After a nervous first half performance which saw the home side Swansea create the best opportunities to score, Juan Mata’s strike three minutes after the restart will have gone some way to settled the nerves of Manchester United boss Louis Van Gaal. The Dutchman will not have been pleased with his sides showing in the opening 45 minutes but will be more disappointed with their collapse after Mata’s goal as Swansea roared back to win by two goals to one. Gary Monk’s tactical switch just after the goal proved to be a defining moment in the game as the Swan’s boss switched from their 4-2-3-1 formation to a narrower yet more direct 4-3-1-2 formation. The change, which saw defensive midfielder Ki Sung Yueng replace the ineffective Wayne Routledge altered Swanseas approach with Sigurdsson freed to play a more attacking role supporting the duo of Gomis and Ayew up front.
The trio combined excellently throughout the next 30 minutes, causing the United back line a host of problems and often pulling them out of position. Eventually they found a breakthrough with Sigurdsson’s precise cross on 61 minutes met by Ayew who headed the ball pass Romero to tie the game. Five minutes later, it was Ayew who became provide as he slipped in Gomis who found the back of the net to hand Swansea the three points. Monk’s formational change had unlocked United’s defense and with it handed Swansea a route back into the game, one in which they took gladly. Both teams had lined up with the same formation at the start of the match, one which is become more and more common place in the Premier League. Out of the twenty teams in the EPL, 13 (65%) starting with this setup this weekend. That number would have been more if it wasn’t for Liverpool and West Ham switching to the same 4-3-3 for their clash this weekend. Only Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Sunderland, West Brom and Norwich have resisted the move to the attack minded 4-2-3-1 formation primarily in favour of a more controlled standard formations such as 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. So why have so many managers decided to line up their team like this?
As an adoption of the 4-4-2 diamond formation, this attack focus system was adopted widely across Europe with its roots believed to be in Spain before slowly making its way to the Premier League. Teams like Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Valencia have triumphed in major tournaments by using this formation which relies heavily on the midfield quintet rather than strikers. The two central midfielders perform a pivot role both supporting the back four by breaking up opposition attacks as well as distributing the ball to the attacking midfield trio to create chances for the lone striker. In Valencia’s 2003-2004 La Liga and UEFA cup winning side, David Albelda and Ruben Baraja formed an excellent partnership in this role, allowing the exciting trio of Pablo Aimar, Vicente and Jorge Lopez ahead of them to run free. Aimar in particular was impressive in this formation pulling the strings behind the lone striker, generally Mista. Other teams have found similar success with this formation, especially if they have an abundance of creative attacking midfielders in their squad. Now clubs in England are taking note and building side capable of playing in this fashion with Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal the main ones to embrace this once continental approach.
But the formation does have its problems as evident this past weekend in the Premier League. With the main focus placed on the midfield, the lone striker role often gets overlooked or in many cases improperly used with any striker being dropped into the role like a square peg in a round hole. But its a certain type of striker or forward that you need to operate effectively in this formation. As a lone striker, they have to be able to create their own chances, pull away from not one but often two defenders and finish with a variety of methods including both feet and their head. However often more important is the ability to hold up the play, hold off defenders and create chances and space for the attacking midfield trio to run onto.
This past weekend, Arsenal used Theo Walcott in this role against Newcastle leaving Olivier Giroud on the bench. Wenger believed that Walcott pace alone would cause problems but his inability to hold up the play and importantly hold off Chancel Mbemba and Fabricio Coloccini meant he had a torrid day. Giroud did fair better when brought on but his poor finishing meant that Arsenal limped over the line with a narrow 1-0 win. Whilst Wayne Rooney is more suited to the role than Walcott, he too has struggled in the lone stinker role, preferring to play as a two up front, pulling off the other striker to give himself space. As a lone front man he cannot find that space which has meant that his opportunities on goal have been restricted. The best example of a striker who fit this role was Didier Drogba who had all the attributes needed and was therefore a success in the role for Chelsea. With this type of striker, the pressure on the attacking midfielders to provide goals is often too much to take and the formation once again falls down. The ability to recognize this collapse, much like Monk did and make changes are what defines a good manager and what highlights a bad one.