This is for my son.
I don’t mean that in the way that authors dedicate their prose to a loved one. I am under no illusions that my scribblings for MyFootballWriter don’t warrant such a thing.
Instead, it is aimed at providing my boy with some reasoning as to why his favourite player was unceremoniously shipped out on loan to Sheffield Wednesday.
I’ve mentioned before that ‘Wee Man’ idolises Gary Hooper. It goes way beyond having a name and number on his shirt. Such is the desire to emulate his hero that if he was old enough he would undoubtedly tweet pictures of Adidas trainers, go on golfing mini-breaks, get himself a sleeve tattoo, and call everyone ‘boss’.
As such, Gary’s loan move to Yorkshire was not well-received by Cook Junior and understandably he came looking for answers.
Now deep-down I suspect the reason is that Hooper is a bit lazy, a bit overweight and not really good enough for the Premier League. But not wishing to expose my boy to life’s harsh realities, I told him that Gary is a victim of ‘formation fashion’; a square peg in a round hole.
Regardless of whether he’s carrying a bit of ‘extra timber’, I believe that Hooper operates most effectively with a strike partner, which invariably means playing a variant on 4-4-2 and in recent times that’s the tactical equivalent of wearing sandals and socks.
It might feel comfortable but it does make you look a little bit old and outdated.
That being the case, then where does it leave strikers in the mould of Hooper and what is the future (if any) for 4-4-2?
It’s a formation that is as traditionally English as fish ‘n chips or a cup ‘o tea; so entrenched in our footballing culture that it even lends itself to the title of a magazine.
Such was the reliance on 4-4-2 and a complete intransigence to consider alternatives that for many years the national team adopted the formation despite never really having the players to exploit it. Players such as Joe Cole and Steve McManaman were asked to rectify ‘England’s left-sided problem’ when perhaps the real problem was with the formation itself and the fact that it didn’t utilise the strengths of the nation’s best players.
As an aside and a point of discussion where and how would Lionel Messi have been accommodated within that footballing landscape had he been born with a British passport? Would any of the English managers have built a side around his unique talent or would they have tried to shoe-horn his precious left foot in to the left side of midfield?
From being the default setting for most English clubs, subtle changes to football’s rules exposed the deficiencies with 4-4-2. The tweaks to the offside rule meant that the game became more stretched which potentially created gaps between the three banks of players.
The choice was stark; you either closed those ranks which made the formation look fundamentally negative and defensive or plough on regardless and watch teams exploit the spaces and make you look a little bit silly (we’re back to those sandals and socks).
Arguably 4-4-2’s tormenter-in-chief was Pep Guardiola but long before he took up the reigns at the Camp Nou, Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona were exposing the gaps in opponent’s formations with possession based on creating simple passing triangles in a fluid 4-3-3.
Guardiola took it to whole new levels in the era of tiqui-taca. The dominance of his Barca team was replicated by the Spanish national side; both of whom starved their opponents of possession and passed them to the point of complete submission.
Teams en masse started to adopt formations such as 4-2-3-1. The nature of possession-based football called for all players to be more than ‘just’ a defender, a midfielder or a striker; players who no longer stuck rigidly to a position but instead operated across different areas of the pitch.
In fact Guardiola’s Barca regularly played without a recognised striker at all, generating the position of the ‘False 9’ (although it could be argued that Ricky Van Wolfswinkel created the role when he inherited Holty’s shirt).
Just when it looked like 4-4-2 would be consigned to the footballing scrapheap, Bayern Munich and Germany staged something of a revival. Maybe it was the German’s deep-rooted love of the sandal/sock combination but their version was based on fast flowing and direct football with Thomas Müller operating in a free role behind his strike partner.
Their dynamic and incisive football was a tonic to those who had grown tired of watching Iniesta and Xavi exchanging countless five-yard passes and culminated in Bayern’s 7-0 destruction of the Spaniards across both legs of the Champions League semi-final of 2013.
Football fashionistas lapped it up and quickly jumped on the new bandwagon. Tiqui-taca was soooooo last year.
Now in recent years in the Premier League, Man City and Liverpool have both adopted the 4-4-2 with great effect which demonstrates that with the right combination of players, the formation can still be extremely effective.
At Norwich, Alex Neil has shown that he’s willing to try different tactics and formations depending on the opposition. However I suspect that we will predominantly favour ‘one up top’ this year with the ‘one’ being of the 6-foot plus variety; a striker possessing both the physical presence to hold the ball up and the pace to stretch a defence by running in behind.
This is principally due to the need to accommodate our Irish wizard and adopt a formation that gives him the freedom to weave his magic whilst also offering some protection to our brittle back-line.
Nevertheless we arguably played a 4-4-2 against Chelsea last Saturday with Redmond operating just behind Mbokani in an attempt to counter at pace through the middle.
So maybe there is a place for 4-4-2 in the modern game and a place at Carrow Road for forwards who like to operate off a strike partner?
That is unless they’re a bit lazy, a bit overweight and not really good enough for the Premier League.
You can follow Steve on Twitter @stevocook