‘TheHardTackle Whiteboard’ is a semi-regular column which anatomises the tactical development/non-development in the game. So if chalkboard, formations, FM series and Herbert Chapman arouse you, then you are looking at the right page. Today we focus on how in order to counter the ever-growing dominance of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations in football, in recent times, specially teams with minimal resource, have used a narrow and defensive 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. In an age of ‘Inverted wingers’, this new tactics can fuel the resurrection of more ‘traditional wingers’ as teams pursuit more width in order to break down this dogged defense.
Necessity leads to invention
Evolution of tactics in football has always been reactive; reactive to the strength and weakness of its predecessors.
The need to adapt to the new offside rule and provide a defensive cover initiated the change to Football’s first formation, the pyramid (2-3-5). This resulted in the invention of Herbert Chapman’s W-M (3-2-2-3) and Vittorio Pozzo’s Metodo (2-3-2-3). Similarly, the need to carve out the rigidity in W-M and Metodo lead to the 4-2-4 formation devised by Flavio Costa and Bela Guttman. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 came along as the search for perfect balance between attack and defense went on. But slowly the 4-4-2 formation was found out, especially in the middle of the park. The two midfielders used in this formation were outnumbered by teams playing an extra midfielder in 4-5-1 and 4-3-3. Presently, the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations are the most commonly used ones.
Although the 4-2-3-1 formation was used by Brazilian teams since the days of legendary coach Mário Zagallo in 1970s, the 4-2-3-1 used by the Brazilian is fundamentally different from what is used in Europe now a day. The present 4-2-3-1, and to some extent 4-3-3, was perfectly constructed to overrun the 4-4-2. It was reaction to 4-4-2’s weakness in the middle of the park.
The rise of ‘inverted’ wingers
Historically, the evolution of formations has led to different breed of players and lead to extinction of others. A new breed of players has surfaced in the recent past – the inverted wingers.
The rise of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 has ascertained two things; the demise of 4-4-2 and near-extinction of ‘Traditional’ wingers. Instead recent times have seen the ascent of ‘Inverted’ wingers. It is hard to find wide-men nowadays who have ‘chalks on their boots’, hugging the touch-line, taking on full-backs and whipping in crosses from the touch-line. Instead now they cut back inside to make space for full-backs, to shoot (at times frustratingly) or dig in crosses at the far-post (rarely). One can almost count the number of world-class traditional wingers that exist. Players like Antonio Valencia, Gareth Bale, Jesus Navas, Joaquin, Aaron Lennon, and Theo Walcott are some of the last few names remaining. But in truth, how many of these names can you put aside (or will be) as true greats of the game? None. Atleast none alongside legendary wingers from yesteryear like – Dragan Džajić, Garrincha, Jairzinho, Stanley Matthews and Ryan Giggs.
Instead names like Ronaldo, Robben, Ribery, Nani, Ashley Young, and David Silva are some of the most sought after players. Players who have excelled in their role of inverted winger – drifting infield and scoring lots of goals. At times orthodox wingers have also been made to play on wings opposite to their natural one; Damien Duff after playing most of his career on the left was played on the right at Fulham, even Steven Gerrard was played on the left of the attacking trident in Capello’s England. The rise of these inverted wingers has been to provide more bodies in the center while attacking as most of the teams start with only one forward these days. The rise of inverted wingers has also coincided with two things – the evolution of full-backs into wing-backs and the rather fast cut back in the number of classical strikers who are good in the air. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, with only one striker up-front, it might be a futile attempt to find him with a cross from the by-line; another reason of this evolution.
There have been some exceptions like the ‘invincible’ Arsenal team, who played in a 4-4-2 but played someone like Robert Pires as an inverted winger. But that was largely due to the fact that Thierry Henry or Bergkamp were not the type of forwards who can win headers consistently.
4-4-2 makes a comeback
“One 4-4-2 can be as different from another as Steve Stone from Ronaldinho” – Jonathan Wilson
In recent times, specially in English clubs, a new 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 (of ‘Steve Stone’ mold) has made a comeback of sorts.
Similar to the way 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 was reactive to the weakness of 4-4-2, various teams, particularly in England have reacted to the weakness and strength of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. Quite ironically, this has again led them back to 4-4-2. But this 4-4-2 (and a variation of 4-4-1-1) is quite different from that of old. Earlier teams in a 4-4-2 used one box-to-box midfielder alongside a more defensive partner. But the ‘new’ 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 uses both the central midfielders in a defensive role.
While in Premier league, teams like Stoke City, Tottenham, Newcastle and Fulham have all used this formation last season, it was in the Champions League semi-final where this modern version of 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 has evolved. Chelsea, against Barcelona, deployed two-line of defense while keeping the midfield and defense very narrow. They left the wings wide open for Barca to exploit, but due to their lack of natural wide players and natural striker, they could make nothing out of it. Chelsea hit them on the counter-attack and progressed.
Ireland under Trapattoni have deployed similar tactics, where Andrews and Whelan are placed deep in the midfield protecting the defense in a 4-4-2 formation, where as most of the creativity is left to the wingers in Duff and McGeady. People might be quick to point out how poorly Ireland have performed in the Euro, but for a team with such minimal resource, to qualify for the championship was an achievement in the first place. And that was mostly due to the defensive 4-4-2 used by them.
England under Roy Hodgson, have used similar tactics in the Euro and they have qualified as the group winner for the next round, in a tournament where many were even skeptical of their ability to qualify from the group stages. England have been reactive; Hodgson has realized his side’s limited technical ability in the midfield and this acceptance has allowed them to relinquish possession and hold their position (in the words of Jonathan Wilson). He has deployed Parker and Gerrard in front of the defense, while leaving their creativity through the wings. They maintain a very narrow shape while defending, encouraging the wide man of the opponents to cross, which is where their strength lies – defending crosses.
So far, this defensive 4-4-2 has worked wonders against team playing in 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations. These formations’ strength lies in attacking through the center with wingers drifting inside, which is what this 4-4-2 stops them from doing. With the midfield so congested, the inverted wingers hardly find time and space to have any effect. While their wing backs who provide width, don’t find joy in crossing as the center forwards fight a lone battle upfront. So ironically earlier 4-4-2 was used to stretch the opponent while attacking, while ‘this’ 4-4-2 is used to stretch the opponents while defending, which very few teams are comfortable adapting to.
Traditional wingers to counter 4-4-2?
This sudden rise of the new 4-4-2 has certainly provided hope for the resurrection of traditional wingers and traditional center forwards. Unless opponents have width and good headers in the box, they will find it hard to break down the team playing in this formation. So similar to how the urge to outnumber the midfield of a classical 4-4-2 helped in the evolution of inverted wingers, the urge to exploit the space left in the wide areas by this new defensive 4-4-2 can help in revival of traditional wingers.
Germany’s match against Holland in the Euro showed how a traditional winger can be used to exploit even a 4-2-3-1 formation. Muller, who is not a natural winger, along with Ozil (who drifted wide) exploited the inexperience of Jetro Willems in the left back spot and they did that by hugging the touch-line and not cutting in. They doubled up on Willems, who didn’t get support from Afellay in defense and was left all alone. This forced Nigel di Jong to go wide and help Willems, which left space in the center of the midfield that was exploited by Schweinsteiger, who played two lovely through balls to Gomez from that space.
The above highlighted are the two problems in 4-2-3-1 – firstly the wide players are placed so high up the pitch that they hardly help in defense and secondly, if the opponents use width in the pitch they create gaps through the center. Similarly, against England’s tactics, wide players will be the key. So an inverted winger is rendered ineffective against a defensive 4-4-2, this is where the traditional winger comes into play.
Football tactics might just be on the verge of evolution once again, where wingers might be back to their rightful place, the touch-line.