1 demolition was a fantastic team effort, but star striker Robin van Persie put it down to the work of coach Louis van Gaal, whose 5-2-2-1 formation rendered a world class opposition ineffective and very much played to his own team's particular strengths.
The 62-year-old, who has strictly adhered to the 4-3-3 Dutch Total Football model throughout his managerial career, freely admits he decided to trade it in for playing five at the back because his team weren't good enough to beat the likes of Spain by going toe to toe with them, arguably a similar problem encountered by England. It was also the injury loss of a strong box-to-box midfielder in Kevin Strootman that prompted the need for greater stability in defence, whilst always maintaining a potent attacking threat.
But the question remains, what was it about van Gaal's change in tactics and formation that made it so successful and could a team like England utilise such a strategy to yield a significant upturn in their own fortunes?
Against Spain, van Gaal's formation saw a stable central defensive trio of Ron Vlaar,Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij, flanked by wing-backs Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind. Jonathan de Guzman and Nigel de Jong provided a solid midfield base, withArjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder operating in more advanced and freer roles in support of lone central striker Robin van Persie.
On paper at least, van Gaal's new system is the ultimate formation. It provides a very solid defence with good midfield protection, though at the same time the team is never short of attacking options, centrally or in wide areas. There will always be at least one spare central defender to pick up opposition midfield runners, while all important width going forward is not lost from the team because the of wing-backs on either side. With the defensive aspects of the side covered it also means that the three forward players at the head of the formation are given more license to do what they do best and attack.
Crucially, it can only work if the players in the system have the correct attributes to make it a success. England have experimented with such formations before, only to encounter problems. In 2006, Steve McClaren's Three Lions team played with three centre-backs, but the wing-backs were left horribly exposed. The players were not right for the system, most notably Gary Neville, who despite being one of Europe's leading full-backs was not cut out for wing-back play. There was also not enough link-up between the midfield and forward player to provide any attacking threat.The Dutch Have Made Great Use of 5-2-2-1.
In more recent years at club level in England,Roberto Mancini was determined to make a defensive five work at Manchester City, but again the players at his disposal didn't fit the system and his attempts were deemed a failure.
However, England's current generation of international players do look to have the attributes that would make a 5-2-2-1 formation like van Gaal's work.
At centre-back Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have already formed a solid partnership, but the addition of Phil Jones in the back line would bring extra stability and would also likely improve Jones as a player with slightly less pressure than he might be exposed to in a normal pairing.
At right wing-back players like Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker are the type of attack minded defenders that would work well in the position, though Johnson's fitness may inhibit him slightly. On the left Leighton Baines should be able to get up and down, though Luke Shaw's early career has shown signs of the kind of great attacking promise and engine perfect for wing-back and is a better long term option.
Holding the midfield Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard have already formed a similarly good partnership. Beyond Gerrard's likely international retirement after the World Cup, Jack Wilshere would be an excellent candidate to replace him in the position at international level if he can add a little more physicality to his game.
Players with such natural talent as Adam Lallana and Ross Barkley would be perfect for the creative free roles in and a around a central striker, as would the pace and raw skill possessed by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Raheem Sterling. Either Daniel Sturridgeor Danny Welbeck would thrive in an single striker role with a talented support cast, while Wayne Rooney has a proven goal scoring record when leading the line in a central area.
While Roy Hodgson may be reluctant to change his tactics midway through a tournament after weeks of existing preparation, England could certainly learn a few things from Louis van Gaal's Netherlands team. With a new generation of exciting young English talents, the key to a successful future after this year's World Cup could very well be 5-2-2-1.
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