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4-3-3, 4-4-2, 3-5-2, these are all tactical formations we are familiar with,

But right now in the Premier League in particular, 4-2-3-1 is ‘de rigour’.

Is another tactical switch about to move through football?Nearly everyone plays it and it has been as the saviour of the modern game. We ask, are there signs that 4-2-3-1 had its’ time in the sun?

The Premier League is awash with cash right now and has just enjoyed another bumper transfer window with phenomenal sums of money being spent. The problem is right now the product isn’t very good. Top teams are struggling and English teams are making little impact in European competition currently.

Until the arrival of Jose Mourinho in 2004 on English shores, English clubs had almost exclusively prospered through playing 4-4-2 with the only tip to tactical flexibility being offered in the form of a 4-4-1-1 if a team had a Bergkamp, Cantona, Sheringham or a Zola. Even a coach seen as hugely forward thinking, Arsene Wenger saw his best teams play in this fashion.

Mourinho showed up at Chelsea, set them up in a 4-3-3 and took the league by storm, in his first two seasons they swept all before them domestically and challenged strongly in Europe. His ‘overload’ of the central midfield via the ‘3’ simply caught the Premier League unaware.

Sir Alex Ferguson had attempted to offer more flexibility in Europe previously and his ill fated move for Juan Sebastian Veron was an attempt to change United’s shape and pattern of play, but at that point such was the excellence of Keane and Scholes, it simply didn’t work. United reverted to 4-4-2.

Two other teams were also beginning to catch the eye in Europe in terms of formation and style of play, AC Milan and Barcelona. AC Milan had been starting to play some wonderful football employing a midfield diamond with Pirlo at the base and Kaka at the tip and Barcelona first directed first by the wand of Ronaldinho who then passed his magic hat to Lionel Messi.

Barcelona (and Spain) of course have been responsible for changing the way that football is perceived. Barcelona’s total football and incredible levels of possession took the breath away as they became the dominant force in Europe. Barcelona had even taken away the need for a striker we were told with the birth of the false nine.

Whilst teams could not hope to reach their level, many tried to mimic at least parts of their play and the 4-2-3-1 was born. Teams tore up their team sheets, the box to box midfielder was rendered redundant, required to reinvent themselves as a holding midfielder or an attacking player. Wingers became old fashioned inside forwards and full backs became wingers. And one in two strikers found themselves out of a job.

Since the inception of the Premier League, English football has always been an ever increasing oxymoron. More and more foreign players yet apparently no improvement in technical nor tactical play, the crowd after all still wants blood and thunder. 4-2-3-1 however would change all this, this was the new way to play football we were told.

The problem however with trying to imitate Barcelona is two fold. One is the personnel. If you have the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Messi all at their peaks, the formation almost doesn’t matter, you’ll win most times regardless. AC Milan’s diamond worked because you had Pirlo and Kaka at the base and tip, two players who were peerless in those positions at the time.

The second is that teams – and Arsenal are the perfect example – simply want to imitate parts of their play and in particular the endless possession. This doesn’t mean that you have the cutting edge to convert that possession into goals. Some of Barcelona’s best play was whilst they had David Villa before his injury.

But the real key to Barca’s play was their play without the ball. Barcelona destroyed teams by pressing to an almost manic level so high up the pitch. Teams simply could not cope being pushed back so far into their own halves and they folded. They also had Sergio Busquets who is simply a silent assassin and a master of the dark arts – every team should have one.

Premier League teams in general either have players who don’t work hard enough or lack the tactical appreciation and simply run around everywhere at 100 miles an hour (Wayne Rooney).

4-4-2 has worked so well in England because it is the simplest formation to play. The centre backs and centre forwards form partnerships and then the fullbacks, wingers and central midfielders are required to do one thing, run hard and play box to box. Because it so simple to execute, it has always worked and is also why the likes of a mercurial talent such as Glenn Hoddle didn’t fit in. Paul Scholes is far more revered in Europe than he is in England for the same reason.

Returning to Mourinho’s first Chelsea and their 4-3-3, again personnel were the key. Chelsea had Claude Makelele who sat in front of the back four and allowed Frank Lampard to rampage forward. With no ‘No10’ to get in his way, Lampard had free space in front of him and also had a wrecking ball in human form next to him in the shape of the wonderful (pre-injury) Michael Essien. But again, Didier Drogba was key to his also. His ability to hold the ball up and win fouls was superb but he also had the pace to run in behind defenders, he was the complete lone striker.

The focus on 4-2-3-1 is ignoring almost entirely the issue that most teams don’t have suitable personnel to play the formation. There is a current obsession with players who are neither strikers nor midfielders in the division. Players such as Willian, Eriksen, Ozil, Sanchez, Januzaj and Mata are examples. These are players that would have been either wingers or possibly a withdrawn striker in a 4-4-2.

The current system leans heavily on these players to not just provide a high level of the chances but also to score them. The other problem is the roles of the defensive midfielders and the lone striker. Amongst the top teams in England, there are only a handful of players naturally suited to playing a holding role. Chelsea have Mikel and Matic, City have Ferdandinho and Fernando, United, Carrick and Schweinsteiger, Arsenal, Coquelin and Liverpool possibly have Lucas Leiva and Emre Can.

Too many players such as Fabregas, Toure, Cazorla and even bizarrely last season Wayne Rooney are being played in deep lying roles that don’t showcase the best of their talents. Against the best teams in Europe their defensive shortcomings are there for all to see.

The system is also throwing up a lone striker conundrum that most teams simply don’t have the type of striker who thrives playing on their own. Diego Costa, Giroud, Benteke and Kane would all benefit from having a second striker playing off them. The likes of Walcott, Aguero and Rooney would all benefit from having a central striker for them to play off. Suarez was probably the last striker in the Premier League fully equipped to play on his own.

Barcelona are now playing a far more pragmatic 4-3-3 and the reality is in Neymar, Messi and Suarez they have two out and out strikers and Messi who just transcends any rules of position. They have goals a plenty in the team as well as a more compact central three even allowing for Andres Iniesta now that Ivan Rakitic has arrived.

Real Madrid likewise have Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema, three players with a wonderful goal pedigree, most Premier League teams simply don’t have enough goals in their team right now and are playing formations which don’t offer cover for the fullbacks either in the way a traditional winger would be expected to do so.

Juventus have currently moved to a 3-5-2 in another signal of tactics evolving again. One can argue the merits of three at the back but again, it is putting two strikers up top again – which adds goals. Whilst a reversion to 4-4-2 feels slightly ‘stone age’ there is little doubt that most strikers would benefit from having a strike partner, so possibly a diamond is the solution. 4-3-3 solves the midfield balance but puts several No.10’s out of work and doesn’t solve the lone striker issue.

One other solution is 4-3-1-2 which Garry Monk switched his Swansea side to against United at the weekend. It shores up the midfield and gives the striker a partner to work with. Certainly 4-2-3-1 is beginning to find its’ limitations and United looked to have no answers. The Premier League has spent a fortune on players again this Summer but the tactics are looking questionable and if there is a tactical shift in the game then the squads suddenly look very unbalanced. Rarely have we seen a Mourinho team look so fragile.

Could we soon be seeing job adverts soon for box to box midfielders and extra strikers again? And will attacking midfielders be looking for jobs in turn? We wait for the football tactics wheel to turn again.

Originally published at oneshotfootball.com

Post written by Steven McBain
for One Shot Football, Blog: One Shot Football, Twitter: @O_S_Football

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