From a 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1; why has the change occurred?

Until the ubiquitous and unscrupulous presence of the media, the World Cup was the stage that dominated tactical advances in the game. It was Brazil, known for their overt attacking intuitions, who were the first to shift to four defenders (from the traditional W-M formation) in their triumph at the 1958 World Cup. This led to a widespread imitation of their 4-2-4 over the next few years but as the world adapted to Brazil’s 58’ formula, the seleção had evolved yet again by 1962. This time they dazzled with a 4-3-3.

The World Cup continued to showcase tactical progressions and instigate widespread adoptions of winning formulas up until the 90s, where worldwide broadcasting and the internet took hold. With almost every league available to watch it became far more difficult to shock the world football consciousness with something revolutionary or unplayable; in essence it levelled the playing field a great deal. Now it is top level club football that dictates the direction of the game, and no better exemplar can be found than the single striker system at use by almost every team at the World Cup today.

If we take the Premier League, the flat 4-4-2 was adeptly destroyed by Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal (see here) early in the 2000s. Mourinho’s Chelsea similarly highlighted how a numerical disadvantage in midfield can cripple an opposition. The need for the Premier League teams to vary their tactics became especially clear in European ties and greater variation, always in a single striker system (Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United), led to sustained success in the last half of the 2000s. But the common dictum attached to playing a lone striker, especially in England, is that it’s a ‘negative’ or ‘defensive’ formation. That a formation itself is either offensive or defensive is a prevailing fallacy in the game. The truth is that formations remain neutral but it is the personnel and instructions to players that make them overtly attacking or defensive. Taking a glance at France’s Euro 2000 final team, in a single striker system, shows Djorkaeff, Zidane and Dugarry playing off Thierry Henry. Can that possibly be considered defensive?

The major international tournaments have reflected the changes of club football rather than instigated them. If we take Euro 2008, by the end of the tournament, albeit for injuries as well as tactical decisions, Germany, Croatia and Spain all played with a single striker. In the 2008 African Cup of Nations 13 of the 16 teams started with 4-4-2 but this year, at the same tournament, the use of twin strikers had almost disappeared (barring Ghana’s occasional switches to 4-4-2). And the World Cup is largely going to be a tournament for the single striker system (Spain, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Holland will all be using some form of it). What’s perhaps more interesting than rudimentarily observing the change is a comparison between the evolutions of two of the best propagators of single striker systems at South Africa: Brazil and Spain.

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Teams in Spain had adopted the 4-2-3-1 very early in the 2000s. The national team only produced its best football in the Euro 2008 semi and final when Fabregas had to replace the injured Villa. Counter intuitively the injury to Villa facilitated a change to 4-1-4-1 and the team played much more cohesively. They retained their shape in the final and have since – it seems – decided that a single striker formation allows their stars the best platform on which to play. And now, due to Senna’s absence, the team have opted for two holding midfielders (in Busquets and Alonso) instead of one. Silva and Iniesta operate on the right and left respectively as wingers with strong central intuitions; cutting in from wide induces the interchanging and fluid movement that most teams only enjoy after training at club level for a long time.

Spain’s success is not just the sheer volume of world class midfielders and forwards; the fact that they play the same systems at club level has already given them intimate tactical knowledge and an inbuilt understanding with their compatriots (Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets train together for club, Silva plays the same outside right position for Valencia, Villa understands his ex team mate’s movements and fluidly interchanges, Alonso is Madrid’s deep lying playmaker). England on the other hand play a modified 4-4-2 and none of their stars (Rooney, Gerrard, and Lampard) play the same formation at club level. The highly systematised nature of elite football means these changes are significant; it is a contributing factor, but by no means the whole reason, to Spain being so cohesive and England being so disjointed.

Brazil’s 4-2-3-1 is a change from the European style. The main difference is Robinho’s position; he plays a withdrawn second striker role on the left hand side and Ramires offers energy and defensive capabilities on the right. Their shape is called a diamond in midfield instead of an outright 4-2-3-1 but the subtlety of their execution should not be ignored. Jonathan Wilson commented on Robinho’s position as a main stumbling block for opposition teams, especially European sides who employ a similar system. The player has shown no desire to be defensive at all so should an opposing right back be instructed to maraud forward (calling Dunga’s bluff on that side of the field) or hold his position to nullify Robinho’s threat? It remains a strength for Dunga’s side indelibly geared to their strengths on the counter attack.

But the final point worth mentioning is how much does the labelling of a formation (calling it 4-4-2 or 4-1-3-2 or 4-2-3-1) actually matter? It is argued that when we actually recognise something and give it a name, it can be evolved and modified. So whilst it is important to gauge the widespread shift to the single striker system what should not be lost are the positional variations that players impose on their formations. Many would attribute Ferguson’s 1990s success to a flat 4-4-2 but he claims he has never used twin strikers; he says one has always been withdrawn. For Spain’s formation Villa is rendered the focal point of attack but in games, just as often, he drifts as a false nine to provide for team mates (who themselves have drifted to exploit space). Greece’s Euro 2004 win had the morning papers after their quarter final and semi final victories torn between dubbing their system a three man defence and a four man defence. The truth is the team varied their defensive setup during the tournament, completely dependent on their opposition strengths. So tactical observations remain important but we should always remember a 4-2-3-1, for example, isn’t going to cover the subtlety in movement between the Spanish style and the Brazilian style.

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