Posts Tagged ‘4-3-3’
In recent weeks, Hatem Ben Arfa has started to look like the player he had always threatened to become.
With two goals and three assists in his last four appearances, the 25-year-old is the form attacking midfielder in the Premier League. There have been flurries of eye-catching form in the past, but he has rarely played such daring, decisive football on such a consistent basis and against such strong opposition.
The catalyst for his spring renaissance was the January arrival of Papiss Demba Cissé, who was signed to link up with his Senegal team-mate, Demba Ba. With two prolific strikers at his disposal, Newcastle United coach Alan Pardew was forced to abandon his long-held ambition to deploy Ben Arfa as a number 10 behind a lone striker. He has re-emerged on the right.
Ben Arfa started on the right flank for the first time in the league this season in Newcastle’s 5-2 defeat at Fulham on January 21 (a game in which he scored), but it was not until March 18, and a 1-0 win at home to Norwich City, that he was included in the same starting line-up as Cissé and Ba. The trio subsequently started in the slick 3-1 win at West Bromwich Albion and last weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at St James’ Park. After opening the scoring in the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal, Ben Arfa scored once and created the two other goals at West Brom and was then instrumental in both goals against Liverpool.
Over the course of those recent games, Newcastle’s shape has slowly morphed from a lopsided 4-4-2 into something resembling an orthodox 4-3-3, as Ben Arfa has become the focal point for his side’s attacking play on the right flank and Pardew has responded by adding more ballast to the centre of midfield.
The eight remaining teams in this season’s Champions League are drawn from seven different countries and range in experience from quarter-final debutants APOEL to nine-time champions Real Madrid. They are nonetheless united by a number of tactical factors. All eight sides deployed four-man defences in their last-16 ties, while the majority of the teams preferred single-striker formations. Benfica and Milan were the only two teams to play with no wide midfielders.
The diagrams below depict the eight teams’ tactical line-ups from the first legs of their last-16 ties, before there were any leads to be defended or deficits to be overturned.
NB: The diagrams (screenshots from the UEFA website) show average positions from the first 15 minutes of matches only, so as to provide a clear indication of how the teams approached each game in terms of formation.
In the first leg of their tie at Lyon, APOEL played in a compact 4-1-4-1 formation and placed so much emphasis on defending their penalty area that they did not muster a single shot at goal until Gustavo Manduca tested Hugo Lloris with a rising drive in the 88th minute. Ivan Jovanović’s side were more proactive in the return leg, however. Esteban Solari played up front in support of Aílton, while Manduca was named in the starting line-up and scored the goal that levelled the tie in the ninth minute.
[Squad numbers: 22. Dionisis Chiotis; 7. Savvas Poursaitidis, 3. Paulo Jorge, 4. Kaká, 98. William Boaventura; 26. Nuno Morais; 10. Constantinos Charalambides, 31. Hélder Sousa, 23. Hélio Pinto, 11. Ivan Tričkovski; 8. Aílton]
This season’s Champions League semi-finalists reached the last four with an average aggregate winning margin in the quarter-finals of four goals, making them the most comfortable set of semi-final qualifiers in the Champions League era (post-1992).
The diagrams below depict their tactical line-ups from the first legs of their quarter-final ties, before there were any leads to be defended or deficits to be overturned.
NB: The diagrams show average positions from the first half of matches only, so as to provide a clear indication of how the teams approached each game in terms of formation.
[Squad numbers: 1. Manuel Neuer; 22. Atsuto Uchida, 4. Benedikt Höwedes, 32. Joël Matip, 2. Hans Sarpei; 17. Jefferson Farfán, 14. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, 18. José Manuel Jurado, 11. Alexander Baumjohann; 7. Raúl; 9. Edu]
A peculiar tactical phenomenon has been witnessed in France in recent months. In a microcosm of global trends that have shaped the game over the course of the last decade or so, Ligue 1′s top sides have all – without exception – begun to ditch their preferred formations in favour of a 4-2-3-1.
Marseille, whose title and Coupe de la Ligue successes last season were founded on a pragmatic 4-3-3 shape, were the first team to make the switch. For the crucial Champions League group game at Spartak Moscow in November, Mathieu Valbuena was moved infield from the right flank and allowed to adopt the central playmaking role that he covets. Didier Deschamps wanted to capitalise on the fact that Valbuena “is very accurate with his shooting” and the France international proved as much in the 18th minute when he put OM ahead with a precise, curling effort into the top-right corner. Marseille went on to win 3-0, in what was their most coherent performance of the season to date, and their 4-2-3-1 continues to emerge for high-pressure encounters, such as Sunday’s 2-1 defeat of Paris Saint-Germain.
Another team synonymous with the 4-3-3 in recent years has been Lyon. Towards the end of the first half in their 4-1 win at Saint-Etienne last month, however, Yoann Gourcuff was allowed to advance a little further forwards and occupy the role of the classic number 10 that was his at Bordeaux. With Jérémy Toulalan and Kim Källström retreating into deep, central positions, it meant Lyon were playing a 4-2-3-1 and Claude Puel reflected that it gave the team “a certain balance”.
The switch brought the best out of Lisandro López, moved to the left flank in support of central striker Bafétimbi Gomis, in much the same way that André-Pierre Gignac’s best form for Marseille has coincided with the times when he has played from the left in support of Brandão. Occasionally isolated when used as lone strikers, both López and Gignac appear to relish seeing more of the ball and both men are particularly adept at cutting inside and shooting at goal with their stronger right feet.
The press pack accompanying the France squad to England may have been slightly miffed at the lack of attention given to Les Bleus in Fabio Capello’s pre-match press conference, but Laurent Blanc’s side will have plenty of opportunities to make themselves headline news when tonight’s match at Wembley kicks off.
France lost 2-1 to Norway in Blanc’s first game in charge and were then stunned 1-0 by Belarus in their opening Euro 2012 qualifier at the Stade de France, but have since recorded consecutive 2-0 victories against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania and Luxembourg. Upon taking the reins following the World Cup debacle, Blanc spoke of his desire to create a France team “that opposes its style upon its opponents”, and although we are still in the early days of his tenure, his vision for the national team is beginning to emerge.
In France’s last game, a rather laboured 2-0 defeat of Luxembourg in Metz, Blanc set France out in a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield supporting Karim Benzema and Guillaume Hoarau in attack. He occasionally used a similar system during his time at Bordeaux, but against strong opposition his preference is for a midfield configuration that makes sure France cannot be outnumbered in the centre of the pitch.
“Playing with two strikers does not allow us to have numerical superiority in midfield,” Blanc explained in September. “You can use it against weaker teams. Against strong teams it’s vital to win the midfield battle. You have more options with two strikers but you can only play with one holding midfielder. That can weaken your team.”
The team that Laurent Blanc aligns against Romania on Saturday may herald a significant change of direction in the tactical evolution of the French national side. Teams representing the country have long been built around a single, richly talented creative player, from Raymond Kopa in the 1950s through Michel Platini in the 1980s to Zinedine Zidane at the turn of the last century. But that could be about to change.
France’s 2-0 victory over Bosnia-Hercegovina in Sarajevo last month was probably their most impressive performance in a competitive match for four years and they achieved it without a playmaker in sight. Instead, Alou Diarra anchored a muscular midfield with Yann M’Vila alongside him and Abou Diaby operating slightly further forward. Florent Malouda and Mathieu Valbuena were deployed on the flanks, in support of lone striker Karim Benzema.
Diaby has long been typecast as a defensive midfielder, presumably because of his height, his build and his physical resemblance to Patrick Vieira, but against Bosnia he was given the freedom to express his attacking gifts, embarking on lolloping runs into opposition territory and making a number of incisive passes. A playmaker, however, he is not.
Yoann Gourcuff, the heir apparent to Zidane, and Samir Nasri missed the game in Sarajevo, through suspension and injury respectively. Both are now back in the fold, but Blanc has promised that the players who starred against Bosnia will be given an opportunity to stake a claim to a first-team place.
“Nothing forces us to play with a number 10,” said Blanc this week. “In Bosnia, because we couldn’t do anything else, there wasn’t one. The train had passed, the team was put in place and it did a pleasing job.”
Blanc has admitted, however, that “players who are capable of making the team play better [i.e. playmakers] are always useful” and he has also expressed a conviction that Gourcuff and Nasri can be fitted into the same starting XI, most probably with Nasri playing wide on the right and Gourcuff in the centre.
The prototype 4-3-3 that breathed new life into the French national team’s play in Sarajevo was a world away from the stodgy, unimaginative football associated with the 4-2-3-1 of the Raymond Domenech era, but Blanc’s stated mission to create a side that “imposes its style upon its opponents” would perhaps be best served by a team containing at least one playmaker. In any case, Diaby’s ankle injury suggests at least one of Gourcuff and Nasri will make the starting XI against Romania.
Nevertheless, the performances of Diaby, M’Vila and co against Bosnia proved that France can function perfectly well without a number 10. The team-sheet at the Stade de France on Saturday could give the clearest indication yet that France’s love affair with the playmaker is about to be put on indefinite hold.
Right-footed, left-sided attackers are currently one of football’s most fashionable commodities (think David Villa and Robinho at the World Cup; Franck Ribéry at Bayern Munich; Nani at Manchester United), and like any self-respecting wealthy Italian man, Silvio Berlusconi has to be up with the latest trends. So he bought two. But while Robinho is hoping his transfer deadline day move to Milan will allow him to re-launch his stuttering club career, his arrival at San Siro may well turn out to be bad news for Ronaldinho.
Berlusconi might be the most ardent Ronaldinho fan on the planet, but he seems obsessed with the idea that his hero should play in the centre. Earlier this summer he spoke of his desire to see Milan play with two strikers, supported by Ronaldinho as a central playmaker. It’s a seductive idea, motivated no doubt by memories of players like Gianni Rivera and Manuel Rui Costa who wore the red and black number 10 shirt with distinction, but it’s not a role that Ronaldinho seems to enjoy.
Almost all the most enduring images of Ronaldinho during his time at Barcelona – be it his sensational goal against Sevilla or his one-man demolition job against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu – saw him picking up the ball wide on the left and cutting in at goal. As he said himself last season: “I feel great and where I’m playing I can do my best. I’m happy to play behind the strikers, but where I’m playing now [on the left] is my best position.”
The Premier League season is less than two weeks old, but a look at how the top sides lined up in their opening matches provides an interesting indication of how they plan to approach the season from a tactical perspective.
The diagrams below, screenshots from the ESPN Soccernet website, show the average positions adopted by the players from Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool in their teams’ opening home games of the season. (Data is taken only from home games because ESPN’s average position diagrams inexplicably go a bit haywire for away teams.)
Average position diagrams do not give a water-tight representation of a team’s formation – which is necessarily in a constant state of flux – but they do offer useful insights into basic shape.
In the 6-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion on the season’s opening day, Chelsea lined up in the same loose 4-3-3 formation that they adopted during last season’s title run-in, but with Florent Malouda playing on the left of the front three, rather than the midfield three. Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka both drop deep to get fully involved in the team’s build-up play and Malouda has become wonderfully adept at exploiting the space they vacate – as he did when he scored the sixth goal against West Brom from Anelka’s lofted pass.
[Squad numbers: 1. Petr Čech; 19. Paulo Ferreira, 33. Alex, 26. John Terry, 3. Ashley Cole; 5. Michael Essien, 12. John Mikel Obi, 8. Frank Lampard; 39. Nicolas Anelka, 11. Didier Drogba, 15. Florent Malouda; Substitutes: 2. Branislav Ivanović, 10. Yossi Benayoun, 21. Salomon Kalou]
At the dawn of the tournament Football Further posed ten tactical questions that the World Cup would answer. Three days after Spain’s tense extra-time victory over the Netherlands in the final, the answers to those questions reflect a tournament in which defensive rigour was overwhelmingly de riguer and tactical innovation conspicious by its rarity.
1. Will freshness or preparedness prevail in Group A?
Having played just one game in the build-up to the tournament – a 4-1 win over Israel in Montevideo on May 26 - Uruguay took control of Group A before scrapping their way to the last four for the first time since 1970. How much of that was down to their fitness, and not the obliging manner in which the big teams benignly opened up the path to the semi-finals, is debatable. Mexico played 12 preparation matches and also made it out of the group phase, while their 3-1 defeat by Argentina in the last 16 showed no discernible signs of fatigue.
2. Will France’s 4-3-3 work?
How to put this? Not only did France’s 4-3-3 fail to work, but Raymond Domenech lost all faith in it before the tournament had even started. In their opening game, a 0-0 draw with Uruguay, they reverted to their tried and tested (if not actually effective) 4-2-3-1, with Jérémy Toulalan and Abou Diaby in the holding midfield roles and Yoann Gourcuff as the playmaker. The 4-2-3-1 remained in place for the 2-0 defeat by Mexico, but this time with Franck Ribéry in the playmaking role (to which he is wholly unsuited) and Nicolas Anelka reprising his great disappearing centre-forward act until matters came to a head at half-time. It was not until the 2-1 loss to South Africa that the long-awaited 4-3-3 finally made its appearance, but by then it was already too late. Over to you, Monsieur Blanc.
On the eve of the World Cup, Football Further asked whether the 4-2-3-1 formation would continue to dominate as it did at the last tournament in 2006. The average position diagrams below, taken from all eight last-16 matches, demonstrate that while it remains the most popular shape in the international game, variations in tactics mean that it is being deployed in very different ways.
Uruguay began the competition as predicted by playing in a 3-4-1-2 but after a dour goalless draw with France in their opening game they shifted to a flat back four, with Jorge Fucile shuffling along to left-back from central defence, Alvaro Pereira pushed forward from left wing-back into a genuine left-midfield role and Edinson Cavani brought in on the right side of the attack in place of playmaker Ignacio González. Reading of the formation depends on Diego Forlán’s positioning. He tends to play much deeper than Suárez, and slightly to the left, turning the shape into a 4-3-1-2, but Cavani’s tendency to pull wide means he often operates on roughly the same line as Forlán, with Suárez left to lead the line alone.
[Squad numbers: 1. Fernando Muslera; 16. Maxi Pereira, 2. Diego Lugano, 3. Diego Godin, 4. Jorge Fucile; 15. Diego Pérez, 17. Egidio Arévalo Ríos, 11. Alvaro Pereira; 7. Edinson Cavani, 10. Diego Forlán; 9. Luis Suárez]
With the World Cup now deliciously within reach, Football Further looks at ten tactical issues that could have a decisive influence on the outcome of the tournament.
1. Will freshness or preparedness prevail in Group A?
Attention on the tournament’s opening group is likely to focus on the travails of Raymond Domenech’s France and the efforts of South Africa to avoid becoming the first World Cup hosts not to make it beyond the first round, but both Mexico and Uruguay go into the tournament with high ambitions and two very different approaches to preparation. Mexico, like South Africa, embarked upon an exhaustive pre-tournament schedule, with coach Javier Aguirre dragging 17 players out of the Mexican championship early and overseeing no less than 12 friendly matches since the end of February, culminating in the superb 2-1 defeat of Italy in Brussels last Thursday. In the same period, Uruguay have played just once – a 4-1 win over Israel in Montevideo on May 26. Oscar Tábarez, who led La Celeste into battle at Italia 90, says he wanted to avoid tiring his players out. “This tournament is a drain,” he said. “Whoever turns up tired gets knocked out immediately. Teams with much bigger pools of players than ours, Argentina and Brazil, have lost for neglecting this aspect.” The battle of the fresh and the fit takes place on June 22, when Uruguay and Mexico will contest a potentially decisive final group game in Rustenburg.
2. Will France’s 4-3-3 work?
As discussed in detail last week, France are expected to deploy a 4-3-3 formation that they’ve worked on for only a matter of weeks after Lassana Diarra’s withdrawal forced Domenech to ditch the 4-2-3-1 that France have used since the eve of the 2006 tournament. After an encouraging 2-1 victory against Costa Rica, France drew 1-1 with Tunisia before slumping to a 1-0 defeat by China, and there are growing calls for ineffective right-winger Sidney Govou to be replaced by Arsenal central midfielder Abou Diaby, with Florent Malouda moving forward to the left wing and Franck Ribéry switching flanks to the right.
A matter of weeks before the start of the 2010 World Cup, Raymond Domenech made perhaps the most radical move of his four-year tenure as France coach by completely altering the team’s shape. When first-choice defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra was forced out of the squad by a stomach complaint linked to a genetic blood condition, Domenech scrapped the 4-2-3-1 that has been France’s default tactical system since the beginning of the last World Cup and began to experiment with a 4-3-3.
The new formation features Lyon’s Jérémy Toulalan as the sole holding midfielder, with Florent Malouda and Yoann Gourcuff on either side of him, Franck Ribéry and Sidney Govou on the flanks and either Thierry Henry or Nicolas Anelka as a lone centre forward.
France premiered the new system in their first World Cup warm-up game against Costa Rica in Lens last week and produced their most coherent attacking performance in a long time. A late strike from debutant Mathieu Valbuena, the Marseille wildcard, secured a 2-1 victory that procured a timely surge in optimism for a side that laboured through qualifying and needed one of the most controversial goals in football history to see off a resolute Republic of Ireland in the European zone qualifying play-offs.
As the dust settles on a Premier League season that somehow managed to be full of surprises and yet completely predictable at the same time, Football Further looks at some of the tactical trends that characterised the campaign.
Wall-to-wall flat back fours
A flat back four, often with attacking full-backs, continues to be the overwhelmingly predominant defensive strategy in the Premier League. All 20 teams in the English top flight preferred a back four this season and the rare deviations often met with alarming results. Injuries forced Manchester United to deploy a makeshift back three of Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Richie de Laet at Fulham in mid-December and they went down 3-0, while Wigan’s attempt to stymie Chelsea’s influence in wide areas on Sunday by lining up in a previously untested 5-3-2 was an unmitigated disaster.
Another interesting feature of the campaign has been the perhaps surprising popularity of two-striker formations. Tactical experts readily assert that one-striker formations represent football’s future, but in this season’s Premier League, only Arsenal, Blackburn, Everton, Liverpool, Wigan and Wolves regularly played with only one recognisable central forward in attack.
Elsewhere, strike partnerships were all the rage, from Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka at Chelsea to Frédéric Piquionne and Aruna Dindane at Portsmouth. Some sides even played with three. Birmingham deployed James McFadden on the left of midfield in support of Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome, Martin Paterson played in a wide role alongside David Nugent and Steven Fletcher for Burnley, while Sunderland managed to accommodate Darren Bent, Kenwyne Jones and Fraizer Campbell in their line-up towards the end of the season.
“The 4-4-2 structure is not his forte,” said Birmingham boss Alex McLeish on McFadden’s repositioning as a wide midfielder. “He has got an edge in the last third which is why in the middle part of the season we played him around the corner and narrowed the midfield – [Sebastian] Larsson, [Barry] Ferguson, [Lee] Bowyer – and we compensated a wee bit in that very good run we had. James played around the corner to support the front two and that is his best position. You do take a bit away from him trying to make him a 4-4-2 player.”
The shift in attacking emphasis is borne out by the statistics. Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tévez and Bent all scored in excess of 20 goals this season (and Fernando Torres would definitely have joined them had it not been for injury), which was the first time since the 2003-04 campaign that four strikers breached the 20-goal barrier in the same Premier League season. With Frank Lampard also chipping in with a superb 22-goal haul, 2009-10 was also the first season since 1994-95 that five players broke the 20-goal mark.
Rarely can a team have qualified for a Champions League final as easily as Bayern Munich did against Lyon.
“Has anyone seen a Champions League semi-final?” asked one wag in the Stade Gerland media centre after Tuesday’s hopelessly one-sided semi-final return leg. “I was told there’d be one here but I couldn’t see it.”
Comprehensively outplayed in both legs, Lyon’s limp performance over the tie was an appalling advertisement for French football and in the grim post mortem of the after-match analysis there was no disguising the simple fact that Claude Puel’s side had been beaten by a far superior team. Time and again in his post-match press conference, a shell-shocked Puel returned to the theme of Bayern’s remarkable physical capacities.
“Their physicality, the quality of their play, their control of possession… They are a complete team,” he said. “They are physically strong and never let their rhythm drop. It became very, very difficult for us.”
One of the most winsome things about Bordeaux’s rise to the crest of French football last year was the fact they did so with a proper, old-fashioned playmaker in Yoann Gourcuff, who rediscovered his touch after a frustrating spell at Milan to fire Les Girondins to the Ligue 1 title and the Coupe de la Ligue and into the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League.
Bordeaux’s subsequent collapse in 2010 – elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Lyon and a dismal run of domestic defeats that has put paid to any hope of a successful title defence – owes much to the thinness of Laurent Blanc’s squad and the inevitable fatigue induced by challenging for trophies on multiple fronts, but Gourcuff’s powerlessness to prevent their abrupt breakdown is also symptomatic of the demise of the classic number 10.
Gourcuff was the irresistible driving force behind Bordeaux’s title charge last spring and it was hoped by many observers that his efficacy in an advanced, central role might prefigure a renaissance in the kind of traditional playmaker whose decline in recent years has been a keen source of regret to anyone who enjoys seeing the game played with patience, wit and flair.
“I think we’re losing that position, that number 10. It feels like there are none left and that’s a great pity,” said Lionel Messi in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine in August last year. “Football is harder now; it’s more physical, there is more contact. It’s a shame. Number 10s were players who participated more in the game, got a lot of the ball and who made the game beautiful.”