The 4-2-4 system takes Brazil to two World Cup victories

WALTER LUTZ is a former editor in chief of the Swiss newspaper Sport. He has been an observer at eleven World Cups and has been awarded the FIFA Order of Merit.

In the second half of the 20th century, it seemed that success in football came to be largely determined by intelligence. While ball control is still vital and without speed, stamina, effort and team spirit no team will win anything, the vital elements that characterise the great teams of the age are outstanding players and an "intelligent system".

Intelligence in football; what does that mean? A good eye for the game, clever individual tactical behaviour, playing for the team, thinking and not just running, being observant, reacting quickly, playing the ball quickly and keeping a close eye on the opponent's reactions. In short, greater mental flexibility; the smarter team wins.

Nobody needs to take on the task of turning plain footballers into intellectuals - but the age of kick and rush tactics is long past. More flexible and more demanding playing systems have replaced the rudimentary systems of the game's Stone Age, which were so undemanding because they assumed that players were incapable of thinking for themselves.

It is hard to believe, but it was only in 1958, 28 years after the first World Cup was played, that Brazil took the title for the first time with their victory in Sweden. They were the team that introduced the first system to be designated by numbers - the 4-2-4. Four defenders, two midfield runners and four forwards. The new scheme was a development of the Brazilian "diagonal" system, and first put into practice by FC São Paolo and FC Santos. Using the 4-2-4 Brazil won the title again twelve years later in Mexico 1970, having used a variation, 4-3-3, for their win in Chile 1962 in between.

Three or four goals per game
Mario Zagallo, appointed as coach only a few weeks before the start of the World Cup 1970, had been a member of the 1958 and 1962 winning teams himself, playing as a deep-lying left winger. He did not have any coaching certificate, but he had the success of the 1958 "wonder team" in mind, and was convinced both practically and emotionally that the 4-2-4 would prove to be the system he needed, even though it was already being viewed as old fashioned in some circles. Yet Peru and some other South American teams were still using it and a few East European sides as well. Gerson, who played a role similar to that of the midfield runner in the Bolt system, directed the team's play from midfield in the manner that Zico had done in 1958, while Jairzinho assumed Garrincha's mantle, but without quite the magic touch - he made up for that deficit with dynamism and a powerful shot. And the incomparable Pelé was still there, even now not yet 30. In every game, with the exception of the group game against England, the 1966 World Champions, the Brazilians scored three or four goals. For me, this was the best team and the most attractive football that I have ever seen.

Of course, Brazil did not win the titles in Sweden and Mexico just because they played 4-2-4 - a system alone does not guarantee success. They had a wealth of great attacking players at the time. At one time in fact when things were not going well, it became clear that even the most skilful players could not succeed without stamina, a sense of team work, order, discipline and a certain level of tactical reality. Brazil also had to take on the more physical characteristics of the Europeans, without sacrificing their own special strengths.

Flavio Costa and Zeze Moreira
In the quest for a more complete style of football and an improved playing system - items which are still on the agenda for any coach worthy of the name - the idea of using 4-2-4 had been considered by some of Brazil's top trainers back in the early 50s. Flavio Costa, then the Brazilian national coach, published an article in the newspaper O Cruzeiro in which he explained, with the aid of schematic diagrams, what he then called the "diagonal system". It was to be a pre-cursor of the 4-2-4. Modern football, according to Costa, "has lost its improvisation", and he made it his motto that a team should "defend well so that they can attack even better." A version of the French maxim "reculer pour mieux sauter" (take a step back if you want to jump better). Zeze Moreira, another respected figure in South America at that time, also proposed a system for covering the penalty area, whose aim was: "let in fewer goals, score more".

From these ideas it can be seen as questionable whether the coaches in Brazil were in fact influenced by the style of play of the Hungarian "wonder team" of that time. Certainly it can be said that the Hungarians adapted and refined the WM system, and with a stretch of the imagination could be said to have developed it into a kind of 4-2-4. But the Brazilian plans were already being discussed as the Hungarians first really began their rise to fame with victory in the Olympic Games in Helsinki in the summer of 1952.

The 4-2-4 was a follower of the WM system, which is not used anywhere in the world today, and of the Bolt, which is still used in its basic principle, as for example by the Italians at Euro 2000. And simultaneously it was a fore-runner of the 4-4-2.

The 4-2-4 was tailored to suit the abilities, the mentality, the temperament and above all the peculiarities and special skills of the Brazilians. It matched the people, their desire for artistry and their delight in the game, their creativity and their love of improvisation. It also took into account the nation's ability to produce a steady stream of superb forwards. The potential was there and the 4-2-4 was the way to turn it into success - the Brazilians had two real centre forwards as the middle pair of the front four.

Six forwards and six defendersWhatever else may be said, the 4-2-4 was the most significant change in playing systems since the WM came in at the end of the 20s. It fitted well with the increased pace of the game and the general improvement in technical skills. On the other hand it demanded a certain level of skill, mental and tactical maturity, and also proved to be capable of adaptation when needed: we saw 4-3-3, sometimes 3-2-5 and even a 3-1-6, which Brazil used during certain phases of the World Cup final 1970 against Italy.

Compared to the WM system as it was used in the early days, the 4-2-4 needed an extra defender (making it thus the same when the second stopper was introduced), two midfielders fewer and hence one more forward. Thus the new system led to a simplification of a team's structure, to a rationalisation of its organisation and, decisively, to a fundamentally attacking attitude and approach to the game. The underlying principle was to win by scoring one more goal than the opponent, not by conceding one fewer.

The three defenders in a team using the WM system would be far apart from each other, while now with four they would be in closer touch and more aware of what the others were doing, covering the whole field and, especially the two central defenders, covering or screening each other.

As seen with the Bolt, the idea that midfield superiority had to be achieved was not of importance and so the numbers needed to attain this were not necessary. The organisation of a team's play and the inter-linking between the individual blocks was simpler using 4-2-4, more refined, more objective, more rational and better thought out. With the exception of the two midfielders, the distances players had to cover were less, and things happened faster. With a single pass from midfield there was somebody near the ball close to the opponent's goal.

In comparison to the rather complicated WM system, with its tendency towards over-organisation, the 4-2-4 showed certain significant changes: the so-called inside forwards disappeared; there were only three team blocks instead of four; the players had a greater radius of action and were in touch with all their partners; there were greater demands made in all aspects of the game, especially in individual tactics; defenders became more important since they now had to surge forward unexpectedly; there was more freedom and more responsibility for every player in how the game was approached and in individual moves, but not at the cost of team play; six men defended, six, or even seven would attack.

In its basic form, the 4-2-4 was probably the last of the offensive systems and the most flexible of all systems seen so far. The two midfielders were the team's strategists and directors. They got their own team moving forward, but also helped out in defence. They had to come up with ideas and show their flair for the game, have a good overview (including the positioning of the opponents), as well as being in good shape, capable of doing lots of running, skilled on the ball so that they could hold it until they saw the right moment to strike a 40-meter pass.

The most flexible system
They were also expected to be able to shoot hard and with precision. They were the ones who determined the tactics, the tempo and the rhythm of a game, and when defending they were not pure defenders but rather the first to start to press opponents on the ball when they were coming forward.

After the 1958 World Cup, the 4-2-4 was adopted by many teams. Its breakthrough came exactly at a time in which one of the poorest and most defensive of all World Cups (Chile 1962) was held, when there was a lot of criticism in the air about over-doing the defensive side of football.

Among those who favoured the "concrete bunker" defence in the early 60s was Helenio Herrera, coach of the Inter Milan team that enjoyed a run of success in the European Cup for national club champions. He developed, as he was not slow to point out, the perfect "safety game." His solidly negative Catenaccio system meant that he stamped out all the creative individual flair of Southern European football and made the players stick to a rigidly disciplined scheme. For him only the result was of any importance. His philosophy: "I get paid to produce a winning team; I don't get any extra if they play attractive football."

After the World Cup in Chile, European coaches were full of praise for Brazil's efforts to stick to offensive football. Even Gustav Sebes, the man behind the Hungarian "wonder team" stated after Chile that: "the future will belong to teams that have a well organised defence, who can also switch effectively into attack". Rudolf Vytlacil, the coach of the Czechoslovakian team that reached the final against Brazil, said in August 1962: "The WM system is dead. All players now have to be able to defend and attack. The forwards are the first line in a team's defence." But the heyday of the 4-2-4 was not to last much past 1970…