Posts Tagged ‘4-4-2’
Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco may have stockpiled all the money in Ligue 1, but the playing fields of the French top flight have been awash with diamonds this season.
Over the past few months, a 4-4-2 formation with a midfield diamond – known as a milieu en losange in France – has become the must-have tactical system for the league’s leading teams, with Lille, Monaco and Lyon successively enjoying improved fortunes after adopting the tactic and Marseille potentially poised to follow suit.
Lille were the pioneers, with coach René Girard installing the system within weeks of his arrival from Montpellier during the summer. Having initially declared an intention to persist with the 4-3-3 formation favoured by his predecessor, Rudi Garcia, he jettisoned the tactic after only 45 minutes of the club’s first friendly match, a 3-2 win over Dijon in July.
The system he introduced was designed to get the best out of Marvin Martin, who operates in the number 10 role ahead of a three-man midfield. Once seen as France’s answer to Xavi, he endured a disappointing debut season after signing from Sochaux but has spoken positively of the “freedom” afforded him in the new system. It is a set-up with which the 26-year-old is familiar, having come to prominence at Sochaux by supplying the bullets for Brown Ideye and Modibo Maiga as the club from eastern France recorded a surprise fifth-place finish under Francis Gillot in 2011.
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.
“A lot of club managers will take note of what happened in the World Cup and adjust their tactics accordingly,” said Harry Redknapp in the September edition of FourFourTwo magazine. “I’ve gone on record as saying England were far too open in the tournament and I think 4-5-1 would have been the formation to get the best of our lads and also close the space in midfield. In the Premier League, you’ve already seen a lot of teams using 4-5-1, especially away. It’s a formation I’d consider playing on the road, for sure.”
Redknapp’s reputation as an attack-minded tactical ingenue was always going to be tested by Tottenham’s participation in this season’s Champions League, and the diagrams below – taken from the press kits area of the UEFA website – show how he has adjusted Spurs’ formation in their six group-stage matches.
Having built last season’s triumphant campaign on an orthodox 4-4-2 formation, the deadline day signing of Rafael van der Vaart hinted at an evolution in Redknapp’s tactical thinking. That new, subtler approach has been evident in the Champions League. The apparent default shape, when van der Vaart is available, is a 4-2-3-1, with Gareth Bale wide on the left, Aaron Lennon on the right and the Dutchman in the centre. (Luka Modrić looked set to take up van der Vaart’s role in the 4-3 defeat at Internazionale, until he was replaced by Carlo Cudicini following the early dismissal of goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes.)
Only in the eminently winnable games – at home to FC Twente and Werder Bremen, and away to Twente (when Spurs had already qualified) – did Redknapp field anything resembling a 4-4-2. Even then, the right-sided midfielder was often instructed to tuck in (van der Vaart at home to Twente, Niko Kranjčar in the return fixture). In the magnificent 3-1 win at home to Inter, meanwhile, van der Vaart played so close to Peter Crouch that he was effectively being used as a second striker in a 4-4-1-1.
NB: The diagrams show average positions from the first half of matches only, so as to provide a clear indication of how Spurs approached each game in terms of formation.
1. Werder Bremen 2-2 Tottenham Hotspur, September 14
[Squad numbers: 3. Gareth Bale, 4. Younes Kaboul, 6. Tom Huddlestone, 7. Aaron Lennon, 8. Jermaine Jenas, 11. Rafael van der Vaart, 15. Peter Crouch, 22. Vedran Ćorluka, 23. Carlo Cudicini, 26. Ledley King, 32. Benoît Assou-Ekotto]
Claims that Gareth Bale’s two scintillating performances against Internazionale have turned him into the best player in the world may be a little far-fetched, but it is no exaggeration to say that in Tuesday night’s match at White Hart Lane, almost everything he did with the ball at his feet was magnificent. Speculation is already rife about which European giant he will elect to join if and when the time comes to leave Spurs, but an important decision also needs to be made about where on the pitch he should play.
Damien Comolli, the man who oversaw Bale’s move from Southampton, says he thought he’d found “the new Maldini”, and Bale and his manager, Harry Redknapp, are in agreement that his best position will ultimately prove to be at full-back.
“In the long run, I still think Gareth Bale will develop into a fantastic left-back – hopefully the best in the Premier League,” Redknapp told the September issue of FourFourTwo magazine. “We wouldn’t lose any of Gareth’s attacking flair if we moved him to full-back… He’s good enough and energetic enough to get back and forward all day long. When you play as a left-back, it is difficult for the opposition to mark you.”
Having essentially admitted that the purchase of Rafael van der Vaart was a transfer deadline day whim, it has been interesting to see how Harry Redknapp has tried to accommodate the Dutchman in his team. Spurs’ success last season was built on a fairly classic 4-4-2 formation, with dashing wingers on either side and a big-man-little-man combination in attack. Redknapp conceded over the summer that the same system would likely prove too naïve and inflexible for the demands of the Champions League, so van der Vaart’s arrival can also be seen as a recognition of the need for greater subtlety and sophistication in Tottenham’s attacking approach.
Van der Vaart has started three Premier League games since his move from Real Madrid – a 1-1 draw at West Bromwich Albion, a 3-1 win at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers and Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at West Ham United. In the games at West Brom and West Ham he played as the central playmaker in a 4-2-3-1, with Aaron Lennon on his right, Luka Modrić on his left and either Roman Pavlyuchenko (at West Brom) or Peter Crouch (at West Ham) up front. Against Wolves the shape was slightly different. In Lennon’s absence, van der Vaart played from the right, with Gareth Bale on the left and Robbie Keane playing off Crouch in the centre.
“Van der Vaart was, if you like, a bit part player at Real Madrid. He wasn’t in the team, he was on the bench and his confidence was low,” Redknapp told CNN this week. “He’s come here and we’ve made him feel very important. He’s a key player in our team and we base a lot of our game around how he plays and where we play him.”
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.
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.
Having supposedly died out halfway through the last decade, the 4-4-2 formation has enjoyed a surprising renaissance this season.
England’s unthinking attachment to the shape first introduced by Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’ in 1966 (pictured) took a battering when José Mourinho swaggered into English football in 2004 and promptly won back-to-back Premier League titles with a counter-attacking 4-3-3 at Chelsea. The 2006 World Cup, meanwhile, was dominated by teams playing in a 4-2-3-1 to such an extent that hosts Germany were the only side playing in a 4-4-2 to achieve anything of note in the tournament.
Against a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, teams playing 4-4-2 conceded a numerical advantage in the middle of the pitch and couldn’t bring their full-backs into the game because of the presence in their territory of the opposition’s wingers. The great teams from the tail-end of the decade favoured innovative strikerless systems, such as Manchester United’s 4-3-3/4-2-4-0 in 2007-2008 or Barcelona’s fluid 4-3-3 from the season after. The 4-4-2, it was said, had become obsolete.
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.”
The news that Michael Owen will miss the rest of the season with a damaged hamstring prompted strange paroxysms of grief from those pundits who felt the injury had crushed the 30-year-old’s dreams of playing at a fourth World Cup with England this summer. In reality, his hopes have been dashed for some time.
As an out-and-out central striker whose game is fundamentally about scoring goals, he is a dying breed. The modern striker must do more than just score and all of Owen’s rivals for a seat on the plane to South Africa give more to the team than goals alone.
The following diagrams, screenshots from ESPN Soccernet, are heat maps detailing the involvement of Owen, Aston Villa’s Emile Heskey, Tottenham’s Peter Crouch, West Ham’s Carlton Cole and Fulham’s Bobby Zamora in the last Premier League home games in which they completed 90 minutes.
Michael Owen, Manchester United 3-0 Everton (21 November 2009):
Roberto Mancini’s first-choice XI is likely to change as players return from injury and he develops a better understanding of the resources at his disposal, but if the team that started in the 2-0 victory at home to Stoke City on Saturday is anything to go by, City are set for a change of shape.
The team named by the Italian in his first game in charge also suggests things may be looking up for Stephen Ireland and Martin Petrov. Ireland was City’s player of the season last year and Petrov was arguably the best signing of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s tenure at the club, but both players have failed to hold down a first-team place this term.
The attacking riches available to Mark Hughes meant that Ireland was often sacrificed in favour of more practical alternatives, with Gareth Barry frequently paired alongside Nigel de Jong in defensive midfield behind four attacking players. Petrov, meanwhile, had started just three league games prior to the match against Stoke.