4-3-1-2? 4-1-2-1-2? 4-4-2 diamond? Gavin Nolan discusses the current dilemma surrounding Premier League tacticians at present.
Look through the Premier League now, or any of the teams in top European leagues and you will struggle to find the team that predominantly plays 4-4-2.
For so long it was the default system that teams used. Growing up, kids were introduced to 11-aside football by playing with a flat back four, two central midfielders, two wingers and two forwards. It was the norm.
Then with the increase of the popularity and importance of football came a greater in depth look at how teams lined up. The turn of the century brought more of an emphasis in controlling games and formations were adapted to accommodate this. In most cases a striker was dropped in favour of having an extra man in midfield.
But this led to a lack of penetration in games as teams only had one target man playing against two central defenders. So when teams were losing, they nearly always reverted back to type and substituted a midfielder for a striker or an attacker to try to pull a goal back late on.
Over time teams have tried to combine the two new styles with varying degrees of success. Combining the penetration that two strikers bring with the ball retention that three central midfielders provide a team is an interesting concept. It brings together the strength of both formations but putting it into practice leads to other problems as only 11 players can be played. Other positions have to be sacrificed in order to accommodate this.
There are three formations that really do this. The first is the talk amongst all football critics lately with it being 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 depending on how you say it. With Louis Van Gaal using this formation with the Netherlands at the World Cup and more recently at Manchester United, its strengths and weaknesses have been debated at length in the media.
The weakness of this variation of two up top and three in the middle is the fact that the work rate of the wing backs is doubled and they have one less defender at the back. A lot of time when this formation is being used the centre backs get exposed out in wide areas when they are left one on one with the opponent’s wide men.
This formation is enjoying a bit of a renaissance as of late with Juventus having used it for the last few seasons, Hull and Wigan have both reached FA Cup finals in the last two years with a three man defence and QPR are the latest club in England to employ this formation.
The second formation is 4-3-1-2, also known as 4-1-2-1-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond. This involves not playing with wingers and having three midfielders, two strikers and an additional man playing behind the forwards to support them. England recently used this formation against Switzerland in their Euro 2016 qualifier.
This formation has serious problems with width and leads to all the play being funneled through the middle requiring very intricate play in the midfield to create goal scoring opportunities. AC Milan made this formation famous over the last ten years.
The third formation is not as common as the other two, with this writer only ever seeing one team play this a handful of times. A few years ago under Harry Redknapp, Tottenham lined up in a traditional 4-4-2 with Rafael Van Der Vaart playing right wing. When the game started though, it was clear that Van Der Vaart was not operating as a right winger and was playing as a normal central midfielder.
The Spurs team played without a right winger, with the full back double-jobbing as both the defender and the winger. This formation does have three midfielders and two strikers, but only sacrifices one winger. However, it does require the team to have an exceptionally good full back to be able to cover for the absent winger, and there isn’t a whole lot of them left. Redknapp only played this formation a few times before abandoning it.
Coupling a pair of strikers with a trio of centre midfielders is the objective of many managers in today’s game. Giving yourself a good chance of scoring while remaining competitive in midfield is a conundrum that has yet to be solved, but it sure is interesting to watch teams try.
Gavin Nolan, Pundit Arena.