Even before England’s unconvincing warm up matches against Mexico and Japan I had spoken to many fans who felt the modified 4-4-2 employed by Fabio Capello is a system that needs to be dropped. Over the past two years (and considerably longer if you take into account the left sided midfield problem) England have suffered from four distinct problems that a change in formation, to something like a 4-3-3, would do better to remedy.
I heard a lot of fans sharing a similar opinion that a change to 4-3-3 would maximise the output of England’s best players and mask some of the deficiencies we have. The first issue has been a strike partner for Wayne Rooney. It’s yet unclear who Fabio Capello will choose from between, probably, Crouch and Heskey to start alongside Rooney against the USA. Yet this season has highlighted his ability to lead the line alone successfully. An added dimension to fielding Rooney up front alone is his ability to drop off and play as a false nine. By doing this on occasion it adds variety to the England approach play, which has been dangerously unadventurous against Mexico and Japan.
The second issue is lacking a left sided midfielder. In a 4-3-3 Steven Gerrard can operate higher up the pitch on the left side of attack, more so as an inside forward, and can cut in allowing Ashley Cole space on the overlap. Considering he has been deployed as an auxiliary forward for three seasons by Benitez this is not alien territory. The right side of the trident can ideally be filled by Aaron Lennon. His pace and directness is a necessary contrast to Gerrard on the other side and with Rooney sometimes dropping off he may find himself with space in behind to attack the goal (Rooney slipping Lennon in with a great through ball against Japan is a perfect example). From the bench, a player like Joe Cole can slot in on either side of the attack, or just behind in a traditional playmaker’s role. All three forwards need to be mobile and responsible and in Gerrard, Rooney and Lennon we have a dangerous mix of experience, vision and pace.
A third issue is giving Frank Lampard the kind of licence he enjoys for Chelsea. Playing ahead of two holding midfielders allows just that and mimics the familiar positions he finds himself in for his club regularly. The final aspect of England’s game a 4-3-3 would bolster is our startling dearth of ball winning, defensive midfielders. With Owen Hargreaves out for so long England have been seriously lacking in effective destructive players who can cover attackers and protect the back four. Playing two holding midfielders covers this deficiency somewhat. The question now would be who can partner Gareth Barry? The choices are James Milner and Michael Carrick. Though Milner is not a defensively minded player, he has the necessary determination, stamina and discipline to play alongside Barry whilst also linking pay going forward (the truth is that Barry has only been converted to that position this season mainly for England). And whilst Carrick isn’t a popular choice given his season and performance against the Mexicans (who really played well in these warm ups?) but it is a position he knows and with someone alongside him doing his dirty work the pressure is relieved somewhat.
The advantages of a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1, if you like) is that against the better teams, the double pivot becomes increasingly important. England cannot expect to beat any of the serious contenders with only one ball winning midfielder (in Hargreaves’ absence we still don’t have a genuine heel-snapper; Barry sits and distributes well but hasn’t got the same destructive qualities) because it would be too easy to overwhelm him – the opposition playmaker or a second forward can drop in between defence and midfield and occupy his attentions. The formation also allows Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney – England’s better players – to take up positions and patterns of movement they are more attuned to on a weekly basis.
The truth is, however, that this remains a speculative Football Manager exercise; it’s impossible to envisage a formation change at this late stage. The modified 4-4-2 with a ‘big man’ to partner Rooney and Gerrard out wide seems solid enough but far from intimidating. What do you think?
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