The England national team hardly boast an illustrious history of philosophical experimentation at World Cups. In fact, it took us until Fabio Capello’s appointment in 2008 to realise that a flat 4-4-2 didn’t work at international level. Spain on the other hand, had already evolved their passing game to not including a recognised striker, echoing in the era of tica-taca and false nines.
Yet, with the revolution of youth the flavour of the month, typified by the inclusions of Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson into Roy Hodgson’s 23-man World Cup squad, and England’s chances for the tournament written off by Greg Dyke’s cut-throat gesture back in December, if there was ever an opportunity to venture outside the entrenched tactical conventions of English football, it’s undoubtedly Brazil 2014.
The breakaway from formational tradition I’m alluding to is the adoption of Liverpool’s diamond midfield, a system which has got the best out of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling this season and subsequently driven the Anfield outfit to runner-up status in the Premier League.
Admittedly, it’s an enormous deviation from Three Lions norm – conventional wingers are ingrained into the history of English football and have always been a tactical focal point of the national team. Yet, where has this tradition actually got us? England haven’t won a major tournament for nearly half a century, and looking at the country’s most recent crop of widemen it’s not difficult to understand why. Barring Joe Cole and David Beckham, the Three Lions’ flanks have been manned by a rather unenviable cast over the last decade, including such international flops as Stewart Downing, Aaron Lennon, Adam Johnson, Trevor Sinclair and Ashley Young. Recent inductees Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Andros Townsend haven’t given too much to shout about either.
The diamond formation on the other hand gives England the opportunity to play to it’s obvious strengths – namely our quality and depth in central midfield. Steven Gerrard has mastered the quarterback role this season, whilst Jordan Henderson has proved an effective operator in the right-central role, often working in close tandem with the England centurion and providing the box-to-box dynamism to make up for Gerrard’s ageing legs . Likewise, it would allow for the inclusion of either Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana at the tip of midfield – two players Roy Hodgson will be exceptionally keen to warrant significant game-time to in Brazil – whilst James Milner, Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere are all more than capable of filling the other central midfield slot.
Furthermore and interestingly enough, the genuine out-and-out wingers Hodgson has included in his World Cup squad – namely Welbeck, Sterling and Oxlade-Chamberlain – have often produced their best form this season when fielded in more central attacking roles.
19 year-old Sterling for example, has claimed his most potent return of three goals and two assists in five outings when operating behind Liverpool’s strikers. Playing through the middle allows the Reds starlet the option of attacking either wing on the break, rather than being restricted to one side of the pitch. Similarly, Arsene Wenger has made no secret of his plans to rebuild Oxlade-Chamberlain as a central midfielder, boasting an incredible engine, powerful shoulders and often receiving the ball on the back foot, whilst Danny Welbeck’s best performance of the season – a brace-grabbing display against Aston Villa in December – came playing directly behind Wayne Rooney.
The diamond formation also resolves another pressing dilemma for Roy Hodgson – how to best fit Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge in the same starting line-up. Some have alleged the Liverpool assassin could be used out wide, having featured there occasionally for the Reds this season and often during his Chelsea career, but that would significantly limit the firepower of the Premier League’s second-top scorer, who has racked up a prolific total of 21 goals and seven assists in 29 league outings.
Two up front, on the other hand, allows Hodgson to field Rooney and Sturridge, the two highest-scoring Englishmen in the top flight this season, at the same time – he’s rarely used the Manchester United forward as a No.10 on England duty, and prior history suggests that, in England’s current 4-5-1 formation, Sturridge will have to be left on the bench for key games if he can’t provide enough defensive cover on the wing.
Even in regards to the Three Lions’ defensive personnel, a switch to a 4-1-2-1-2 makes perfect sense. It allows added cover in the middle of the park, with the heart of defence undoubtedly our weakest department on paper, whilst also playing to the strengths of our full-backs. Glen Johnson for example, has been operating in Liverpool’s diamond formation all year and will be more than aware of a right-back’s requirements in that system. Leighton Baines too – and Luke Shaw – are better-known for their impact going forward rather than in defence. The diamond midfield gives them licence to contribute higher up the pitch and stick to what they do best – those piercing left-footed delivers into the box.
That being said, from England’s point of view, the suggested diamond formation does have its flaws. For example, there’s certainly something paradoxical about suggesting adopting Liverpool’s system despite the glaring absence of Liverpool’s best player, Luis Suarez. Perhaps the formation wouldn’t be so in vogue if the Reds didn’t have the form of the Premier League’s Player of the Year to argue its case. And although five Liverpool players will reap the benefits of familiarity – including Steven Gerrard who, on paper, remains England’s key player going into the World Cup – that also means 18 players won’t.
Likewise, it’s hardly boded well for the Merseysiders at the defensive end of the pitch this season – their 50 goals conceded is the worst record in the Premier League’s top nine. Lacking adequate defensive cover on the flanks, it’s no coincidence that Liverpool have leaked goals using the diamond formation, especially on the break. Although it would play to many of England’s strengths, a diamond will also make our make our biggest weakness more prevalent.
But of all England’s expected failings in Brazil, our defending is not one of them. In truth, should you be a right-back, right-winger or a centre-forward, if you ply your trade in the Premier League, the defensive and athletic sides to your game will be more finely attuned than your Spanish, Brazilian, Italian, German or Argentine counter-parts.
Rather, our biggest weaknesses remain keeping possession and effectively penetrating in the final third. The mixture of the diamond formation and the injection of athletically gifted, optimistically-minded younger players will certainly address that.
Although I believe adopting Liverpool’s system has the potential to help England upset the odds in Brazil, it’s unlikely a formational venture Roy Hodgson will be keen to adopt. The Three Lions manager is hardly known for his tactical manoeuvring – at least, not in a positive, forward-thinking sense – and throughout his England tenure has always shown a tendency to stick to what he knows best.
But if exploiting strengths and hiding weaknesses is the crux of football management, then Hodgson could do a lot worse than utilising a formation that does both for England.