Thursday, July 10, 2008

Coming soon! The 3-6-1.

So, I just finished Jonathan Wilson’s rather good new book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics. I recommend a read to all real devotees of the sport (by some miracle, it has been released in North America at the same time as in the UK), though some of the press praise for the book is a little over the top in my opinion.

That said, Wilson ends the book with some intriguing speculation about the tactical developments of the last decade or so which I think are worth developing a bit.

Tactically speaking, the late 80s and early 90s were largely a battle between the 4-4-2 and the 3-5-2 (the latter occasionally morphing into a 5-3-2 if the wingers were deployed more deeply as wing backs. Yes, there were the odd romantics still playing 4-3-3 or even 3-4-3, but they were rare.

In a 4-4-2 vs. 3-5-2, the problem is basically that one of the centre-backs in the 3-5-2 is superfluous. What this does is open up a spot somewhere in the middle of the field for an opposing midfielder to exploit. You can make up for this if you have an exceptionally talented midfield with a couple of all-action players capable of going box-to-box and making late runs into the opposition area (as the Maradona-led Argentinan squads of the 80s, who did so much to popularize the formation, did), but if you don’t have that kind of quality, then the team using 3-5-2 is a significant disadvantage. Anyone doubting this is advised to examine last night’s TFC performance against the Whitecaps, which was embarrassing.

So, back to the story – by this decade, you could still occasionally see the 3-5-2 starting line-ups in the lower reaches of Serie A, in Croatia and in parts of Africa, but France 98 and Euro 2000 completely sealed the deal as far as the superiority of 4-4-2 was concerned. By 2002, teams playing 4-4-2 with a fast and attack-minded midfield were pretty much ruling the roost (Arsenal’s double-winning squad being perhaps the epitome of this).

But then teams started to get wise to this and realised that if the midfield could be packed a bit, it was possible to stop these free-flowing teams. Since the 4-4-2 often employed trailing strikers who played just behind the lead man (think of Bergkamp’s role vis-a-vis Henry, or Guevara’s to Dichio for that matter), it wasn’t an enormous shift to pull them back a couple of yards further and create a 4-5-1. If you were a limited side – Bolton, for instance – you could use this 4-5-1 in a fairly defensive way, with lits of long balls to a large, lone striker. If you were more fluid side with able wingers – Chelsea, for instance – the 4-5-1 could morph into a quite deadly 4-3-3 when in possession. It was flexible and it caused no end of problems for teams trying to play 4-4-2.

In the last couple of years, though, the more fluid attacking sides have come up with an even more devious solution: the 4-6-0 (which I outlined about a year ago back here). This only works if you have a lot of creative, fast, tactically aware midfielders who are capable of swapping positions and darting forwards. It’s tough to pull off because there’s literally no focus to the attack, but as both Roma and Man U showed last year, it is possible to win matches – quite a lot of them in fact – without anyone who could be described as a recognized striker.

The 4-6-0 works for the same reason that Hidegkuti and the Hungarians flummoxed England in 1953 – defenders have trouble figuring out what to do if the attacker withdraws a bit and starts with the ball from further out. Defenders who try to man-mark in a 4-6-0 are going to get pulled badly out of position and if the try to zone mark they are liable to get flooded. Its not all plain sailing for the attackers, of course – they have to learn how to play a good short-passing game in order to keep the ball moving through a more congested midfield. As long as they manage that, though, they can wreak havoc on defences.

So what’s the proper response? I would argue it is to go back to three at the back. Even against a 4-5-1, the second centre-back is somewhat superfluous. Against a 4-6-0 we’re into tits-on-a-bull territory. Get rid of the second centre back and move him into the midfield. 4-5-1s and 4-6-0s need to be smothered in midfield, not in the final third. Laying back and playing for the counter-attack is not a good move (even Arsenal have figured that one out) against a five or six-man midfield – the space simply won’t be there. A more pressing game, played further up the pitch, is necessary.

And so, I would suggest, that now that the 4-6-0 is opening up as an option, the next logical tactical counter is the 3-6-1 (or, probably more accurately, a 3-3-3-1). Against the ManUs and Romas, the key will be playing with three what amounts to three defensive midfielders and a single centre-back. Attack-minded full-backs will have to go, of course (but really, haven’t we all had enough of Ashley Cole anyway?), but some of that load can be spread to players like Daniel Alves playing in a more advanced role (indeed, one wonders if Barcelona might not start lining up this way soon, with Alves, Toure and Keita lining up right to left ahead of the defenders but behind Xavi – certainly, they are one of the few teams with the personnel to do it).

Sure, the 3-6-1 has a bad rep after the USMNT’s disastrous flirtation with it in France 98. But mark my words, you’ll see it again sooner than you think.