It all adds up to Eleven

As the summer rolls by it seems that Brian Flynn has succeeded in persuading most of the players who finished last season on a high to re-sign. A feeling of quiet optimism seems to be surrounding the club, and the next few weeks should prove interesting as the final members of the squad are put into place. Whereas last season one got the impression that the first ten unemployed players to cross Briton Ferry Bridge won a contract, the emphasis this year seems to be on quality. Whilst the likes of Trundle and Llewellyn have seemingly received offers from clubs in higher divisions and were always long shots, the fact that we were in the hunt for such players suggests that we are seeking to construct a squad that people will want to watch and that has a better than even chance of success.

If Flynn’s record to date in the transfer market suggests that the mystery as to the identity of personnel will be resolved favourably, there is a further issue over which many fans feel a little more nervous. If Flynn’s ability to bring quality players to the club is not in doubt, then the formation in which they line up on August 9th will be the subject of speculation and debate. Since he joined the club, Flynn has made no secret of his preference for a 4-3-3 formation that he had earlier used to good effect at Wrexham. However, many critics have suggested that the system is dated, and notwithstanding the upturn in fortunes in the final third of last season, were relieved when it was shelved for the final two crucial matches. Certainly the side seemed better balanced as the two precious wins were secured using a 4-4-2 line up. Jonathon Coates has had his critics, but his recall did provide the side with natural balance on the left, whilst Leon Britton seemed to find a yard of space in his wider role that had increasingly been denied him in the centre.

Seventies Revival?
For many fans a reversion to 4-3-3 would be a retrograde step. For supporters of a certain age the system will always be associated with the seventies and early eighties, and was often used by John Toshack as a variant on 3-5-2, notably in the humbling of Leeds in that unforgettable day in 1981. By the mid 1980s most British teams, particularly the successful Liverpool and Everton sides of the era were playing 4-4-2, and a trend was set that was to become an article of faith in the British game for the next twenty years, some would say well past it’s sell-by date. The majority of professional games in Britain at every level in the last two decades have seen sides line up in this formation, notwithstanding the growth of popularity of 3-5-2 in the nineties.

However, some of Flynn’s critics would be premature in writing off 4-3-3 as something from the seventies to be remembered alongside bushy sideburns, tight shorts and FA Cup Finals that everybody took out the entire day to watch. Flynn’s friend Alex Ferguson played a 4-3-3 system on a number of occasions last season, successfully utilising Solskaer as a third forward in a wider role. Closer to home, Mark Hughes has recently described the system currently employed with some success by Wales as 4-3-3. Some analysts would say that in fact Wales play in a 4-2-3-1 formation similar to that employed by France in their recent successes. At Euro 2000 both Holland and Portugal employed similar systems, and Spain apparently have followed suit since.

For Wales, this latest tactical trend has coincided with the emergence of a group of ideally suited players, playing to their strengths and shielding weaknesses. For some years Wales have lacked true quality in central defence, and the defensive shield of two holding mid fielders helps protect that achiles heel. A loan target man is able to bring into play three attacking midfielders of blistering pace running on to the ball. Crucially, however, this system depends on the correct personnel. A second “large” forward could not be accomodated. Simply, it is the payers that make the system work. Whether it is described as 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 it simply would not be as effective with lesser players in key areas. Interestingly, the rumour mill has it that Alex Ferguson is looking at playing this system next season, and was not unduly broken hearted at the prospect of Beckham leaving, as it was difficult to see where Posh’s housekeeper would fit in.

Up until recently Man United’s success has been mainly based around a classic British 4-4-2 line up. Ferguson seems to have belatedly realised that the system appears rigid and predictable in European terms. Indeed those who question Flynn’s use of 4-3-3 on the basis that it is an “out of date” system might reflect that many in world football would say the same of 4-4-2. Certainly as practiced by many British sides 4-4-2 is merely an evolution from a system that even pre-dated 4-3-3 as state of the British art, namely 4-2-4. This was a system that was considered consigned to the dustbin following the success of Alf Ramsey’s “wingless wonders”. However, it can be argued that Kevin Keegan’s mid nineties Newcastle featuring Ginola and Gillespie in the wide positions were playing 4-2-4 rather than 4-4-2, unless one considered Beardsley to be an advanced midfield player, in which case it might be said that they were playing 4-3-3! Equally, at Man United, Giggs played pretty much as a traditional winger, whilst Beckham often played deeper and a little more centrally. When considered in that light the distinctions between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 can become blurred. Alternatively, can 4-4-2 be said to be merely 4-2-4 without wide players who can go past their man? Certainly, 4-4-2 has not been conspicuously successful for British teams in Europe in recent years, and it seems that Fergie has decided it is time to try something different.

Statistics and Damn Lies
However, 4-4-2 in itself is not necessarily as set in stone as some might like to believe. Those of us who watched British football in the late eighties and early nineties were “treated” to a succession of sides playing a formulaic version of the tactic with little concept of variation. Even so, there was an obvious difference in watching Man United and Sheffield United around 1991, even though they theoretically employed the same formation, largely due to the quality of the players involved. Anybody watching Milan in the late eighties was unlikely to confuse them with Wimbledon even though both sides might have lined up in 4-4-2. Whatever the theoretical shape of the team, much ultimately comes down to the players used within the system, and the fundamental attitude of the coach and his team. Sacchi’s Milan of the era were a wonderful attacking force, but a side featuring the talents of Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard and Donadoni were able to play a game which transcended the formation they lined up in. Milan played through the midfield, utilising the swift accurate passing that comes with the great teams whatever formation they employ. Wimbledon viewed the midfield as some sort of precursor to Yates Wine Lodge, the most likely place for a good barney.

Comparing the version of 4-4-2 employed by some of Europe’s top teams with that utilised by most British teams illustrates the tactical blind alley that British, and principally English teams headed into following the Heysel ban. Cut off from playing against the European mainstream, the English game developed in a strange parallel world where lack of innovation was accompanied by self delusion as to the quality of the domestic game based on past successes and the apparent, though untested ability of the Liverpool team of the late eighties. The blinkered island mentality was inculcated throughout not only the professional game, but down to schoolboy level, particularly through the FA’s espousal of Charles Hughes percentage game theories. I recall seeing a particularly grotesque clash between Crystal Palace and Sheffield United in the early nineties where the ball’s infrequent landing on the pitch was met by the almost incessant cry of “put it in the mixer” by the Palace fan standing next to me. As this predated the popular availability of mobile phones by a couple of years, I assumed he was not relaying top kitchen tips to his wife. Substitute Geoff Thomas and Andy Gray for Gullit and Rijkaard and you soon realise that formation ultimately has only a limited influence as to how a team plays.

A Part of English Heritage
Yet it seems that little changes in the English game at one level. One might have thought that the influx of foreign players and coaches which is arguably the positive aspect of the money generated by the Premiership might have led to an across the board improvement in tactical awareness. Nobody had told the players of Aston Villa and Birmingham City when they met in the infamous battle at Villa Park last season when vast swathes of the game went by without the players of either side apparently able to control the ball and pass it to a member of their own team (with the honourable exception of Dugarry who must view playing for Birmingham as a nice change from football). It was impossible to tell what formations were employed, but when players show such levels of ineptitude such statistical niceties matter little.

Similarly, England’s performances in the recent World Cup, particularly the second halves against Sweden and Brazil, suggested that little had changed since the days of Graham Turner as the sole tactic of Sven’s men involved the long ball over the top in the vain hope of Michael Owen chasing and catching it. Sven was supposed to bring European tactical sophistication to the England team. He increasingly resembles a foreign tourist who was deceived by the sun bathed snapshots in the British Tourism brochure, has discovered the wet, windy reality, and now looks on ruefully, wishing that he’d plumped for Italy or Spain. Meanwhile his team engaged in rigid British long ball 4-4-2. Possibly it was not 4-4-2 in itself that was at fault, but the type of 4-4-2. Then again, amidst all the media generated hype surrounding the supposed young stars of the England team, one was left wondering whether Sven had decided that there was not the genuine talent and tactical awareness in the squad to successfully attempt anything different. At the highest level the England team looked well short of having what it took to make a mark, but it is a moot question as to whether that was down to sticking with 4-4-2, which in it’s most basic form is unlikely to worry too many top international teams, or whether the players themselves were not good enough to make more subtle variations on the system work.

Change is Going to Come
Ironically, England’s best performance in a recent World Cup came with the belated abandonment of 4-4-2 in Italia 90. Bobby Robson, still in his former “English” incarnation, stuck to the traditional wisdom for the awful opening battle of tactical dinosaurs against Ireland. In a match that had the rest of the world looking on in stunned amazement that either of these sides had qualified as supposedly two of the best 24 teams in the world, the result was a 1-1 draw that won neither side points for style. England’s foreign based stars, Lineker and Waddle led a player revolt and the 3-5-2 formation employed in the following match against Holland was a revelation, suggesting that England could actually play football which resembled that played in the rest of the world. For the remainder of the tournament the team adopted a much more fluid formation, and relative success flowed. The sweeper system allowed Mark Wright, arguably the most skilful English defender for some years, to build from the back. With a less competent player in the same position it is questionable whether it would have succeeded. Equally, Graham Turner commenced his reign with the successful 3-5-2 formation, but matters soon degenerated, quite possibly due to the quality of the players selected. If you drop Beardsley and Waddle and replace them with Carlton Palmer and Geoff Thomas then it’s unlikely that any system, however innovative, would work.

Not that 3-5-2 was a system wholly untried in the British game. Both Arsenal and Aston Villa had tried the system in the preceeding domestic season, and Terry Yorath’s Wales used the system with some international success, but with the very large proviso that what they did was to play with three centre halves which is rather different to playing with a sweeper as understood in Europe. Very often in countries such as Germany and Holland, the best player on the team played at sweeper, a trend started by Franz Beckenbauer. A sweeper was not a defender pure and simple, but the side’s playmaker. This was a concept that seemed beyond the understanding of most British coaches. The look of bewilderment on the faces of the Glasgow Rangers team when Bayern Munich sweeper Augenthaler charged out of his own half, slicing through the midfield, before twice planting thirty yarders into their net in a European Cup match of the era spoke volumes. One half expected Rangers to appeal to UEFA for the game to be replayed on the basis that it was unfair and that the nasty Germans had cheated. After all, in Britain defenders didn’t do things like that!

Tactical Revelation from “Liverpool Reserves”
Save that, ten years earlier a player called Rajkovic had been doing similar things in a Swansea shirt. One of the most galling aspects of the press coverage of the Toshack era was the insistence that the Swans were some form of Liverpool seconds, whilst wholly overlooking the tactical nuances. Tosh had started experimenting with 3-5-2 in the old second division, often utilising Leighton Phillips in the role. However, such experiments seemed tentative in comparison when Ante took over. Brian Clough memorably advised England coach Ron Greenwood, who experimented in a friendly with Ray Wilkins in the role, that if he wanted to see a real sweeper to watch the Yugoslav at Swansea. Nobody else seemed to play in this way, and even though Hansen and Lawrenson at Liverpool were skilful by the standards of most British defenders, neither played as a true sweeper. Totally at home in a role that he had presumably played for years, Rajkovic played in a manner probably not seen either before or since in the British domestic game, and of which Rio Ferdinand can only dream about. If Ante was injured there was simply nobody else who could play that way, and the system never looked as effective.

Toshack went on to try a number of innovations during his coaching career, notably during his time at Real Sociadad, where he employed a 3-3-3-1 formation that was dubbed “Systema Toshack” by the local press. Whether this was in fact a variation on 3-5-2 with a withdrawn forward is arguable, and as coverage of La Liga in Britain at the time was limited, one suspects few of us really know. What we do know is that when Tosh tried the system with the Welsh team in his infamous one match reign, he caused major discontent amongst players who claimed that they didn’t know what was expected of them. This seemed a sad indictment of supposed professionals who later claimed that they felt far more comfortable with Mike Smith’s reversion to 4-4-2. As this “comfort” included a defeat in Moldova and a 5-0 humiliation in Georgia, some would say that a little pain might have yielded more gain.

Back to Reality
If many British players at the higher levels were unable or unwilling to adapt to tactical and formation variations, then lower down the scale matters are no better. The football league is riddled with sides playing rigid 4-4-2, with some matches reduced to battles for personal supremacy over a counterpart, whilst coaches often appear impotent to make changes. Sadly, it seems that tactical innovation is not the route to success in the lower divisions, and notwithstanding a few sides lining up with 3-5-2, military 4-4-2 still rules. Certainly the Third Division championship was won by Hollins rigid application of that system, but some would argue that a disproportionate number of black cats must have crossed in front of the team bus that year, and some of us had to pinch ourselves at the end of games to make sure that the apparent victory wasn’t just a dream. Perhaps the charitable interpretation is that Hollins got the best out of a limited collection of players by adopting a rigid 4-4-2 formation, but whether he truly had any alternatives in mind is a question that will probably never be answered. What is certainly true is that he never adequately dealt with the left sided deficit following Coates injury in the relegation year, instead asking a series of naturally right sided players to fill the role.

The abiding impression one gets is that whatever the formation, success is ultimately down to the quality of the players. Formations come into vogue, are discarded and sometimes re-appear in another guise. Some formations will suit the players available better than others in that they will exploit strengths and guard weaknesses. However, if the formation is wrong for the players available then it will not be successful for that team, however well it works elsewhere. Reservations about Flynn’s 4-3-3 formation should have nothing to do with whether it is more dated than a 4-4-2 system, which in world terms could of itself be argued to be old hat. The crucial question is whether it utilises the players available to their best advantage, or alternatively, whether we can recruit players who could make the system work. At one stage last season when we were using our leading striker on the wing one had to seriously question whether this was the case. Similarly, even at his best Mumford never appeared to have the pace to play in a wide or forward midfield role, and arguably his best performances had come under Addison in the sweeper role. He may have been no Rajkovic, but seemed to possess the attributes to do well in the role at our level. Possibly it was no coincidence that Addison with his Spanish experience saw him in that role, whereas Hollins, Cusack and Flynn tried to shoehorn him into more traditional British roles.

It is arguable as to whether it is just criticism to knock Flynn for trying and sticking with a particular formation. In particular it is questionable whether one system is necessarily any more dated than any other, as history has a strange way of repeating itself. It should be said that the team did seem to function better through use of the 4-4-2 system in the final games of last season. However, whichever formation you choose, it all adds up to ten outfield players in the end. The best teams transcend formations. Who can say what formation the great Dutch teams of the seventies lined up in? Formations can help bring out the best of set of players, but whether a formation will be successful irrespective of the personnel has to be more doubtful.