When I did the Premier XI for the first half of the EPL season, I picked the 4-2-3-1 as the formation of choice. Upon reading it, my buddy Jon Walsh (@j85royals on Twitter) sent me this tweet
Later on in our conversation, he told me about Jonathan Wilson’s book Inverting the Pyramid and other works that he’s done. I found an interesting piece done by Jonathan Wilson many months ago on how the 4-2-3-1 was losing its luster and giving way for something different:
When 4–2–3–1 first emerged, it seemed a way of reintroducing dribblers into the game. With the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robben and Eden Hazard, it is easy to forget that by the mid-90s, it had become relatively rare to see a player run at an opponent and try to take him on primarily with skill as opposed to pace. The old-school winger may have been reinvented as a wide-forward more concerned with scoring than crossing, but in terms of close technical ability, often from a standing start, many of the attributes of the traditional winger have been reawakened over the past 15 years.
What has become increasingly apparent, though, is that having players with a licence to dribble from high up the pitch brings its own danger. Those wide men must also be prepared, as an absolute minimum, to track or close the opposing full-back and, ideally, they should have the awareness to drop off and pick up the opposing winger if he comes into that three-quarter space at the edge of the 4–2–3–1.
When Jon wanted me to write about the 4-2-3-1 formation’s rebirth in the EPL, I was thinking to myself “Geez, how am I going to do this?” I’ve truthfully been a peripheral fan of SACCER since around 2008 or so, and this is the 2nd season I’ve truthfully watched the EPL/Champions League in a large dose, so I was struggling to answer this question. Most of my articles here are more so leaned towards analytics (regression, Shot Metrics, R2 correlations etc…) and videos showing why stuff happened, instead of being someone like a Gary Neville or a Jamie Redknapp who talk about formations as absolutes, the be all end all of what happens on a pitch. Here’s an example:
What I tried to do is since WhoScored has formations for every game, I did a table seeing which team used which formation. Here’s what I’ve come with
Arsenal leads the list 19 while Norwich and Aston Villa have yet not played a game with three attacking midfielders. The thing that’s always fascinated me with formations are when they’re debated on and how absolute one might go into correlating a certain outcome of a game due to a tactical change of some sort. One of my favorite pieces written in the past while was Richard Whittall’s Skeptical Tactician piece following the Dortmund/Arsenal matchup in the Champions League. It kind of devolved into a rhetorical game of 20 Questions but that’s why I enjoyed it so:
To what degree did Arsenal’s defence help stop those Dortmund shots from becoming goals? Or did Dortmund’s poor finishing play a part? How much of a part did luck play in helping keep those shots from going in the net?
How would the outcome of the match had changed if one of those Dortmund shots took a deflection and went in? Would Arsenal’s back four still be commended on a job well done had the final half hour proceeded the way it did with Arsenal taking the same number of chances after the 60 minute mark (4, with 3 on target) but still losing 1-0 to Dortmund?
How did the goal change the dynamic of the match exactly? Was Arsenal’s decision to push up (mostly via the right channel) in the last thirty minutes specifically tactical? Was it directed by the manager, or did it flow organically from the available passing options and a perceived opening of space on that right flank? Did the ‘game state’ effect play a part somehow? Were Arsenal aware of this effect and therefore worked in some way to help mitigate it?
I’ve had conversations about this game with various folks, whether in real life or on Twitter and it’s split on how much Arsenal stifled Dortmund and how much it was due to weird shit happening. Jamie Redknapp was glossing over how much Arsenal made Dortmund look average in their attacks- well moments like this happened throughout the match http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTdNg7ChRWU. The one thing I hate sometimes about the football media and especially pundits on TV is how there’s a reluctance to accept that variance plays a part in matchups unless it’s fixed, like a goal coming off a deflection or something of that nature. I don’t find formations to be absolutes. I believe that variance has a part in what happens in a football match. The reason why I mention PDO as much as I do is acknowledging that something’s are decided by the supernatural instead of manmade. The video linked earlier featuring Neville and Redknapp is an example for my skepticism in how much formations correlate to events. I recognize that football would not exist without some sort of structure or some sort of role designation cause if it didn’t, it’d be the equivalent of savagery. I realize the great work that writers like Jonathan Wilson, Kristin Jack or Michael Cox do on a weekly basis to tell us what happened tactically in a match or why Team X is on a 5 game unbeaten streak cause they changed from a 4-3-3 with a CAM to a more stoic version with 3 holding midfields to stop leaking goals. I get it, and I can agree to an extent that certain outcomes on a football field is tactically and formation driven, but tactics and formations can only do so much. One has to account for SV%, SH%, score effects, players interactions. One could say “Ah they’re playing a 4-4-2″ while someone could say “No! It’s clearly a 4-4-1-1. What are you watching?” It’s very much subjective and in the eye of the beholder.
You know the thing said about analytics by some is that it can only tell us so much about a team/match, well I find it appropriate for tactics and formations. For example, in Mesut Ozil’s first match at Arsenal vs Sunderland, WhoScored had it as a 4-2-3-1.
Setanta though had a bit different.
So which one was it? Was it a 4-3-3? Was it a 4-2-3-1? Even the heat maps from the game is a bit conflicting seeing as Ozil was all over the place while Walcott’s action areas and passes were at the flanks. It’d be really hard to say definitively what formation was it exactly. There’s certain things you can take from the game, but there’s certain things you can’t take from it. Even take the Chelsea-Liverpool matchup. The biggest move made was by Jose Mourinho to insert David Luiz in the lineup over John Obi Mikel because well, he’s John Obi Mikel. Squawka had the Liverpool formation as a 3-4-2-1 while WhoScored had it as a 4-3-3. David Luiz himself was OK in the match but his movement in the pitch was a marvel to watch. One tweet really symbolized Luiz’s game in a nutshell:
So what is David Luiz? Box to box central defender? Winger/full back/defensive mid.—
Richard Whittall (@RWhittall) December 29, 2013
His heat map from this game would symbolize the hard part of designating a position for him:
Or even take the United Arsenal fixture. Phil Jones and Michael Carrick were the slotted Defensive Midfielders. Here’s Michael Carrick’s Action Areas.
And here’s Phil Jones:
I’ve said before that Phil Jones is the English equivalent for David Luiz cause what he does on a pitch rivals the Brazilian in terms of playing without a position. Are they a CM? DM? CB? It’d be hard to designate wouldn’t it?
I realize that this post will be taken by some as me shitting on the notion of tactics and the value it brings. Let me repeat, tactics and formations play a role in football. They do matter. Teams will usually structure their players in a certain way to play a certain style of football. I take issue with the fact that it’s such a direct correlation to events that happen on a football pitch. I still have so much to learn about tactics and the intricacies it brings and maybe I’ll change my tone with more education on the manner. I’ll still believe no matter how educated I become in tactics that variance will play a part in results but maybe I’ll appreciate the nuances a 4-2-3-1 brings even more. Football is an ever evolving sport, filled with its nooks and crannies. It evolves at its own pace and at its own whims. You’ve got two choices, evolve with it, or get left behind like at the alter.