4-2-3-1…4-5-1…4-4-2…that’ll be four midfielders and two forwards then?
So Fabio Capello’s masterstroke in revitalising Wayne Rooney and turning England from World Cup no-hopers to instant Euro 2012 favourites was….to tell the Manchester United striker to hang back a bit.
That sage advice, if most of the English press is to be believed, transformed England’s formation from a prehistoric 4-4-2 to the liquid 4-5-1 that all the modern young bucks were using in South Africa.
Of course, like most theories spouted about soccer formations, it is so much hot air and falls apart at the slightest investigation.
The fact that Rooney, at times, sat a little deeper and then ran at the Bulgarian defence to team up fruitfully with three-goal front man Jermain Defoe does not mark a significant change of approach, least of all the abandonment of 4-4-2 — the basic formation usually preferred by most Brazilian coaches during their none-too shabby World Cup campaigns over the years.
The only teams playing a rigid 4-4-2 are the reds and the blues glued to a silver pole who do battle in table football matches around the world — everything else has a measure of fluidity that seems beyond the comprehension of many journalists who base their assumptions solely on the “tactical lineup” team sheets they are often handed before matches.
Forward pairings almost always operate at staggered levels on the pitch, working with each other with flick-ons, one-twos, lay-offs etc that carve a way though a usually outnumbering defence.
When Kenny Dalglish was coming short to collect the ball and peeling off to feed Ian Rush, not too many people were raving at how Liverpool had ripped up the rule book with this stunning new formation — partly because they had watched something exceedingly similar not too many years earlier with John Toshack and Kevin Keegan and everyone was happy to call it 4-4-2.
Teams have almost always operated with one or two central midfielders operating in a more defensive role while their partners left and right offer width and are more likely to attack. At some times in a match a snapshot might show that system as 4-2-2-2 yet moments later all four could be acting in a defensive position in, I don’t know, something you could perhaps describe as 4-4-2.
In 2009, when his stock was still high as England strode confidently through their World Cup qualifying campaign, Capello dismissed a question about whether his team were playing a “4-2-3-1 formation” as “stupid”.
“In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1,” he said.
This week’s FIFA technical report on the South Africa World Cup noted that three of the four semi-finalists played with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Which translates pretty much as four midfielders, two of whom take a more defensive approach, and two attackers, one of whom sits deep or as an advanced midfielder (“in the hole” as was the preferred term a few years ago).
Croatia’s straight-talking coach Slaven Bilic got to the heart of the matter when he was quizzed about formations after his team had outfoxed England in 2008 Euro qualifying.
“What does it mean?” he said. “It’s only for journalists at the beginning of each half. Such ‘systems’ are dying. It is all about the movement of 10 players.”
PHOTO: England’s Wayne Rooney (R) faces Bulgaria’s Iliyan Stoyanov (L) during their Euro 2012 qualifying soccer match at Wembley Stadium in London September 3, 2010. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh