All talk of Roy Hodgson aside, the biggest news for Liverpool this week will almost certainly end up being that Lucas Leiva has signed a new contract after a time when observers were left to wonder if it would ever happen and whispers flew that with only a year left on his old one, perhaps the club was planning to offload him in the summer after all. With that sorted, and with many opinions of the player's worth shifting dramatically in recent months, it seems fitting to revisit an exploration of the role he fills for Liverpool--along with a whole pile of stuff ranging from attacking fullbacks to the 4-2-2-2 to the possible role for three man defenses--from way back at the start of October of last year. This revised version is primarily edited for clarity and to generally tighten things up; the original remains in the archives.
Ashley Cole was Chelsea's starting left fullback in 2009-10 when they won the league, a season in which he scored four goals and added five assists in forty-three matches across all competitions. It was a solid return for a fullback, perhaps more in line with what one would expect from a midfielder. Which makes sense since the naturally narrow 4-4-2 diamond system Chelsea employed that season placed offensive expectations on the fullbacks roughly comparable to those of a classic English box-to-box midfielder.
|Better than United's best,
not good enough for Liverpool.
To the north, Manchester United and France fullback Patrice Evra tallied a much less impressive three assists and zero goals in fifty-five matches, twelve more games than Cole played in. And in Liverpool, Emiliano Insua tallied a goal and five helpers in forty-one appearances, a per minute return far closer to that of Cole than Evra, yet the fact that as an attacking fullback he had a far better return than his at times similarly defensively shaky United counterpart was a fact seemingly lost when the cries of "Not Liverpool quality" began as the season wore to an end and fans began to seek out scapegoats.
Meanwhile, Lucas Leiva recorded a mere two assists for Liverpool, also over forty-one matches. Or about the same return as Evra. The only difference was that, perhaps counter-intuitively at first glance, Evra's primary purpose on the pitch for United was to support the offense and provide width. Lucas' primary purpose was defensive, freeing up Insua and Johnson to provide width. To find a like for like comparison for the sorts of statistics one would expect from a player filling the role Lucas was, one must instead look towards the less mobile breed of fullback normally found in a flat, deep-lying back four, a largely obsolete defensive system amongst top clubs. Paul Konchesky, to grab an obvious example, recorded one assist with Fulham in 2009-10 in the system where like Lucas he was tasked to be one of the four most defensive outfield players. That some will quickly suggest neither is good enough for a trophy winning side misses the point, because their ability to contribute as such a level would not be represented in their offensive statistics, though at least in Konchesky's case most would agree that his defensive abilities are similarly lacking and as such rather more relevant to such discussion.
Certainly it can be hard for supporters to properly manage expectations when the reality doesn't line up with long-held ways of seeing the world. They look at a fullback like Glen Johnson or Emiliano Insua and ask why he gets caught up the pitch, ask why his marking is at times sub-standard, and why he needs to be given support from defensive midfielders who are frustratingly non-productive. Yet for most top sides, defensive duties are a secondary responsibility for such players, while for the sake of team balance it would foolish to simply throw the fullbacks forward without a conscious attempt to compensate for that. In the past, in the days of the 4-4-2 and flat back lines, the bulk of the defensive responsibilities fell to four players. Now, while the center backs still remain almost purely defensive, the fullbacks are often asked to be primarily attacking, and so it only stands to reason that players from elsewhere on the pitch will have to think more defensively as a result. The balance between offense and defense across the entire side remains largely the same, but the individual roles have changed.
In a sport 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 remain painfully slow in fully internalizing the foreign nature of systems like the 4-2-3-1 even if they mouth the phrases "holding midfielder" and "attacking fullback." They claim to understand the idea of a defensive midfielder, yet then complain when the primarily defensive midfielder doesn't take the game by the scruff of the neck and impose his will on the attack. As for Lucas' role with Liverpool, whether or not he's capable of more in England over the long-run, in the present it has never been about providing offensive wizardry any more than it was Konchesky's roll to provide such at Fulham. His job is to cover for the fullbacks and switch play, to aid in the possession battle and cover against the counter, 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. Team balance, the balancing of attack with defending to maximize the chances of scoring while minimizing the chances of conceding, sounds fairly simple. It at least shouldn't be as difficult a concept to wrap one's head around as some tend to make out.
Conversely, to dismiss an attacking fullback because they make too many defensive errors is to fundamentally misunderstand their purpose as well. Certainly they must still have some basic level of competence in defense, but if one is incapable, deep down, of really understanding what the "attack" in attacking fullback entails and that one can't expect them to provide offensive width while being as sound at the back as the likes of Jamie Carragher in his prime might have been, it's probably far too much to expect a widespread understanding of the purpose of a holding midfielder at an instinctive level. After all, attack attack attack is always a far more visceral concept, easy for the animal brain to comprehend. Attack is satisfying. Attack can be cathartic.
|Nilton Santos, the first Brazilian fullback.
Yet if attack can't be internalized next to the word fullback, a holding midfielder doesn't stand a chance. Still, it would still be nice to see more people at least try, and perhaps some fans are to a greater degree even if the likes of the talking heads on Sky Sports don't seem capable of viewing player roles and returns based on the necessity of seeking balance in systems that may not approach the game as though it was still the glorious past many of them remain stuck in. And of course, even in that glorious past not everybody looked at eleven players on the pitch and saw quite the same things as their English counterparts.
The modern 4-2-3-1 was born of Brazil's 4-2-2-2, a system that quite consciously split the midfield into volantes and meias--defenders and attackers, roughly speaking, though with a high priority placed on the volantes being able to cycle play effectively--while also introducing the concept of fullbacks as a separate species of defender before nations like Italy and Germany took that idea and put their own spin on it.
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. Still, in the beginning, the 4-2-2-2 wasn't a great deal more thoughtful than the 4-4-2 of its time. It was smart in that it looked to exploit the sorts of players available and the empty spaces on the flanks often left by opponents, creating a series of new positions in the process, but it was more instinctive than intellectual, largely leacking the hyper-specific roles that have developed over time as good managers put more time and thought into countering opponents and then countering the counters of their counters. Still, the basic idea of an attacking fullback--or the Brazilian fullback to some--that this system did create, as well as the concept of a double-pivot system in midfield to cover for their forward runs while defending with four men in the most dangerous central areas opponents sought to attack, greatly informed the eventual development of the 4-2-3-1 and more tactically astute variations of the 4-2-2-2.
And with this move towards intellectual football, it is the often under-appreciated, 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 and back again while allowing the possibility of quality width to develop as the fullbacks move towards 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 as though it should be easy but so often doesn't appear to be, as most players approach the game as one more about passion than intellect. At least this seems the case with most English players, though Paul Scholes in the past and Jack Wilshire in the present seem obvious exceptions to the rule, and have as a result often been exceptions that the English national team and media haven't quite known what to do with.
Looked at in its basic, idealised form, the 4-4-2 (left) seeks to commit six players to attack, but if an attack breaks down the players most likely to be waiting just behind the attacking third who could be looked for to retain posession and re-build that failing attack are fullbacks stuck out near touch and back down the pitch. This hurts the team's ability to maintain possession in the final third--at least if one doesn't want to drop one of the midfielders further back, removing a player who might otherwise attack the opponent's box--and makes switching play more difficult. As a result, even if an obvious opportunity doesn't present itself, a hopeful ball in search of a half-chance often becomes the best option. With towering center forwards this can be an effective if agricultural approach, but it's still 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 would consider it is if they felt their players weren't technically capable of executing a pass and move game. Though even then, sides like Blackpool have shown that with enough emphasis on it in training, just about any side can achieve success relative to--or even above--their general skill level by embracing a more technical approach.
On the other hand, a 4-2-3-1 (right) seeks to keep those slightly reserved players--midfielders now instead of fullbacks--in more central positions, allowing for more opportunities in attack. Now, if a chance isn't there at the first time of asking, there is a supporting player in the center of the park who can quickly be given the ball in a position to measure the opposition and pick a pass before the defense can re-set. Or, if no attacking outlet exists, they can push it back to the wing where another attack can begin without having to win possession back after hopefully lumping the ball into the box. In the end, it's about offensive flexibility and giving the players more options to chose from in attack. Meanwhile, since the four most defensive outfield players are all fairly central, in defense this also brings a more dynamic aspect to protecting against the break, at least as long as the players are tactically astute enough to make the right decisions. Moreover, if a seventh player is to be added in an all out attack in search of a desperate equalizer, at least these holding midfielders are more centrally located to attack the box, even if such attacking may not be their specialty.
Additionally there is also the issue of a straight numerical advantage in the center of the park. Win the numbers game in midfield and it's easier to dominate possession there; center the outlet men backing up play and it's easier 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 also a step towards seeing possession as a weapon to be used against the opponent rather than a simple side effect of dominating play, since the time it takes the fullbacks to move forward requires a considered build-up where passing it square becomes an inarguable virtue, at least for a time. It is perhaps this more measured desire to posses rather than mindlessly forcing the attack whether it is there or not that makes some uncomfortable, as it lacks the instant gratification of action and bustle. However, if one can accept that the extra time taken has a longer-term payoff, then in its purest form such an approach can actually be a more attacking system than the 4-4-2, committing at least as many players forward while supporting them from more central--and as such more dangerous--positions. Telling the boys to get out there and just run around for a bit might speak to the heart, but if one can successfully install a 4-2-3-1 on players smart enough to handle its demands, then its advantages in all three phases of the game will have a team running circles around a similarly talented club playing a more naive system.
Having said all that, time does have to be taken to acknowledge that just what players are instructed to do within any set up will always play a large roll in how a team plays. As such some might decry talk of formations as meaningless, saying you can tell a player to do anything, no matter the formation, and so talk of a formation being more attacking or better in the middle of the park is essentially useless. However, this ignores that common formations have generally developed as shorthand to describe the positional instruction sets given to players. We talk about teams playing a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, or of a side instead playing a more defensive 4-5-1, because certain sets of tactics, when looked at collectively, result in teams that tend to take up certain shapes.
Rather than being meaninglessly variable, calling something a 4-2-3-1 is a simple way of saying a great deal 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 advantage to possession found when you place a fulcrum point centrally in the form of a player like Lucas Leiva instead of out near touch with a player like Paul Konchesky. Still, within that framework there remains room to tweak and twist things to best suit the available talent. The most common modifications are intentionally imbalanced systems that accept, for example, that there are fewer quality attacking left fullbacks and that if one does not have an example of this rare breed they must adjust to it by having a more naturally wide left footed player in that left attacking midfield role, and usually also by releasing one of the holding midfielders into a more box-to-box role. There are, however, other ways to push against the basic structure and positional responsibility implied by this particular string of numbers that leads into territory where it becomes questionable if one is even discussing the 4-2-3-1 any more.
Perhaps the most interesting case is Jose Mourinho, whose preferred system in recent years arguably owes more to a classical defensive 4-3-3 than the 4-2-2-2. Though his system is similarly based around a double-pivot system in midfield, with a lone out and out striker to aim for, the wide attacking midfielders in Mourinho's system are more traditional providers of width. With much of that responsibility falling to them, while at the same time the manager stresses an up-tempo counter game that doesn't give time for the fullbacks to properly move into advanced positions, those fullbacks begin to take up a generally more defensive posture and have fewer attacking responsibilities. In it's most simple and abstract form the end result is the removal of at least 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 nurturing an outsized 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.
Going from Pelligrini's modern take on the 4-2-2-2 to Mourinho's 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-5-1/call it what you will hybrid has resulted in far less attractive football being put on display this season at the Bernabéu, and meanwhile the club is set to collect fewer points than they did under their former manager before he was driven out of town. Meanwhile in Italy, Rafa Benitez' system was in some quarters deemed too attacking for the Italian league, and too demanding for players fat and happy on the back of winning every trophy in sight. That he was let go certainly suggests he got it wrong, but despite often being considered proponents of the same system there is very little in common between one approach that sees a relatively flat back line and plays on the counter, with a striker removed in favour of defensive surety, and another system that looks to move the entire side forward using possession and overwhelm the box in numbers despite only having a single striker.
None of this is meant to brand Mourinho negatively--his list of trophies very much speaks for itself--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 then praise him to the heavens. His 4-2-3-1 is certainly negative, but that doesn't mean all are, especially with top national sides like Spain and germany using exceptionally attacking variations of it, while Brazil is returning to the closely related modern 4-2-2-2 that relies heavily on possession to build attacks.
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 from him in Barcelona Pep Guardiola is pushing the basic underlying principles of the modern 4-2-3-1 to their breaking point in another direction. Strictly speaking, like with Mourinho it may not be fair to 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 relies more on the basic concepts employed by the 4-2-3-1 school than it does the similarly double-pivot classical 4-3-3 that underlies Mourinho's: 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 and are required to track back conscientiously, a fluid system in defense that accepts that there will be gaping holes when a player inevitably makes the wrong read, 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 defense and team balance.
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. Mourinho has made it work by relying heavily on counter-attacking football like any number of lower English sides, a creator of superstar-studded Blackburns 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 six players primarily concerned with defense. Guardiola, on the other hand, has been able to make his imbalanced side work by adding another element to the equation.
|Big Daddy P: sharp suits, sharper tactics.
The need to find an uneasy balance between attack and defense 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. But there are ways to cheat the system. One is to use possession to artificially balance an undermanned defense with its overpowered offensive counterpart. This 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 and mindset any less important.
For Barcelona, possession isn't the result of a match well played. Instead, it causes it by allowing an extra player to be committed in attack while artificially covering for the defense's resulting frailties by severely limiting the opponent's chances to exploit it. It's a subtle change to how one approaches the game, but it is a change nonetheless, at least from an English perspective where possession that at times seems to be for little more than the sake of possession is looked upon skeptically. And that's part of the secret, that a 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.
Though 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, well, that'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 a team to stack the deck in favour of the offense. It allows a greater commitment to attack with less risk. And if you can just have faith in possession, then sooner or later the numbers game will play in your favor more often than not. Because that's what it is at the end of the day: a numbers game where you've just found a way to cheat the system and commit an extra player to attack while curtailing your opponents chances to capitalise on an undermanned defense.
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.
With the 4-2-3-1 helping some take baby steps towards viewing possession as valuable weapon on the pitch, the day when others are willing to take that leap of faith might not be too far off. Some have come close, practitioners of the Dutch legacy like Rijkaard and Wenger being obvious examples, but both approach possession football as a largely 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 with the understanding that it can be a game changer. Del Bosque with the Spanish national side, one might argue, does fully understand it, though his predecessor Aragonés was another who approached tiki-taka with the viewpoint that when one could win with such a style it became an imperative of the football moralist to do so.
In Del Bosque's case however, unlike with Guardiola, there appears to be a fascination with possession as a tool to make the defense even more robust without significantly detracting from attack rather than making the attack more robust without significantly damaging one's defensive ability. Or, Del Bosque appears as though he may fully buy into possession as a tactical game changer, but he views it from a much more conservative viewpoint. His approach seems to say, "If we have the ball they cannot score," and then buys into it with a true believer's zeal that offers a chess-master's counterpoint to Guardiola's killer instinct.
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 as dominating aerially, and so it does result in sides that can at times be kicked to death by the Stokes of the world. 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 largely obsolete for top sides at both the club and country level. There's reason to wonder, though, what the best counter for this narrow 4-2-3-1 world might be.
|Apparently Steve Clarke is a big fan
of the Liverpool Offside.
It is even conceivable that a set up with three central defenders might hold the key, at least in the short term. 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 or four midfielders in the center of the pitch to join with them in a de facto five/six man grouping in possession, it offers the potential for greater width without conceding the middle of the park. While it does remove one player from attack in the final third, with width arriving sooner from the wingbacks it might allow some team or teams to return to the days of aiming crosses at towering center forwards without having to concede the midfield battle as in the 4-4-2. The end result would likely be a faster, less possession based game once the players moved out of that middle third and into attacking areas, and as such it might end up a system that shares some of what many see as the strong points of the 4-4-2 as they gaze with nostalgia while at the same time covering for some of that formation's shortcomings in the modern game.
Meanwhile, against top sides that often play consciously narrow formations, the three central defenders and two wingbacks would likely not be forced into a situation where either the center backs are pulled wide, exposing the central areas, or the wingbacks are pinned back into a needlessly defensive five man back line. This was the dilemma that in the past led to the downfall of three center backs as a viable defensive system, but in a cyclical world it's entirely possible that many current sides wouldn't be able to set up to effectively pressure the three center back defense's Achilles heel.
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--yet still want the option of employing more natural wide play in attack to target the deficiencies of the 4-2-3-1--will end up heading in a few years, an attack minded system based on the 3-5-2 would be my bet. 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 that nobody ever noticed. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Though probably not many.
|Eventually you have to move on or it will destroy you.
One thing that seems certain, 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 for the sake of balance. And when you do have a tidy and composed player with the tactical sense to fill such a required roll, it is unfair that they be judged based on a terminal case of nostalgia for 1966 and 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 people seek to attack an attacking fullback for any defensive frailties rather than looking to build a squad and system that caters to their 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 of those past glories.