The general assumption about academy football is that it’s a stepping stone to the first team, and so ideas and philosophies within the club are all connected. However, the 4-3-1-2 formation used by the Under-18s has absolutely no correlation to how the first team plays.
So why is it frequently used?
Despite this season containing mixed results for the U18s, one consistent theme has been the system they play. One of the obvious advantages, especially for young players, is it helps the team build compatibility and familiarity.
For example, Waylon Renecke and Alfie Doy have played as the centre-back partnership for a huge chunk of the season, and have rarely been part of a back three or five.
The 4-3-1-2 formation is similar to the diamond formation [4-1-2-1-2] – a shape which the U21s had huge success with last season. However, the main tactical difference between the two, is that the two wide midfielders are asked to play narrow in the 4-3-1-2 rather than out wide in the 4-1-2-1-2.
The U18s go for the 4-3-1-2, and it’s shown in team selections too, as it’s normally Hugo Valencia-Gomez, Finley Welch, Eliott Myles, and Dubem Eze occupying the wide central midfielders roles. All of these players prefer to play centrally rather than out wide.
One of the main benefits of playing in this structure is that it gives midfielders the licence to shine. Due to there being an overload of players in the centre of the pitch, it showcases combinations much more prominently.
With the central numerical advantage, it helps create passing patterns, allowing the attacking-minded players to grow into the game. Elliot Myles, Fin Welch and Dubem Eze are prime examples, as they have good goal-contribution numbers this season.
In addition to that, it showcases the midfielders’ physical ability to get across the pitch, especially the wide central midfielders. Due to the expansive nature of the shape, there are occasions where the wide central midfielders have to help the full-backs, by doubling on the opposing team’s winger. Welch, in particular, has done this well this season and is integral, whenever he plays, for the U18s.
Moreover, the Club want to develop central midfield talent for the first team, and playing a shape that incorporates a lot of centre midfielders certainly gives them scope to do so.
This season, there’s been an emphasis on the midfielders driving the ball up the pitch, an important attribute that the Club looks for.
Even the deep-lying central midfielder, Uriah Djedje has shown his personality on the ball this season, producing many penetrating runs. He has been the single pivot at times this season and so has had to take a lot of responsibility on his young shoulders.
In addition to that, having three central midfielders helps the centre-backs build from the back as it gives the defenders an extra option. It forces the opponent to make a decision, whether to press the extra body or sit off.
However, this shape has its limitations too. One of which is how it leaves the full-backs exposed.
The U18s league is attack-orientated, full of expression and raw talent, so nullifying talented wingers can be difficult at times. This is one of the reasons why I have much empathy for the full-backs, as they are regularly up against the opponent wingers one-on-one – especially as they have no typical winger there to protect them.
Also, this formation can be prone to isolating the holding midfielder, due to the fact the shape can easily be stretched – leaving an abundance of space in the centre of the pitch. This has been a common theme this season, leaving Djedje (CDM) having to cover vast areas of the pitch.
Another tactical limitation to this set-up is that the opposition fullbacks have a lot of freedom to join attacks, due to the fact they have no winger to compete against. This has resulted in a lot of sides maximising the width against Norwich due to the fact that their defensive responsibility is limited.
This is a shape that works the most effectively for this team, as it has players who complement it nicely. For example, this formation benefits Welch hugely as he’s given an attacking licence to carry the ball up the pitch.
Due to the promise Welch showed early on in the season, this side has now altered in personnel. U16s talents Hugo Valencia-Gomez and Elliot Myles have been used in the midfield, which will enhance their development come next season. Both have shown their qualities, but understandably not to the extent of Welch, who was a talismanic figure for the U18s.
It’s important, of course, to not pile pressure on the U16s players, as U18s football is a big step to make but they have used a U16 player for vast proportions of the season at left-back. Those two players have been Jaiden Owen and Tyler Williams – Williams played the majority of the first half of the season, and Owen the second.
Due to the wide areas constantly being under strain in this system, these two young left-backs must take immense credit as it’s been a challenging experience.
As mentioned earlier, this formation gives the midfielders the licence to shine but if you look at it from a holistic perspective, the midfield has been one of the areas of strength since David Wagner came in. The likes of Kenny McLean and Gabriel Sara have excelled and it gets you thinking about whether other areas of the pitch need to be showcased more.
It’ll be interesting to see if this formation will be carried into next season, or if they try and different approach come next August.
A bit of a mystery this one, there should be some joined up tactical similarities if younger players are to be developed for the first squad. Which tactics will prevail?
A couple of years ago, Norwich played two up front in their academy, as that’s the position which makes the most money in the market, Find it really interesting!!
Keith B says
No, don’t think it matters that much at U18 level. Main thing for these guys is physical, mental and skills development.
First team squads are made up of around 20-25 players spread over 10-12 years age-wise, with one or two outliers. And some of those won’t even have been in this country aged 16+. So if you get 2 of any age group through to the first team you’re doing well. And if you do happen to unearth a real gem he’ll be training with the first team anyway. The rest will finish up at lower league clubs like Diss and Ipswich, and all points in between.
There’s more overlap between U23 and the fist XI, so fair enough, you’d expect a certain consistency at that level.
Fair point mate, I appreciate your message and thanks for reading,