How the 2000s changed tactics #5: Back to four ‘bands’ in formations

March 8, 2010

Michael Ballack, able to play in either band

Outfield football positions are still generally broken down into three types: defenders, midfielders and forwards. Go to any fantasy football website, or look at a UEFA squad list, and you’ll see players broken down into these three categories. Of course, this ignores the progression of football tactics in recent years, where the pitch is often broken into four ‘bands’.

To put it basically, the midfield has been separated into two bands – midfielders are either defensive, or attacking (with some forwards able to drop deeper and play in the attacking band). Strangely, this is essentially a return to the system used fifty years ago, when the W-M formation (effectively a 3-2-2-3) dominated the game.

The shift back to four probably started with the success of the deep-lying forward, who played between the lines of opposition defence and midfield, creating what often became a 4-4-1-1 shape. If the deep-lying forward was supported by wingers, the shape suddenly became a 4-2-3-1, perhaps summed up best by Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side, which although was a fairly classic 4-2-3-1, was essentially a natural conversion of a 4-4-2.

With the deep-lying forward drawing either a central midfielder or a central defender out of position in a three-band system, the obvious response was to ‘match’ the four bands – whether it be through replicating the 4-2-3-1, or a Chelsea-style 4-3-3 (which was effectively a 4-1-2-3) and then both sides are playing in four bands.

This has caused problems for two types of players who naturally fall into neither band. Firstly, the box-to-box midfielder has effectively ceased to exist, as outlined by Jonathan Wilson. Defensive midfielders defend, attacking midfielders attack. There are players who can defend and attack, and can play in either midfield band (Michael Ballack or Anderson, for example) but they rarely fill both tasks at once. This can also partially be attributed to the increasing importance of pace in the modern game – with more teams playing on the counter-attack and those attacks happening at breakneck speed, it simply is less possible for midfielders to constantly sprint between opposing areas for 90 minutes to support both defence and attack. Twenty years ago, when the game was slower, it was achieveable.

Roberticus makes the point in the comments section below that the role of box-to-box midfielders has been outsourced to attacking full-backs. The point is spot on, because full-backs often cover the most distances in games, and probably have a dual role in both attacking and defending as much as any other players on the pitch.

David Beckham, able to play in neither?

The other type of player affected is the wide midfielder who lacks pace. Speedy wide players can easily become a winger in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. But it’s difficult to function on the wing in that attacking band if you’re not quick. The classic example is David Beckham. In a 4-2-3-1 does he become a holding midfielder, or an attacking winger? He doesn’t have the defensive skills to play the former, nor the pace to play the latter. When he arrived this season at Milan, who play an attacking 4-3-3, no-one really knew where he was going to play, and he doesn’t really seem comfortable at wide right, nor in central midfield. Although he retains his place in the England squad, it’s difficult to see him starting on the right-hand side (in a system which has been described as a 4-4-2 but is really a loose 4-2-3-1) because of his lack of pace – hence why Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott and even Shaun Wright-Phillips appear to be ahead in the pecking order for a starting place.

How will this progress in the future? With the advent of strikerless formations, we may see systems such as 4-3-3-0 that effectively ‘ignore’ the traditional striking band. Or we may simply see more systems like Brazil’s, which is hard to categorize and therefore hard for opposing defenders and midfielders to understand who they should be picking up.

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