July 14, 2010


What next for 4-4-2?: British football's favourite formation isn't dead – but the World Cup proved the future of 4-4-2 looks bleak (Jonathan Wilson, 14 July 2010, The Guardian)

Johan Cruyff got stuck in as well last week – not particularly surprisingly given his lifelong ideological insistence on 4-3-3 – pointing out that "the numbers don't match up" and explaining that a system of three straight bands doesn't lend itself to the creation of passing triangles. This has always been an axiom: all else being equal, a triangle will always beat a line, and the Cruyff mode of play has always been predicated on the creation of triangles. A 4-2-3-1, with its W shape in midfield, is essentially comprised of interlocking triangles.

Which raises the question of why, if 4-4-2's disadvantages are so obvious, it has survived for so long? To start with, it should be made clear that Cruyff is speaking about his particular vision of football, which is rooted in ball possession and pressing, something that caused him, even before the game, to align himself with Spain rather than Holland in the World Cup final. That is one way to play – and the recent success of Barcelona and Spain shows it is a successful way to play – but it certainly isn't the only way. That a short-passing, technique-based game isn't for everybody was demonstrated very clearly in a tournament in which many people preferred the more dynamic, if more reactive, football of Germany.

Those passing triangles are only important for a side looking to dominate possession. For a side looking to disrupt that, 4-4-2 can be extremely effective – the famous "two banks of four" that for a long time seemed to be such a feature of any English team playing an away game in European competition. Fulham showed last season how effective the style can still be. Sit the midfield line deep on the back four so there is minimal space between the lines for attacking midfielders or deep-lying forwards to exploit, and it becomes very hard to penetrate. It doesn't matter how many triangles you create if you never get the ball closer than 35 yards from the opposition goal. [...]

Perhaps it is just about conceivable that, if players could be persuaded to put their egos to one side (and that could be an issue for Roy Hodgson if he attempts to apply the Fulham system at Liverpool this season), a club team could still be drilled into an effective pressing 4-4-2, but achieving that level of discipline is an exhausting, demoralisingly boring process that became too much even for Milan after three seasons; it was very hard to implement then, with the change in the offside law and players enjoying greater freedom to change clubs it is even harder now. At international level, anyway, where the time available to work with players is limited and they are fatigued by club commitments, it is impossible, something even Sacchi was forced to acknowledge.

What the World Cup has done is to expose the problems 4-4-2 without hard pressing faces, and not just in terms of being outnumbered in midfield; with the stretching of the effective playing area, the midfield band can become exposed, with space in front of it and space behind it. That gap between defensive and midfield lines was precisely the space Mesut Ozil exploited so well in the first half of Germany's victory over England (this space, as Matthias Sindelar, Alfred Bickel, Laszlo Kubala, Nandor Hidegkuti, Pelé, Günter Netzer,Diego Maradona, Ruud Gullit, Zinedine Zidane, Rui Costa and Juan Román Riquelme and countless others have demonstrated, has always been a problem for England, and that weakness is one of the reasons Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola were so successful in the Premier League in the 90s). Quite apart from the furious search for immediate justice that followed the non-award of a goal after Frank Lampard's shot had crossed the line, it may be that a desire to compress that area was partly behind England's suicidally high line in the second half of that game.

As Spain accidentally showed, it's danged hard to score out of those triangles and impossible to score through the middle if the opponent just keeps two central defender and two defensive midfielders in position. The problems were compounded for Spain because they have no striker sizable enough to receive balls played in from the wings. The only time they look threatening in the box is on set pieces, where they can bring their bigger defenders forward.

A year ago, in the Confederations Cup, the US had this defensive set up down pat, but Gooch and DeMerit were both healthy and Michael Bradley was content to defend. Take Gooch and Ricardo Clark out, give Bradley and Feilhaber offensive responsibilities and you've imploded your own formation from within.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 14, 2010 5:58 AM
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