WE CURRENTLY LIVE IN AN AGE where information is available instantly to be analysed and manipulated. Sporting statistics can instantly be manoeuvred in a manner which illustrates just why a team achieves success or failure. The same can be said of footballing tactics with the points of view regarding tactical systems likely to differ from person to person; however, with that being said, the rapid rise of the 4-2-3-1 system is difficult to dismiss, as is its demise with the rapid shift in football styles from 2011 to 2014. The shift has taken many by surprise.
To start we must rewind back to May 2009: Barcelona have just comprehensively beaten a Manchester United team – which was widely considered as the best in the world at the time – in the European Cup final. It was the end of Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge and there was a very real sense of the changing of the guard from the period of financially charged decade-long domination that England’s top clubs had held over the European game.
This changing of the guard was not executed entirely by big spending. Indeed Barcelona had a monumental wage bill and when required handed over significant sums of money to secure what Guardiola deemed as necessary signings, but it was the fantastically hypnotic style of football that the former Blaugrana captain introduced.
Sir Alex Ferguson likened it to a “carousel that could tie you up in knots”, the constant movement of the ball between midfield players while making progress up the pitch. It was so very rare that the duo of Xavi and Iniesta would lose the ball and as such, for many European matches, it would seem as if Guardiola’s side were camped just in front of their opponent’s penalty area.
There was no room for defences to breathe, they were afforded no protection by the midfield and as Arsenal and Manchester United found out on multiple occasions, this created a melee of players in and around the penalty area which somehow Lionel Messi could wriggle his way past on his way to scoring what was often a staggeringly impressive goal.
The plaudits rained down on Guardiola’s team. Labelling them the greatest football team ever was the ultimate compliment to a man who had based his belief in football’s aesthetics from the teachings of both Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal. The period of 2009 to 2011 was one of real dominance for Barcelona and included three La Liga titles and two European Cups. It left many scratching their heads as to how they could break the cycle of Catalan control.
This is where 4-2-3-1 was thrust into prominence. The system was introduced as a defence mechanism against Barcelona’s possession based play. The ‘double-pivot’ as it has become known of two physically strong holding midfielders was designed to be a second line of a defence; two players who could ease the pressure on the central defenders and could look to man mark Lionel Messi out of matches without worrying about what the combined midfield genius of Xavi and Iniesta were orchestrating in front of them.
Too many times against Barcelona central defenders were drawn out to attack the ball. Normally there is nothing wrong with this however against the Spanish outfit it was criminal. Centre halves stepping out simply gave Xavi or Iniesta a gap to thread the ball into Messi or David Villa. Conversely if centre halves sat too deep it invited pressure and eventually that pressure would become too great and force an opportunity. Pedro’s opening goal in the 2011 European Cup final is a prime example of this.
There was no in-between in terms of defending against Guardiola’s side in their pomp. It was a constant feeling of being caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. That was until the introduction of the aforementioned double pivot.
The 4-2-3-1 formation caught on and by the time Euro 2012 arrived it was the most used system in the tournament. Germany looked to take advantage of the physical strengths of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira as the double pivot while the Netherlands even deviated from their tradition of 4-3-3 to gain the benefits of both Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. It is worth noting that once again, however, that Spain were successful and left Kyiv as European Champions.
Still it had not been as convincing as four years earlier and with Barcelona on the wane in Pep’s final season at the helm, many top European teams began to take notice of the impact the 4-2-3-1 system was having.
Bayern Munich’s Jupp Heynckes was suitably impressed. The veteran German introduced the system at the Allianz Arena with Bastian Schweinsteiger and one of Javi Martínez or Luiz Gustavo as the holding midfielders for the 2012-13 campaign. This was the first steering away from the initial concept of the double pivot with Schweinsteiger not the stereotypical powerful holding midfielder but a rather more creative player with a reasonable defensive presence.
The results were remarkable as Bayern Munich embarked on an historic treble winning season in which Barcelona were dismantled 7-0 on aggregate in the Champions League semi-final. The tide had well and truly turned and it now looked as though it was the turn of the 4-2-3-1 system to dominate continental football in place of the famed tiki taka style of Barcelona.
That year was also a season of further development for Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. While the increasingly popular German giants were pipped at the post by Bayern in both the Bundesliga and the European Cup, it was still a fantastic year for the club. Klopp’s use of the 4-2-3-1 continued with İlkay Gündoğan and Sven Bender making up the two holding midfielders with the former of the two even being muted as the best midfielder in Europe following his displays.
Dortmund’s was a perfectly balanced variation on the initial concept of the double pivot. Gündoğan was a real creative force , the player who drove Dortmund forward and was at times almost a box-to-box midfielder, though he was competent defensively, whilst Sven Bender was the more natural holder.
4-2-3-1 once again found its way onto the international stage in the summer of 2013 with Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazil side adopting the formation on their way to winning the Confederations Cup on home soil. Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo were the backbone of the team with Scolari adopting Dortmund’s method of using one designated holder in Gustavo and one box-to-box player in Paulinho. The key to both of the aforementioned teams having success is that the box-to-box midfielder was incredibly energetic and could cover the ground necessary to recover quickly from a forward run.
What happened next was a result of the formation becoming unstoppably popular and individuals looking to veer away from the basic principles of what made the system initially so effective.
After Bayern Munich’s success it was the ‘in’ formation. It became the most effective way of fitting a whole host of midfield talent into one line-up without losing defensive shape or creative capability. The three attacking midfielders and their positioning on the field also ensured that a lone centre forward would not become too isolated as would be the case with a 4-5-1 system.
European football, like the NFL, is a copycat industry. Whatever is successful at the time is what people look to replicate in the hope of bringing similar success to their own environment.
Teams have looked to utilise the 4-2-3-1 in the hope of enjoying the same success Bayern Munich had, however many have simply taken it too far in terms of tweaking the system and the usage of certain personnel within it. Essentially they’ve moved too far away from the core basis of the formation.
Take Arsenal and Manchester United in the 2013-14 campaign. Arsenal supporters have long bemoaned the fact Gilberto Silva has not been replaced. The unsung hero of the 2003-04 Invinciblesteam, the Brazilian was able to sit in front of the defence and hold the team together, giving players such as Patrick Vieira the freedom to venture forward without fear of leaving too big a gap behind them.
Arsène Wenger’s admirable, if at times frustrating, willingness to wait on Abou Diaby’s fitness over an extended period has seen Arsenal fail to address the lack of strength in the heart of midfield and this has led to problems using a 4-2-3-1 this term.
A variation of Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey are not conducive to a strong double pivot. None of those players have the physical stature to play the position, and with Arsenal attempting to play two unsuited players in the double pivot role, there have been holes left in key areas.
A partnership of Arteta and Flamini is too lightweight. It offers very little protection to the back four when they lose position attempting to influence the game further up the pitch. In matches against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea where Arsenal collapsed defensively, the midfield was largely to blame. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker had solid seasons when called upon; they just needed better protection at times.
You can get away with this against teams with less attacking quality however when Manchester City and Liverpool are set up to attack then you have a real problem. A defence can hold out for only so long under such pressure and it really was no surprise that the Gunners, as outstanding as they were going forward, shipped a number of goals in matches against attacking opposition.
Similarly, Manchester United under David Moyes tried to utilise the double pivot without the requisite personnel. In actual fact Sir Alex Ferguson had used the basis of a 4-2-3-1 the season before with near enough the same group of players but it was rather more fluid and often became a 4-3-3 with the designated number ten dropping into a deeper midfield role.
Last season, the Manchester United team didn’t have the midfield strength to play a 4-2-3-1 and it showed. Much like Arteta and Flamini at Arsenal, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were too slender a midfield pairing to sit as a holding duo. The two midfielders are creative playmakers and both struggled to make an impact on the defensive side of the game.
There was no power from midfield for United and it showed in the number of chances the club gave up to lesser teams who simply packed the midfield. The pressure the defence was put under as a result was increased and naturally mistakes became more prevalent.
Moyes’ men were alarmingly soft at the heart of midfield and the players in front of the holding pair were given no backbone of support. If one of United’s attacking players lost the ball, the team struggled to contain the resulting counter attack.
The general consensus prior to the season’s opener was that Manchester United’s midfield was ageing and lacking in the star quality necessary to challenge the teams around them. This, while for the most part true, was certainly not aided by the team playing a formation unsuited to the personnel within the squad.
The fact that Kevin Strootman, who was available last summer, would have been the perfect player to use in a 4-2-3-1 has been a source of great frustration to the United faithful.
Due to the overuse of the system successful teams are already branching out and moving away from the 4-2-3-1. Bayern Munich under Pep Guardiola’s watchful eye have taken to using a 4-1-4-1 which keeps the strength of a natural holding midfielder but then floods the midfield which prevents the defence and sole holding midfielder ever being overrun.
Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers are playing fantastic football within the confines of a 4-4-2 diamond midfield. This system as previously mentioned allows the wide players such as Raheem Sterling to flourish in an attacking way as well as being able to help the midfield press when not in possession. Though they still have some defensive work to do, many of Liverpool’s issues were self-inflicted.
Finally the Premier League Champions Manchester City are using a 4-2-2-2. A system Manuel Pellegrini has long been an advocate of, it gets the very best out of two strong holding midfielders, Yaya Touré and Fernando. It gives one of them the freedom to move forward and support attacks, while the other sits and covers. The fact that both players are so versatile makes City’s style of play fluid and easy on the eye.
As I alluded to earlier on, nobody could have predicted how quickly the face of European football would change following Barcelona’s spell of dominance from 2009. The introduction of the 4-2-3-1 system was a turning point at the time. That turning point has now come and gone. The system has run its course as a defence mechanism against Barcelona’s midfield carousel and you get the sense that European football is moving towards another preferred system, or should I say moving back to .
The power and pace combination which made English sides so successful in European competition in the noughties through its ability to catch a more technically gifted European side by surprise is returning. Borussia Dortmund are a high octane, powerful team, who look to attack on the wings, as are Real Madrid under Carlo Ancelotti. We are seeing 4-4-2 returning with teams packing the midfield with power and utilising quick wingers to really put defences under pressure.
It is this full circle change that truly marks the end of Barcelona’s latest golden era and whilst it took the 4-2-3-1 to initially break that dominance, it appears as though the game has moved past that system to welcome back a football era of days gone by.
By Chris Winterburn. Follow @Chriswin4