In the 1950’s there was only one tactic employed by clubs across Europe – the standard 4-4-2. As a default formation, few clubs chose to deviate from this, adjusting the playing squads to accommodate this formation. the formation which focuses its self around two flat lines of four across the defense and midfield with two strikers working together as a team upfront, proved effective for most clubs even up until the early 1990’s when teams like AC Milan, under Arrigo Sacchi and then Fabio Capello, dominated domestically and in Europe using the formation. That remained the case until some coaches realised that by altering the formation to fit the players they had, they could create teams that would excel above existing expectations and achieve success against more traditional formations like 4-4-2.
Now in 2013. a new formation appears to be on the cusp of overtaking 4-4-2 as the standard. Looking across this year’s Champions League teams, one common theme runs across clubs like Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Chelsea, Lille, Malaga, Manchester United and City, Schalke and Real Madrid. All of these clubs and many more across Europe and the world are switching to a standard 4-2-3-1 formation. This formation is not new, nor is it revolutionary but is being inforced more by smarter coaches looking to play attack minded football. Similar to the 4-2-4 formation, which places heavily focus on the forwards, the 4-2-3-1 approach tries to place as many men in front of the ball as possible to allow breaks at high-speed. The lynch pin to this formation is the two central midfielders and the central attacking midfielder.
The central midfielder is advancing at an alarming rate. Once seen as either the additional player who can break down the play or the starting point for attacks, the current central midfielders are expected to be both. In this formation, they must provide cover to the back four creating a wall of 6 that closes down the space to the opposition but also have the skill and flair to create the play from deep and advance it up the field. Players like Lille’s Rio Mavuba and Bayern Munich’s Javi Martinez are good examples of this new type of player. Whilst there is generally an understanding between the two central midfielders around which one is more likely to sit back and which one to be more advanced, they both operate in a similar capacities and prove a vital link to the attacking midfield playmaker.
The attacking midfielder playmaker is not a new concept but is being embraced by clubs across the world as an important part of this new formation. His job is to act as the link between the midfielders and the striker and the creator of many of the teams attack. He provides cover to the two central midfielders, distributes the ball to the attacking wingers and adds support to the solo striker as a deep lying attacking threat. Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla and Schalke’s Lewis Holtby are examples of a new generation of attacking midfielders coming through, possesing the required pace, skill and vision to fufill this role effectively.
The two wide players operate as attack options whilst have the ability to pull back to act as defensive wingers whilst the lone striker covers all the ground between the 18 yard line and the goal. His job is made even harder by two central defenders marking him so more often than not, is instructed to drift into space, dragging a defender or two with him, allowing the attacking midfielder and two wingers addition space to move into. This formation has proven hard to mark against especially with a floating playmaker as its unclear who should pick them up. Teams are either forced to change their formation and employ a defense midfielder who sits in th hole between defense and midfield or move to a more traditional back three, which in turn opens up more width on the flanks for the wingers.
As more managers look at this formation with wonder over whether it will work for them or indeed how to defend against such a formation when they come up against it, teams across the globe are altering their plans and reverting away from tradition setups like 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 to become more attack minded. Whether this will be succesful for them in the long run is to be seen but as more and more clubs change,how long will it be before the new 4-2-3-1 becomes the norm?
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