**Seeing as there was a generally warm reception for my earlier long-form pieces, I decided I'd better go one bigger and better in the hopes of either finding fame and fortune as an international blogging superstar or being driven away from here by a mob wielding torches and pitchforks. Since there can be no middle ground, here's a rather thorough post on the evolution of tactics and formation in the modern game, with special concern for the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 in attack (taste the relevance!). Also I take shots at Jose Mourinho. Try not to sound so excited about it.**
Ashley Cole, attacking fullback in the 2009-2010 League winning Chelsea side, scored four goals and tallied five assists across all competitions. A healthy return, most would agree, especially from a fullback. One might even say it's more in line with what you would expect from a box-to-box midfielder. Which would only be fair because in the system Chelsea plays he is expected to provide a similar return, albeit from slightly different positions on the pitch, as a box-to-box midfielder.
|Better than United's best,
not good enough for Liverpool.
Somewhat north of London, Manchester United and France attacking fullback Patrice Evra had a much more disappointing three assists and zero goals in fifty-five matches across all competitions, twelve more games than Cole had to pick up his impressive numbers in. Emiliano Insua, for the record, tallied a goal and five helpers in forty-one appearances, a per minute return far closer to that of England's first choice left back than France's, and hardly a poor result in attack even if some following Liverpool pointed to the occasional defensive deficiencies of a 21-year old attacking fullback as a reason he would never be good enough.
Meanwhile Lucas Leiva recorded a mere two assists for Liverpool, also over forty-one matches. Or about the same record as Evra. The only difference here was that Evra's primary purpose on the pitch was to support the offense while Lucas' primary concern was to allow Insua and his at times similarly defensively shaky counterpart Johnson to contribute to the offense. If one is seeking a like for like comparison for what sort of return one should expect from a player such as Lucas they must look--perhaps counter-intuitively at first--towards the less mobile breed of fullback such as one might find in a deep-lying flat back four. Paul Konchesky, to pick an example entirely not at random, recorded one assist all of last season, and in the system he played in he was charged with providing a similar level of support in attack as Lucas was in his quite different set-up. That some will quickly suggest that neither is good enough for a championship winning side misses the point that their suitability for such a side would not be represented in their offensive contributions in the systems they each played in.
In the constantly evolving world of modern football it can at times be hard for supporters to separate their hard-wired expectations from current realities. They look at a fullback and ask why he gets caught up the pitch, they ask why his marking is at times sub-par and why he needs to be given support from defensive midfielders who are frustratingly non-productive. The short answer is it's no longer the fullback's primary job, at least at most top clubs, to defend. However, for the sake of team balance it would be beyond foolhardy to simply throw the fullbacks forward as the primary providers of width without conscious attempts to compensate for that. In the past, in the good old days of the 4-4-2, the bulk of the defensive responsibilities fell to four players. Now, while the center backs remain almost purely defensive, the fullbacks are often asked to be primarily attacking, and if the fullbacks are asked to think as attackers by something like a 60-40 split where before they might have been asked to place an 80-20 priority on defending, it only stands to reason that some other player on the field has to think more defensively to make up for that.
This sharing of duties is more technically and tactically demanding of players, certainly, and in a sport that is at times resistant to statistics and tactics with segments of the players and punditry clinging to a belief that it only matters who you buy and how well you puff them up through man-management some seem slow to fully internalize the reality of supposedly unfamiliar, foreign nature of systems such as the 4-2-3-1 even as they superficially talk of understanding the roles. They claim to understand the idea of a defensive midfielder and then complain when said defensive midfielder isn't a dynamic attacking force. The current reality is that in most top systems the fullbacks are now called on to supply much of the statistical ephemera, not to mention any width in attack, that would have in the past gone to a couple of "complete" midfielders. Whether or not he's capable of more in England, Lucas' role with Liverpool was never to provide offensive wizardry any more than it was Konchesky's roll to do so at Fulham: holding or defensive midfielders are tasked with covering for the fullbacks and switching play to aid in maintaining possession, which seems as though it shouldn't be more difficult a concept to understand than quantum physics except that half the people who follow club football don't seem to understand it. The primary goal is to play a tidy game and avoid making mistakes by being caught out of position or giving the ball away cheaply through over-ambitious passing, and any offensive return is a bonus. Team balance has always been, primarily, the balancing of attacking with defending to maximize the chances of scoring while minimizing the chances of conceding. It sounds simple, and in a way it really is, and yet people complain that a defensive midfielder only has a couple of assists in such modern systems when it wouldn't have even crossed their mind to castigate a left back for having a rather low return in the past. That left back, they would say, was only doing his job. Yet somehow the holding midfielder who provides a similarly defensive service from a different spot on the pitch isn't.
On the other side of the equation, then, to throw away an attacking fullback--or to just demand they be shifted forward despite a heavy touch nurtured through years of running at the opposition from deep-lying positions--because they make too many defensive errors is to fundamentally misunderstand their purpose on the field. And if one is incapable, deep down, of really understanding what the "attack" in attacking fullback means, it is probably too much to expect a widespread understanding of the purpose of a holding midfielder at an emotional level. After all, attack attack attack is always a more visceral concept, easy for the animal parts of the brain to comprehend instinctively. Attack is satisfying. Attack can be cathartic.
|Nilton Santos, the first Brazilian fullback.|
Well, if attack can't be internalized next to the word fullback, a holding midfielder doesn't stand a chance. Still, it would be helpful if people could take the time to really think through the flip-side of it and realize what it requires from a team balance standpoint while also understanding that it doesn't especially matter where that balance comes from--at least for the sake of balance, per se--as long as it comes from somewhere. It would be helpful if people in general, and the Sky Sports chattering class in particular, could view player roles and returns based on the reality of seeking balance in varying systems rather than from a positional outlook stuck in a glorious past.
Of course even in those good old days some people looked at eleven players on the pitch and started to see something different than their English counterparts.
The modern 4-2-3-1 was born of Brazil's 4-2-2-2, a more tactically naive predecessor that quite consciously split the midfield into volantes and meias--defenders and attackers--while also introducing the concept of fullbacks as a separate entity from defenders as a whole to the world before Italy and Germany took the idea and put their own spin on it. In a lot of ways it is here that the move towards hyper-specific positions began, with the defense and midfield further broken into two groupings along with the formal addition of the concept of a free-roaming playmaker.
Certainly, then, the concept of midfielders who won't have the goal return of traditional English box-to-box midfielders along with fullbacks who won't display the defensive certainty of a good center back should have existed for long enough for people to have some intuitive understanding of the implications. Regardless of that, at the end of the day the 4-2-2-2 was not an especially more thoughtful system than the 4-4-2. It was smart in that it looked to exploit the sorts of players on hand and the empty spaces on the flanks often left by the opponents, creating a series of new positions in the process, yet it was not a system that sought to be consciously smart. Still, the hyper-specific attacking fullback--or just the Brazilian fullback to many--that this system did create, as well as the concept of a double-pivot system in midfield to cover for their forward runs, greatly informed the development of the 4-2-3-1.
The difference is that while the 4-2-2-2 was an intuitive filling of space to attack, the 4-2-3-1 sees the sorts of players created by that system and seeks to deploy them in a tactically astute way to control all facets of the game. With this move towards intellectual football it is the under-appreciated, often low-scoring holding midfielder who is the key to the puzzle. He doesn't have to create spectacular assists with speculative through balls, and he doesn't even have to be an especially burly destroyer snapping ankles as he shambles along. What he does have to be is smart, as it is his roll to change the angle of attack from the wings to the center of the park while simultaneously--if the system is working to its maximum--retaining the possibility of wide play while the extra man in midfield improves the chances for possession and gives time for the fullbacks to take up more advanced positions. He also needs to be able to read the game in real time and cover for vacated holes defensively, which would seem like it should be easy but so often doesn't appear to be so as most players approach the game as one more about passion than intellect. At least this seems the case with most English players.
Looked at in its most abstract form as though being diagrammed on a chalk-board, in the 4-4-2 (at left) you seek to commit six players to attack in the regular run of play, but if an attack begins to break down the most common players loitering just behind the attacking third who could be looked for in order to retain posession and re-build the failing attack are fullbacks stuck out near the touch line. This damages a team's ability to maintain possession in the final third--at least if you don't want to drop one of the midfielders further back, diminishing the number of players attacking the opponent's box--and makes switching play more difficult, as passes must be longer or time must be taken while more advanced players pull out of attack and transition back into a midfield game. As a result, even if the obvious opportunity doesn't present itself a hopeful ball in search of a half-chance is often seen as the best option. With the right forwards this can be an effective if simplistic approach, but it's accepting an attacking system with less potential to create top quality chances and that has a hard time bringing extra players into supporting positions around the box, and as such the only reason most clubs utilize it any more is because a simple game is just about all they feel their players are capable of.
On the other hand, a 4-2-3-1 (at right) seeks to keep those slightly reserved players--midfielders now instead of the wider fullbacks--in more central positions, allowing for a more dynamic, possession-based attack that looks to increase the creation of good chances as opposed to half chances. Now, if the chance isn't there at the first time of asking you have a player overseeing the center of the field who can be given the ball in a position to measure the opposition and quickly pick a pass to open it up before the defense can re-set. Or, if the pass isn't there, they may simply push it to the other wing where another wide attack can be undertaken from there. In the end it's about offensive flexibility and giving the players more options to chose from in attack. In defense, then, this player's central positioning also brings a more dynamic aspect to protecting against the break--though only as long as the player is tactically astute enough to make the right choices. Moreover, if a seventh player is to be added in an attempt at all out attack against a weakened opponent or to secure a desperate equalizer these midfielders' more central position allows more direct and immediate impact when joining play around the box.
Added to all this you also have the oft discussed presence of a numerical advantage in the center of the park. Win the numbers game and you can dominate possession in midfield; center the outlet man backing up play and you can more easily dominate possession in the final third; have players smart enough to fill the holding roll and you can do all this while remaining secure in defense. It's a step towards seeing possession as a weapon to be used against the opponent rather than a side effect of otherwise dominating play, and it is perhaps this more thoughtful attempt to posses instead of simply and mindlessly forcing the attack whether it is there or not that makes some uneasy and causes them to knock down players whose position and function they nevertheless claim to understand. It is also, in its purest form, capable of being a far more attacking system than the 4-4-2--which as it is historically understood commits fewer players to the attack while also remaining undermanned in the middle of the pitch. The 4-4-2 is much simpler, demands far less of many of its players as far as tactical understanding and ability to read the game, and as such it is admittedly easier to find an intuitive balance in it. It is, however, a tactically naive hold-over from the days when every manager was a Harry Redknapp telling his lads to just get out there and run around for a bit, and if one can successfully install a 4-2-3-1 on players smart enough to handle its demands, then its advantages will have a team running circles against a similarly talented club playing the more naive system.
Having said all that, time does have to be taken to acknowledge that just what the players are instructed to do within any set up will always play a rather large roll in how a team plays. As such some people would decry talk of formations and set ups as meaningless, saying you can tell a player to do anything no matter the formation and that as such talking about a formation being more attacking of better in the middle of the park is essentially useless. However, this ignores that common formations have generally developed out of the instruction sets given to players in a search to best capitalize on what talents they do have. We talk about 4-4-2s and 4-2-3-1s because certain sets of tactics, when looked at collectively, result in teams that tend to take up certain shapes. As such it it perhaps more accurate to say that it is not the formation which decides how players play and what rolls they fill, rather it is the roles they have been asked to fill that define the formation as a kind of short-hand that allows an intuitive understanding of the basic tactical outlook of the squad.
Rather than being meaninglessly variable, calling something the 4-2-3-1 is a simple way of saying all of the above about player roles and responsibilities, a way of explaining holding midfielders and attacking fullbacks without having to constantly explain attacking fullbacks and holding midfielders and the advantages to possession found in placing a fulcrum point in the middle of the park. Still, within that framework there remains room to tweak and twist things to best suit the players available. The purest such modification would be an intentionally imbalanced system that accepts that on the whole there are fewer good attacking left fullbacks and that if one does not have a top example of this rare breed they must adjust to deal with the reality that not everybody can dig up the next Roberto Carlos. There are, however, other ways to push against the basic structure and positional responsibility implied by this particular string of numbers that lead into territory wherein it becomes questionable if one is even discussing the 4-2-3-1 any more.
Perhaps the most interesting case is Jose Mourinho, whose system arguably owes more to a classical defensive 4-3-3 than the formation that, with slight individual variations, saw its original birth in Brazil before evolving towards what is now the defacto set-up of European national powers as disparate as Spain, the Netherlands, and the new look Germany. Though it is similarly based around a double-pivot system in midfield and has a lone out and out striker to aim for, the wide attacking midfielders in Mourinho's system are less purely interested in providing direct support around the box, splitting their duties in attack more evenly between that and providing width. As a good deal of the responsibility for providing width now falls to them, while at the same time the manager stresses an up-tempo counter game that gives less time for the fullbacks to move into advanced positions, said fullbacks begin to take up a generally more defensive posture and have fewer responsibilities. In it's most simple and abstract form the end result is the removal of one player from the attacking third while putting less pressure on the fullbacks and holding midfielders to correctly read an opponent's counter and effectively cover any holes left exposed by teammates still out of position. That Mourinho's need for and success with nurturing an oversized cult of personality has, perhaps up until this summer's recently passed World Cup, led many to think of the 4-2-3-1 as a purely defensive formation on the weight of his example would be almost forgivable if at the same time so many in the English press weren't entirely willing to forgive his "boring" set up while simultaneously railing against variations with far more attacking potential.
|Rafa is full of boring and dull.
Mourinho is full of awesome and win.
Don't mind the cognitive dissonance.
Continental audiences, though, seem to be able to look past his slick entertainment value long enough to notice that going from Pelligrini's modern 4-2-3-1 to Mourinho's 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid has resulted in far less attractive football being put on display at the Bernabéu. Meanwhile in Italy, Benitez' system might be written out the same on paper but seems to look far more attacking on the pitch while demanding more out of its players in order that it might allow a greater team commitment to attack. None of this, of course, is meant to brand Mourinho negatively as a tactician--his list of trophies won very much speaks to his qualities as a manager--but rather to point out the odd situation where many more offensive-minded managers are misguidedly painted as dull by an incurious English media who are all too eager to over-look his adherence to a decidedly destructive, quick-twitch take on the beautiful game while contorting into all sorts of bizarre shapes attempting to damn others based on the particular system he uses.
If Mourinho's take on the 4-2-3-1 looks back to an earlier era in search of greater defensive stability and more strictly defined positional roles, up the road in Barcelona Pep Guardiola is pushing the basic underlying principles of the modern 4-2-3-1 to their breaking point. Strictly speaking it may not be fair to even label his set up a variation of the 4-2-3-1, but despite dropping the double-pivot system in favor of a single holding midfielder it can be said to rely more on the basic concepts employed by the 4-2-3-1 than it does the similarly double-pivot 4-3-3: attacking fullbacks who might more fairly be called wingbacks for all that they're asked to be the primary providers of width, wide attacking midfielders who cut in more often than not, a fluid system in defense that accepts that gaping holes are an inevitable result of the method of attack and attempts to cover for that from midfield, and an attempt to retain possession in attack by funneling it through a central point on the pitch when no obvious chance to deliver from wide presents itself. All of these are the tactical hallmarks the modern 4-2-3-1 focuses on, albeit twisted into a gross, parodic extreme that on the surface at least appears to spit in the face of any concept of defense and a balance between it and attack.
Certainly Barcelona has shown that employing two wingbacks and only a single holding midfielder is a great way to concede goals if you give your opponent more than a small handful of opportunities. The modern 4-2-3-1 may have the potential to be a wonderfully balanced system, but when looking at how much you hurt the attack by removing just one player from it as Mourinho has or how much you undermine your ability to defend if you remove just one player from the other end as Guardiola has it becomes clear just how quickly any formation can become unbalanced even with world class players. One might even look to last year's Liverpool squad and point to the Mascherano-Lucas pairing removing, arguably at the least, a half a player from the offensive side of equation and the damage that did to the entire squad. Mourinho has seemingly made it work by relying heavily on counter-attacking football like any number of lower English sides, seeking to nick the odd goal before hanging on for dear life while enjoying the possession benefits of a five man midfield and the defensive security of having six players most concerned about that end of the pitch. Guardiola, on the other hand, has been able to make it work by adding a new element to the equation.
|The author after a jug of Kool-Aid.|
Every pundit, every paper, every person with half an interest in football and a pet fish to use as a captive audience has gone on about the need to balance attack with defense as some point. The need to find an uneasy balance between the two, based on the players at hand and system employed, is often the most easily identified tipping point between the relative success and failure of any club on the pitch. But what if you explicitly add a third element to formula of balance? What if, rather than being a symptom of a dominating team executing to perfection you make possession part of the cause, using it to artificially achieve a balance your offensive and defensive interplay could never hope to manage on its own? This, then, is what Guardiola has done. No doubt his job has been made easier by the footballing culture he exists within at a club that has always attempted to overcommit in attack, but that doesn't make the fundamental difference in approach any less important.
For Barcelona, possession isn't the result of a match well played: it causes it by allowing an extra player to be committed in attack while artificially covering for the defense's inevitably resulting frailties by ensuring that the opponent's chances to exploit its weakness are kept to a bare minimum. They believe in possession as much as others believe in attack and defense, and not just because it means they've played well and effectively balanced attack and defense. It's a subtle change to how one approaches the game, but it is a change nonetheless. And therein lies a secret: your club doesn't actually have to be Barcelona to play something like them and have a reasonable level of success doing so. Your players just need to believe. And it doesn't hurt if the fans believe just a little bit, too. Everybody has to know that when the ball gets cycled back to the goalkeeper for the sixth time in a five minute spell of possession that hasn't sniffed the opponent's six yard box that it's okay. Players can't become frustrated and whip hopeful balls into the box, and the fans can't get restless and begin to grumble, because that possession allows you to stack the deck in favour of your offense; it allows you to commit more to attack with less risk than any other squad out there, and if you can just have faith, then sooner or later the numbers game will play in your favor more often than not. Because that's what it is: a numbers game where you've just found a way to cheat the system and commit an extra player to attack.
Certainly it's true that Liverpool would not be as good playing Barcelona's game as Barcelona is, but to say that would be to ignore the simple truth that a squad full of great players executing a system to the height of their abilities will always be better than a squad of merely very good players doing the same thing. Beyond that, though, it's not a certainty that such a system would be the one best suited to the collected talent at Liverpool or any other club. Nonetheless, to view Barcelona's style as being somehow beyond what mere mortals could hope to accomplish is nothing but an inability--or unwillingness--to embrace the formula-changing power of possession with the faith of a blind zealot.
Committing one more player to the attack is a fairly simple idea. Doing so while having a disproportionately small negative effect on defense isn't, however, a miracle, and any squad with a hint of tactical intelligence could do the same relative to their overall level of talent. All it would take is a little belief, and with the 4-2-3-1 already taking baby steps towards viewing possession as valuable weapon on the pitch the day when a few others are willing to take that leap of faith might not be too far off. Some are coming close, practitioners like Rijkaard and Wenger being the obvious examples, but both appear to approach possession football as an aesthetic choice, believing it can win, certainly, but undertaking it in the belief that it's the right way to play the game rather than in the understanding that it can be a game changer. Del Bosque, one might argue, does fully understand it though his predecessor Aragonés was another who approached with the viewpoint that one could win with such a style and as such must try to from a standpoint of the football moralist.
In del Bosque's case however, unlike with Guardiola, there appears to be a fascination with possession as a tool to make the defense more robust without significantly detracting from attack rather than making the attack more robust without significantly damaging one's defensive ability. In short, del Bosque appears as though he may fully buy into possession as a tactical game changer, but he views it from a much more simplistic and defensive standpoint. He sees "If we have the ball they cannot score" and buys into it with a true believer's zeal, but he does not see it as a cudgel with which to sweep aside all in his path moving forward, and as such he is only choosing to play a giant game of keep away at the end of the day. But others will buy into it, and if not now, then soon. Maybe it'll even be down to Blackpool's Ian Holloway if he can keep his side up long enough.
Towards the end, then, after slowly drifting away from the 4-2-3-1, there is room to ponder some of the shortcomings of this most current of tactical formations. It can be narrow, certainly, and attacks can be slow to develop. Often the players best suited to playing it aren't the best at playing on the counter as it encourages a move towards smaller, more technical forwards who often aren't quite as dominating aerially. Yet even with these shortcoming its ability to control games and dominate midfield has lead to a general consensus that it has made the 4-4-2 and its dusty variations largely obsolete--or that it has so long as one has players with the aptitude to play in its more demanding system. Some wonder, though, what has happened to true and natural wide play, and if there's any way to get it back without sacrificing the midfield battle.
|Kaka: first result for "zona mista."
I'll wait while you check.
As was hinted at recently in comments here, a set up with three central defenders might hold the key. Looking back to move forward, there are some intriguing possibilities to be found in the old Italian Zona Mista set up. Certainly it was never considered the most attacking system in its heyday, but with two true wingbacks getting forward more naturally than the nominal fullbacks in the 4-2-3-1, and three midfielders in the center of the pitch to join with them in a de facto five man grouping in possession, it offers the potential for greater width without conceding the middle of the park. It does out of necessity remove one player from attack in the forward third, however with width that is both more natural and earlier to arrive it encourages a heavier dose of crossing and the return of the towering center forward to act as a pylon to whip the ball at. The end result is likely a faster, less possession based game once the players move out of the middle third and into attacking areas, a system that shares some of what many see as the strong points of the 4-4-2 when they gaze nostalgically at it while at the same time covering for some of that set-up's shortcomings. In the end, then, losing an extra player hovering around the eighteen yard box to help control possession in the final third becomes less of an issue when you're consciously set up to feed off crosses and half-chances in the air.
Perhaps things will go in an entirely different direction of course, but if I had to wager on where top teams who realize the 4-4-2 has passed its best-by date but want the option of employing more wide play in attack to target the deficiencies of the 4-2-3-1 will end up heading in a few years, a more attack minded 5-3-2 would be my bet. Three central defenders focus on the area most directly attacked by high caliber 4-2-3-1 outfits while freeing up the wingbacks to be almost entirely attacking; possession in the middle of the park isn't conceded; and an aerial game in attack focuses on a weakness of many more technical sides.
Or maybe next year everybody will be playing the 4-4-2 again and it will turn out to have always been the ideal counter for the 4-2-3-1 only nobody noticed it. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Probably not many of them.
|Eventually you have to move on or it will destroy you.|
One thing I am sure of, though, is that there will always be a place on any team for a player or two who make a living just doing their job quietly and effectively, being neat and tidy and not making many mistakes. Whether that place is at left back or in midfield or somewhere else entirely will depend upon the particular set up, but it will nevertheless exist. When you do have a tidy and composed player with the tactical sense to fill such a required roll it is then unfair in the extreme for them to be judged based on a gross naivety of modern tactics and a terminal case of nostalgia for 1966, the good old days when fullbacks were fullbacks and midfielders were midfielders and the boys could just run out there and win with naught but guts and heart and passion.
The same goes for when you attack an attacking fullback for his defensive frailties rather than seeking to build a squad and system that caters to his strengths while masking those weaknesses. The game evolves, whether you want it to or not, and remembering a bright history becomes a hinderance when you stubbornly refuse to move past it because it's served you well for 35 years.