Football, like most (all?) things in life, has its trends. Not that many years ago, playing anything other than a plain 4x3x3 would be sacrilegious (let’s leave England alone, for now). In fact, when 4x2x3x1 started rearing its head, with Quique Flores its main champion, it was a bit criticised (including here) for numerous reasons. On the other hand, just like the two-man midfield, a three-man defence looked all but dead, some reminiscence from the Beckenbauer times. As this text is getting to you, it seems impossible to get away from either 4x2x3x1 (or 4x4x1x1, which is basically the same thing) or some version of a three-man defence (especially in Italy), nowadays – and there is hardly any team playing a true version of a 4x3x3.
It is often said (with good reason) that games are not won on paper, since there is no one given tactical system that is inherently better than the next – it’s all about team dynamics. While this is obviously true, I keep finding some holes in the 4x2x3x1.
First and foremost, it is my contention that teams playing with this tactical formation tend to break up in two, namely the six “defenders” and the four “forwards”. Even though this is probably the easiest way to implement roles and instructions on a team (maybe one of the full-backs is allowed to push up), it tends to create two distinct sets of players in the team, since the forwards tend not to be too inclined to track back and perform their defensive duties, and the defenders are usually reluctant to leave their positions, afraid no one will compensate for them in the defensive stage.
In a 4x2x3x1, the defensive stage usually resembles a 4x4x1x1, since it’s supposedly up to the wingers to mark the opposing full-backs. Although last season offered enough evidence that this system could be extremely effective while playing reactive football (such as Chelsea’s victory in the Champions League final, the Europa League final, the FA Cup final, Braga playing against the top teams, among many others), it remains to be seen how well this formation can fare for a team who want to take control of the match. Whenever a coach is serious about getting his team to play pro-active football with this system, a few too many holes immediately start to appear, particularly because the four “forwards” have the task of creating danger by themselves, which means they won’t be as willing or physically capable of dropping back and form the second bank of four, as requested by this system.
The European Super Cup Final match pitted Chelsea against Atlético Madrid and offered us a pretty good match-up between these two systems. Chelsea manager (at the time) Roberto Di Matteo was trying to prove to his boss not only that he was the right man for the job, but also that Chelsea could achieve the same results playing the sort of flamboyant football Roman Abramovich has been expecting since he bought the club ten years ago. Against Chelsea’s typical 4x2x3x1, Atlético manager Diego Simeone went with a clear 4x3x3 and attacked Chelsea’s wings with constant overloads down the flanks with great collaboration between the wingers, full-backs and midfielders. Aware that Hazard and Mata wouldn’t work that much defensively and that Mikel and Lampard are not exactly the most mobile players, the Atlético players soon found huge pockets of space to run into, exposing the frailties of a system in which the (six and sometimes less) “defenders” often find themselves stranded and with little to no protection in front of them.
Furthermore, the 4x3x3 offers an additional line of defence. Instead of two banks of four (and two attackers up front), this system allows the holding midfielder to fulfill what’s been aptly called “the Makelele role”, ie named after the man that sat in front of the defence doing the dirty work and stopped the ball from being played in between the lines. Atlético Madrid populated the centre of the field and tried to win the midfield battle. Aware that the Chelsea wingers would offer no real threat out wide and would tend to drift inside, Simeone’s midfield triangle kept winning balls back (and launching quick counter-attacks) simply because they had a higher number of lines of defence, unlike what’s usually the case in the 4x2x3x1.
Again, this is not to say that one system is better than another. In fact, this text intends to question and stimulate a debate as for the reasons that lead most current coaches to choose the same formation, especially when many of them actually played in different systems – be it 4x3x3 or any other tactical system. While this blog is aware that many ideas we thought dead are starting to re-surface once again, it would be good to find out exactly why that happens – is it just the fashionable trend or did most coaches simultaneously started to feel the 4x2x3x1 was the (only) way to go?