One of the major talking points in football these days, especially as far as Norwich City fans are concerned, is that of team formation (ie) the ‘set up’ preferred and chosen by the manager for his side.
Not so very long ago of course, nearly every team in football played 4-4-2. Two full backs and two central defenders behind a couple of central midfielders, one of whom was defensively minded, the other more inclined to be creative and go forward to support the front two-usually the ‘classic’ big strong one and little quick one. The midfield would be supplemented by a winger on each side, their brief: get the ball, run like hell and deliver the killing pass to the forwards – onto the head of the big strong one or to the feet of the little quick one.
Simple. Classic. Hugely effective. It was employed by the great Leeds United team of the late 60s and early 70s as well as the even better Liverpool one that dominated the English game for so long afterwards. George Graham won two Championships in three years with it at Arsenal with a team that was as rigid and fixed to that formation as you could ever wish to see whilst the team that ex-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson calls the ‘greatest’ of his Manchester United reign, the one that won the treble in 1999 was classic 4-4-2. Gary Neville and Denis Irwin as full backs alongside central defenders Jaap Stam and Ronnie Johnson; Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in the centre of midfield, flanked by Ryan Giggs and David Beckham on either flank with Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke in attack.
Like I said. Simple. Classic. Hugely effective – after all, how much more effective can a team formation and playing ethos be than one which wins the Premier League title, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season? Even when injury or suspension deprived Ferguson of some of his first team choices, he invariably had quality replacements to fit into his system of play meaning that, as much as the side could have been deprived of its major components, their system of play and understanding of their respective roles was so precise that you barely noticed the difference.
Their Champions League win over Bayern Munich that system is testimony to that. With Keane and Scholes both suspended, David Beckham and Nicky Butt slotted into their central places, Giggs switched to the right and Jesper Blomqvist played on the left hand side. Major team and positional changes yet one which still beared fruit despite two of their major players slotting into a relatively unfamiliar position. But they still won. Clearly and obviously, in this case, the team, that formation and manner of play was greater than the sum of its parts, an indictment of the effectiveness of the system and the 4-4-2 formation as a whole.
Yet that formation is now held up and ridiculed as being out of date, out of touch and in no way relevant to the ‘modern game’.
Ah yes, that all telling phrase, ‘the modern game’. A swift and easy statement to make of course, especially if accompanied by a knowing look that defies any desire to ask for further definition. But what does it mean, exactly? And why has the 4-4-2 formation, so effective for so long and with a winning CV that begs for attention, now been written off, laughed at almost by so many people in-and, interestingly and far more predominantly, out of the game?
Norwich City fans, in the main, seem to have written it off. I noted in the build up to both the Everton and Hull City games that, whenever people were, as we do, jotting down their preferred line up for those matches, those that advocated anything like a 4-4-2 formation were subjected to copious amounts of abuse for even daring to suggest that Chris Hughton think such a thing, those same detractors busily, as an alternative, offering their own versions of the preferred line up.
Thus you could select from 4-3-1-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-3-2 (hardly revolutionary, it’s the formation England played when they won the World Cup) and even, on a couple of occasions, a 4-3-3 that had The Wolf flanked by a pre-injury Elliott Bennett in an advanced role on the right and Pilks on the left – I quite liked the look of that one.
Anything but a 4-4-2 in other words. Indeed, after the game against Hull City, one of my esteemed colleagues on this very website noted that Norwich had started the game set up in a 4-2-2-1-1 formation, similar to how many of the leading club sides in Europe do – progressive indeed and a clear sign of intent – after all, if it’s good enough for some of them and effective enough when deployed properly, surely its good enough for us?
Yet I look at that formation as well as all the others and one inescapable fact comes back to me. And that is this: they are all derivatives of 4-4-2. So that old fashioned, classic, romantic formation of old hasn’t so much been consigned to the pages of history as upgraded-in much the same way that the forecourt price you might pay for a new car gets you the basic model. But if you want all the optional extras, those little luxuries, the add-on peripherals, then the technology is a little more complicated, and the engineering involved a bit more classy. As is the price.
In other words, for your basic, on the road, no frills or perks forecourt footballing model, you get 4-4-2. But if you want a bit more than that, some added extras, footballing bells and whistles, then up the ante a little and go 4-2-3-1. Or 4-5-1. Or a regular favourite of a certain ex-manager of ours, 4-1-2-1-2.
The only problem with that is, as the technology and the understanding that goes with it is enhanced, then things are more likely to go wrong. Look at Formula One cars. The peak of engineering perfection – yet some of them are so highly tuned, so sophisticated from a technological point of view, they can barely go a few laps around a track without breaking down. Yet your or my old four door saloon can get up to 100,000 miles plus without needing as much as an oil change or new brake liners every now and again.
Yet if you strip both cars back to the very basics, they’re still four wheels, a chassis, an engine and a steering wheel. Thus for every new or advanced formation we see in football they are, when we strip them down to the basics just your very basic, very core and simple 4-4-2 at foundation level. So nothing has really changed. 4-2-3-1? Its 4-4-2 really – it’s just that nobody likes to admit it.
One of the front two players has dropped slightly deeper and, to make room for him, two of the central midfielders have dropped back as well with the back four staying as it is. 4-5-1? Even simpler. One attacking player drops back but the core midfield-four stay together in an attempt to dominate the centre of the pitch and, with it, the game.
It used to be the penalty areas where games were won and lost – either through defensive errors or swift and decisive action from the forwards. However, winning and losing games in that part of the pitch – yours or your opponents – is now deemed as too risky a tactic to employ so teams have taken the softer option and withdrawn into what was previously considered shared, even neutral space.
But not any longer. Games are now won and lost in midfield and, a consequence of that, more and more goals are coming from set pieces and set plays and, with that in mind, why waste valuable possession time on an extra forward, a perceived luxury, when you can have another man back in order to win that all too crucial battle in no man’s land, an extra fighter, a grafter, someone prepared to put a shift in – and the reason why David Fox doesn’t get a game now. Because that’s not his game – and that, in itself, is a little local tragedy as far as I am concerned, he can’t get a game because he is too creative a player, too imaginative to fit in. Too high a risk to the master-plan.
Which brings me back to an earlier point – the ‘modern game’. What does that really mean? It means, for me, a game that is now played on the principle of attrition, the wearing down of the opposition by continuous pressure and harassment led from not the front-but the middle.
Hence 4-4-2 has not become old fashioned, out of date and out of touch as far as the modern game is concerned. Far from it. It is, and has become fashionable to condemn it in that manner but it is not true and we have been misled into thinking that it is, so much so that the infamous phrase about how “…if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” comes to mind.
The real reason 4-4-2 is now so out of fashion in football is that it is considered too much of a risk tactically, too open and too prone to error and chance. It is, was, a formation designed to win games. Those employed now are designed to ensure that you do not lose.
A subtle difference.
Proof of this could be seen for anyone who watched the Manchester United versus Chelsea game in Monday night which saw a midfield so tightly congested with players – eleven in total at one point – that the two teams were only ever going to be able to play one game: wear down the opposition, no matter what the cost might be in terms of entertainment value.
But at least there was a vague inkling in United’s starting line up that they might want to win with the selection of van Persie. Chelsea, for all their potential flamboyance and flair planned and played for a 0-0 draw. No question about it. A player of the skill and vision of Mata in your ranks and you stick him on the bench? Come on Jose, what’s that all about? It’s about not risking him, that’s what it’s all about. And not because he might have an injury or be one yellow card away from a suspension. He’s not being ‘rested’ either. Mata wasn’t playing because he was considered too much of a risk tactically in a team that went there to grind out a 0-0 draw. Modern football eh?
This, regrettably, is the price we have to pay in a game that is now so riddled with money that success or failure is not measured in goals scored or trophies won but, as far as the Premier League is concerned, defined by just two things. The first is qualifying for the Champions League – an option for maybe six, seven clubs at the most. For the other thirteen or so success is merely staying put, fighting and scrapping to stay in the money pit by whatever means possible to do nothing more than have a chance to do it all again the following season. And the one after that. Plus the one after that. And so on. Nothing else matters and, to the games eternal shame, winning a Cup becomes a distraction, an obstacle even, rather than a means of celebration.
And, with that, 4-4-2 has been consigned to the pages of footballing history. Selecting two strikers is seen as an near obscene indulgence whilst the old fashioned winger, once seen as a permissible luxury are now rarely seen at all, certainly in pairs. 4-4-2 has been killed off as a result of how the priorities, on and off the pitch have changed, but has its hunt into near extinction been for the greater good of the game? I don’t think so.
So yes, it might be easy to lambast Chris Hughton when he selects what appears, on paper, to be a negative formation for our game against Southampton on Saturday. But what choice does he have? Should he be cavalier, attack from the start and go for goals, glory and entertainment – bearing in mind we have all gone to Norwich games that were packed full of entertainment and goal mouth action – and lost?
Or does he start with a point and aim, at the very least, to end with one as well? We might not like it and, I strongly suspect, neither does he or the players. But until the games’ priorities swing and demand that teams go out to win again rather than not to lose, then that’s how it is always going to be – and that’s exactly how it will remain until there is some sort of financial parity and the price of failure is measured in purely footballing tones rather than financial ones – because then teams might decide it’s worth taking a risk again.
And we might see the renaissance of the 4-4-2 formation at the same time a sign of a brave new footballing world rather than one considered backward and out of date.