wilsonThe designations given to formations rarely tell the whole story. For example, when does 4-4-2 become 4-4-1-1 become 4-2-3-1? And what if the right-sided forward tucks in to allow the right-back to overlap, but on the left the forward stays wide and the full-back sits back, sometimes shuffling into the middle to form a de facto back three. How would that be denoted? 

A numerical formula can only ever a crude representation of what is actually happening on the pitch. But, as in all spheres, generalisations can be useful in providing an overview, particularly in a historical context.

While it is not universally true, a basic evolution can be seen from 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 to 4-2-3-1, with the all-action, box-to-box central midfielders of the 1980s yielding to the combination of two holders – one ideally a pure sitter, the other capable of forward surges – and a hybrid midfielder/forward central creator. The extra defensive cover given by the two holders has liberated the wide players who, while still having defensive responsibility, have morphed – in the English game at least – from large-lunged chargers into something far more technically accomplished.

Recently the evolution has gone further. The second striker who became a support forward who became an attacking midfielder now appears – in certain cases – to be withdrawing deeper.

Tottenham Hotspur, perhaps, are the case study. At Crystal Palace on the opening day of this season, manager Andre Villas-Boas fielded Paulinho, Mousa Dembele and Gylfi Sigurdsson. For the next two games, at home to Swansea City and away to Arsenal, Etienne Capoue came in for Sigurdsson.

Tottenham won the first two of those games 1-0 and lost 1-0 at Arsenal.

In all three the impression was of an immensely powerful side, a phalanx of three physically imposing players protecting the back four. This was almost a self-consciously robust Spurs – as though Villas-Boas had decided slipping out of the top four the previous season had been down to a classic case of the side’s mental frailty, the style-over-substance reputation that has haunted them for years. With Capoue, Paulinho and Dembele there was substance aplenty – but not much creativity.

The cover in central midfield should have allowed the two full-backs – Kyle Walker and Danny Rose – to advance and link up with Andros Townsend (or Aaron Lennon against Palace) and Nacer Chadli. Instead, Spurs suffered the problem they had early last term: they couldn’t get men forward to support the central striker, which meant domination of possession didn’t translate into chances.

Maybe the problem was disguised last season by the excellence of Gareth Bale. Seven times between January and the end of the season, he scored in the final 10 minutes of games to change a draw into a win or a defeat into a draw. Had that, perhaps, masked a structural flaw? If Paulinho had converted any of the six chances he missed against Swansea, of course, none of that might have been an issue, but in those three games Spurs scored only twice, both times from penalties.

Lop-sided triangle
While Villas-Boas insisted 4-3-3 would remain his set-up, to even term it a 4-3-3 seemed reductive. Spurs clearly operated a lop-sided triangle: against Swansea and Arsenal, Capoue sat deep and slightly to the right, with Dembele slightly ahead on his left and Paulinho, to the right of centre, the most advanced midfielder. For the fourth game, at home to Norwich City, Capoue was injured and the signings Spurs had made in the final week of the transfer window as Bale’s move to Real Madrid finally went through had had little time to settle. Dembele and Paulinho took the deeper roles, with Christian Eriksen the most advanced of the three central midfielders and Sigurdsson replacing Chadli on the left.

Eriksen’s impact as a creator was immediate as he set up both goals for Sigurdsson in a 2-0 win. Against Aston Villa, Lewis Holtby played in the role as Spurs stuck to essentially a halfway house between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3.

There can be an issue with getting men forward through the centre – and the onus is on the wide forwards to cut infield to support the striker – but there are also advantages to playing the central attacking midfielder slightly deeper.

Defensively, it makes it easier for him to join the two central holders, to form a three-man barrier, or to disrupt
a deep-lying playmaker by forcing him to play through an extra body.

There can also be an advantage from an attacking point of view. One of the defensive rationales behind 4-2-3-1 is that, if the opponent is playing through a No. 10, having two holders provides additional cover against him. How do you combat that? Withdraw the no10 further, dragging him nearer your own two holders. This means that to close him down, one of the opposing holders has to advance, breaking the neat central square so many teams hold as a default defensive position.

Spurs may be a prime example, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan – who has played briefly as a holder at Shakhtar Donetsk – plays the role to perfection for Borussia Dortmund. If Wayne Rooney could be persuaded occasionally to play wide – as he has done successfully in the past – it’s easy to imagine Shinji Kagawa flourishing in the role for Manchester United (as he, in fact did, at Dortmund). Arsenal have, at times, used Jack Wilshere in the position, although with Mesut Ozil in situ that is probably less likely in the immediate future.

Even Barcelona have looked at the shape. In the 3-0 win over Celta Vigo, rather than using Sergio Busquets or Alex Song at the back of midfield with two of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas advanced of him, they “inverted the triangle” to use Gerardo Martino’s phrase, playing Song and Busquets with Fabregas in front of them as the creator.

So, while it’s not for everybody, and there are negatives as well as positives, pulling back the central creator is a way of combining the attacking flexibility of 4-2-3-1 with the defensive solidity of 4-3-3.

By Jonathan Wilson