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Friday, August 14, 2009

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Tactics: Return of the 4-4-2

The Question: Is 4-4-2 making a comeback?

Chelsea and Manchester United both employed variations on 4-4-2 in the Community Shield — are we set for a resurgence of the traditionalists' favourite formation?

Chelsea vs Manchester United

Chelsea captain John Terry goes close with a header against Manchester United. Photograph: Gerry Penny/EPA

So much for the inevitable march of progress. As we come to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the two sides rated by the bookmakers as the best in England raised the curtain on the new season by lining up against each other in variations of 4-4-2.

Chelsea, admittedly, tried to make it look as though they were still playing with a lone striker by fielding an anonymous Nicolas Anelka alongside Didier Drogba, but still, this was discernibly a diamond midfield. United's system was rather more fluid, with Wayne Rooney dropping off Dimitar Berbatov and Nani, on the left, given a more attacking brief than Park Ji-sung, who tucked in on the right, while keeping half an eye on Ashley Cole's forward darts.

The pundits who have told us incessantly that they like to see a team paying "two up top" must be delighted, as must those who have hailed Carlo Ancelotti's switch away from the 4-1-2-3 that they have used almost since Jose Mourinho's arrival (although he too started off with the diamond he had used in winning the Champions League with Porto) as a turn towards attacking football.

But let's get this clear, for this is one of the prime fallacies in discussions of tactics: 4-4-2 is neither more nor less attacking than 4-1-2-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1 or any of the other variants of 4-5-1. Formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them positive or negative qualities.

The move to the single forward

United's abandonment of what others called 4-4-2 (Sir Alex Ferguson claims never to have used it, and the deployment of Eric Cantona, Dwight Yorke and Teddy Sheringham as deep-lying second strikers certainly meant that they were never as constrained by the three rigid bands as most other English sides) was prompted by Manchester United's 3-2 defeat to Real Madrid in 2000. Although United were not as outplayed as many would later claim – and were undone as much by bad defending as anything else – the defeat was seemingly enough to convince Ferguson of the need to dismantle the old formation, to find a way of introducing less predictable talents, dribblers who could beat their man without the need for acceleration room, rather than chargers and crossers.

To do that, though, necessitated a defensive platform, and so began the shift towards 4-2-3-1, which went through its uneasy teething with Juan Sebastián Verón, and reached its glorious culmination two seasons ago with a shape that, with Rooney and Carlos Tevez drifting, and Cristiano Ronaldo swooping in from the right, threatened at times to do away with a conventional centre-forward altogether. The move to a single forward, in other words, was attacking in origin.

What makes the misconception all the more frustrating is that English football seemed to have learned the lesson that football is a holistic game and that fewer attackers does not necessarily mean less attacking or more defenders more defending during the 1990 World Cup. John Barnes and Chris Waddle, asked why they struggled to reproduce their domestic form at international level, invariably replied by pointing out that England's 4-4-2 demanded they hold the shape; they could never exercise their attacking talents with quite the freedom they had with Liverpool or Marseille.

Given Bobby Robson constructed fluid sides at club level, the rigidity of his England was probably, at least in part, the result of the lack of time available to players at international level to develop a mutual understanding. Then Robson, ahead of the second group game, terrified that England would be torn apart by Holland as they had been at Euro 88, introduced Mark Wright as a third centre-back. With a sound defensive platform, the midfield and full-backs were suddenly liberated: the shift to an ostensibly more defensive shape actually made England a more fluent attacking side.

"I can play for Liverpool," Barnes told Pete Davies in All Played Out, "and it's like the continentals – they'll have someone in that zone, but not necessarily the same person. So Alan Hansen can go past me, and I'll take his position. But here [in a 4-4-2], if Chris comes off the line, or I come off the line, and no one goes into that position, if the full-back doesn't come, then the marker's free. With the sweeper [system], the full-back can go, and the sweeper can cover; or the marker can cover and the sweeper can mark – you're not caught short anywhere."

The logic, or lack of it, behind reverting to 4-4-2

So what will the switch back to 4-4-2 mean in practice? The art of tactics – and this again is a point that is often misconstrued – is the art of shifting the battle to where you want it to be fought. It is not that one formation is necessarily better than another. That said, over the 140 years or so of football history there has been a general trend of moving to fewer and fewer forwards, because more men in defence and midfield means it is easier to regain the ball, and tends to provide for more options once a team has it.

Other than accommodating Anelka (and as Guus Hiddink showed, he could be used to the right of an asymmetric 4-3-3 if he really had to be included), it is, frankly, hard to see the logic behind Chelsea's switch. At United, having lost Ronaldo and Tevez, two fluid, multi-functional players, a return to something more traditional makes sense as a retrenchment, a short-term protection against change. You do wonder, though, whether Ferguson would have gone back to a nominal 4-4-2 had he still had as his assistant Carlos Queiroz, who arguably pioneered playing no strikers with his Portugal youth sides in the early 90s and then was key in United's move to 4-2-3-1 earlier in this decade.

There are two areas where the classic 4-4-2 logically struggles against 4-3-3. Firstly, in the middle of midfield, where the 4-3-3 has three players against two and so, given equality of ability of player, should be able to dominate possession. The way Park played narrow for United on Sunday suggested he may be used as a counter against that. Chelsea, meanwhile, with a diamond, effectively have four central midfielders anyway; or, given how far forward Frank Lampard played and that Florent Malouda was tugging left, at least two and two halves. The two are Mikel Jon Obi and Michael Essien, so that shouldn't be too much of an issue.

The other problem, though, may be rather more serious. Wingers, recently, have had to take on increased defensive responsibility to check the forward sallies of full-backs (who became increasingly attacking as they got used to having space when 4-4-2 met 4-4-2). Park excelled in that role last season, as, at times, did Rooney, most notably away to Porto in the Champions league quarter-final when he stifled Aly Cissokho.

With two central strikers, rather than two wide men pushed high on the full-backs, that becomes far harder to do. In the first half on Sunday, Nani had the beating of Branko Ivanovic, partly because he was coming at him from deep, and so was already moving at pace when he met a putative challenge – which is an advantage 4-4-2 has over 4-3-3 – and partly because he was supported by the surges of Patrice Evra, who was unchecked by Chelsea's narrow midfield.

However good a full-back may be defensively, there is little he can do once such a situation has developed; Ancelotti's solution was to bring on José Bosingwa in the second half, and his capacity to take the attack to United, forcing Nani to defend, had stifled some of his attacking threat even before he suffered the dislocated shoulder.

Their battle was similar to the confrontation between Ronaldo, playing on the left, and Essien, playing at right-back, in the 2008 Champions League final. Then, Ronaldo had the better of the first half-hour, until Essien began to drive at and beyond him, setting up Lampard's equaliser as his drive was half-blocked, and going on to have the better of the contest for the rest of the game.

On the other side, Malouda did little to trouble John O'Shea, but Cole twice burst past Park towards the end of the first half – understandably given he was also bolstering the right side of midfield and thus dealing in part with Malouda – to set up chances for Drogba, who headed over, and Anelka, who shot wide.

The Michael Owen factor

With the same starting XI, United could switch easily to a 4-3-3. In fact, given the asymmetry of their midfield, their formation on Sunday, at least in the first half, was almost halfway between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, and was thus not dissimilar to how England played at Euro 96, with Steve McManaman pushing forward on the left, while Teddy Sheringham dropped off Alan Shearer.

However the signing of Michael Owen, who cannot play as a lone striker, suggests Ferguson is considering 4-4-2, at least for certain games. Provided United are confident of dominating possession, there is no reason why that won't work, at least against lesser teams.

Owen and Berbatov are a logical partnership, while Owen and Rooney, although they never had a great relationship with England – only once has one ever scored from an assist by the other – do have a compatibility: teams defend high against Rooney to restrict his space, and preferred to defend deep against Owen so he couldn't use his pace to exploit the space behind them. If that pace really is as diminished as it seemed in his later days at Newcastle,it may not be so relevant, but teams anyway defend deeper now than they did in his heyday thanks to the liberalisation of the offside law.

Chelsea's diamond, meanwhile, seems far less flexible – although of course they do have the players to revert to the 4-1-2-3 of old if required – and it is hard to see how they would deal with a side featuring two attacking full-backs. Given how well Malouda ended last season, it's easy to see why Ferguson opted for the more defensive O'Shea, but it would have been fascinating to have seen Fabio unleashed earlier than the 76th minute. Equally the fact that both Drogba and Anelka play high, while Berbatov and Rooney like to drop deep, suggests United will have the greater fluidity.

Given Arsenal will pick a front three from Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie and Eduardo, with Cesc Fábregas pulling the strings, they should be significantly the most fluid side in the Premier League; which, if – and it is a big if – they can sort out their problems at the back of the midfield and in central defence, could make them surprising challengers. Liverpool fans, similarly, can look at their 4-2-3-1 and draw encouragement from its modernity, even if it is hard to see how the passing of Xabi Alonso can be compensated for.

What that means for the rest of the season depends really on how flexible each proves to be; although given the dominance that the Big Four (or Five) still exerts over not merely the Premier League but also the majority of Europe – diminishing as it may be as the effects of Real Madrid's spending, the falling pound and the 50% tax band kick in – it could be some time before the effects of the tactical reversion are felt.

"Football," said Viktor Maslov, the Dynamo Kyiv coach who pioneered pressing and so can be hailed as the father of the modern game, "is like an aeroplane. As velocities increase, so does air resistance, and so you have to make the head more stream-lined." For 40 years he has been right: a return to 4-4-2 feels rather like evolution has paused for breath.

Tactics: 4-2-3-1

The Question: How is Brazil's 4-2-3-1 different from a European 4-2-3-1?

Now World Cup qualification is all but assured, the big debate is less over Dunga's future, than over what system his side plays

Brazilian midfielder Ramires breaks away against the United States

Ramires breaks away again for Brazil against the United States. Photograph: Halden Krog/EPA

Brazil's first-half performance in their 3-0 victory over Italy in theConfederations Cup on Sunday confirmed what the results of the last couple of months had been hinting at: for all the doubts about Dunga's supposed pragmatism, all the quibbles over personnel, they will be serious contenders next summer.

The 1-1 draw in Ecuador in March may have been fortuitous, and the defending shambolic, but Argentina's 6-1 defeat to Bolivia a few days later showing the effect altitude can make. Since then, they have put three past Peru and four past Uruguay, before winning 2-1 against Paraguay, their closest challengers in Conmebol qualifying. So now that qualification is all but assured, the big debate is less over Dunga's future, than over what system his side plays: when is a 4-2-3-1 not a 4-2-3-1?

Diamond geezers

At this Confederations Cup, most European observers have happily jotted down their formation as 4-2-3-1, with Luís Fabiano as the centre-forward, Robinho to the left, Kaká as the central creator and Ramires on the right of the attacking three. Gilberto Silva sits in front of the back four, with Fiorentina's Felipe Melo in the slightly more advanced holding role. Yet the Brazilians persist in describing the system as a diamond.

As they see it, Gilberto is the base, with Ramires right and Melo left ascarrileros (the shuttlers on the sides of the diamond), Kaká as the playmaking tip, and Robinho as a second striker. At first, that sounds nonsensical, because that isn't how it looks on the pitch, but there is greater subtlety to the Brazilian notation. Gilberto, as the most defensive, they describe as a "first function" midfielder, Melo is "second function" and Ramires, as the most attacking of those three, is "third function".

There is an acceptance too that Robinho pulls left. He does not operate centrally, for were he to do so, he would be competing for space with Kaká and Luís Fabiano. Strangely, he has seemingly reinvented the left-sided attacking position as practised by, for instance, Gianni Riva, in il giocco all'Italiana, the slightly more attacking version of catenacciopractised by Italy in the 1970s. he was, in effect, a converted, tucked-in winger from a 4-3-3, encouraged to move inside by the surges forward of the left-back, who had, since the days of Giacinto Facchetti, been the more attacking of the full-backs in the Italian system.

And once you start to see that, you realise that Ramires, who has had an excellent tournament pounding up and down the right flank, offering deftness as well as energy, could be seen as a modern version of atornante (literally, a "returner") who, like Jair in Helenio Herrera's Internazionale, is a winger who tracks back. Apart from the fact that the back four is flat rather than employing a sweeper, a middle-aged Italian could easily see this Brazil as an incarnation of il giocco all'Italiana. In that regard, Brazil have become a sort of tactical Rorschach test, with everybody seeing in it what they are culturally disposed to see.

Which begs the question that, if such things are so open to interpretation, whether there is any point putting a name to a formation. There is, because it gives us a basic shape, but we must always be conscious of differences within systems that ostensibly appear to be the same. In fact, one of the great criticisms that can be levelled at the English game historically is that the formation has led the game: players, rather than being treated as individuals whose tactical responsibilities were to be negotiated within a basic framework, were rammed into pre-designated holes.

So while describing the current Brazilian system as a diamond feels almost as antiquated as those British newspapers in the 50s who still listed teams in the 2-3-5 that had died out three decades earlier, so we should be aware that 4-2-3-1 doesn't tell the full story either. And, most intriguingly, the Brazilian 4-2-3-1 differs from the European version precisely because it has evolved via a different route.

Development of Brazil's system

The European 4-2-3-1 derives from 4-4-2. A centre-forward is withdrawn, and the roles of the midfield become more precisely defined, the wide players advancing and the central players retreating, although the wide players still have responsibility for dealing with the attacking intentions of the opposition full-backs.

In Brazil, though, the default for several years has been the 4-2-2-2. It was first showcased to the world in 1982, when Falcao and Cerezo operated as deep-lying playmakers behind Zico and Socrates (the magic square, as it was known). After a flirtation with 3-5-2 under Sebastiao Lazaroni in 1990, the 4-2-2-2 returned in far more defensive form at the 1994 World Cup, at which Dunga, the present coach, operated alongside Marcio Santos at the back of the midfield, with Zinho and Mazinho in front of them as trequartistas, and Bebeto and Romario as the centre-forwards.

The evolution of that system to 4-2-3-1 has come about by pulling one of the centre-forwards back and wider, while one of the trequartistasshuffles a little wider – and in Ramires's case deeper – on the other side to accommodate him. Robinho is thus a forward playing to the left (as Riva did), whereas a European version of the system would have a winger or a midfielder (or a defensive forward) there. So far in this tournament, there has been no sign of him feeling any sense of defensive responsibility.

That may be a problem if he comes up against a right-back of great attacking intent – such as Maicon (who has looked a far more complete player than Dani Alves in the Confederations Cup), but generally the balance looks promising. Ramires, who will join Benfica from Cruzeiro before the start of next season, chugs up and down the right, allowing Melo, the more advanced of the two holders, to focus his attentions more to the left while Gilberto remains central.

It is an adventurous system – counter-intuitively, given Dunga's reputation – but its great advantage is the position of Robinho. As a withdrawn, left-sided central forward, he naturally falls under the marking remit of any member of the opposition. Given one holding midfielder is trying to deal with Kaká, if the other shifts across to stop Robinho, he risks leaving the right-side exposed for Maicon and Ramires. But neither is Robinho playing tight against the opposing full-back or centre-back; in a game that seems increasingly crowded, his has discovered (or rediscovered) a new niche of opportunity.

The ultimate question for European teams

Attacking from wide, of course, is very much in vogue. "When forwards attack from wide to inside, they are far more dangerous," Sir Alex Ferguson explained. "It's funny when I see centre-forwards starting off in the middle against their markers and then going away from goal. Strikers going inside are far more dangerous, I think. When [Thierry] Henry played as a striker, and sometimes when Wayne [Rooney] does, they try to escape and create space by drifting from the centre to wide positions, when that actually makes them less dangerous."

It is all the more dangerous if the wide attacker in operating in conjunction with an attacking full-back: Lionel Messi cutting infield as Alves surges by him is perhaps the most obvious example, but Andrei Arshavin, backed up by either Aleksandr Anyukov or Yuri Zhirkov, has benefited similarly for Russia, while one of Croatia's great strengths – at least until Fabio Capello exposed it by deploying the pace of Theo Walcott high on the right in Zagreb – was Danijel Pranjic's link-up with Ivan Rakitic on the left flank.

It would be a brave manager who called Robinho's bluff and encouraged his right-back to ignore him and surge forward, but that might be the best way to deal with his role. Or a team could play as Chelsea did in Barcelona, with three very deep central midfielders. Or play with a tucked in and purely defensive right-back. And that perhaps is the greatest strength of Dunga's side – that their interpretation of 4-2-3-1 raises questions European sides are not used to answering.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009