Antonio Conte’s system isn’t a 4-2-4, but it still provides excitement

October 23, 2011

The starting line-up in the 2-2 draw with Genoa

The 4-2-4 is a mythical formation, immediately bringing to mind the Brazil side of 1970, maybe the greatest international side in history.

It is seldom used in modern football at the top level, and therefore the arrival of Antonio Conte at Juventus this summer excited many – he was set to play the system, and perhaps bring all-out-attack football to Turin.

It’s surprising that so many thought this would bring about a revolution (in pure formation terms), for if there was any other manager in Europe that could vaguely be described as using a 4-2-4, it would be Juve’s manager from last year, Gigi Del Neri. He made his name with a similar system at Chievo, then re-established himself with the formation at Sampdoria, and last year tried to make it work with Juve.

Therefore, it’s hardly been complete departure from the way Juventus played last year. And, in reality, Conte doesn’t use a 4-2-4, as he freely admits.

“There’s been too much talk on this particular way of playing. In actuality it’s a 4-4-2. I know of course novelty makes sometimes a great topic of discussion. If instead of saying ‘4-2-4′ I had said ‘4-4-2′ from the very beginning, we wouldn’t be discussing this ‘innovation’. Maybe all it is is just a normal idea of play. It is a normal 4-4-2. I think in England most teams that are winning are applying this type of module, which enables you to cover the playing field in the best possible way I think.”

(via Juventiknows)

His comments about ‘covering the playing field’ are interesting, reminiscent of Arsene Wenger’s comments (albeit now five years ago):

“I think it’s simply the most rational formation in most cases. In fact, it’s the essence of reason. With a 4-4-2, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient at covering space.”

(The Italian Job)

4-4-2 / 4-2-4

As a side note, Conte’s comments on the definition of the formation are very interesting. It has been termed as a 4-2-4 for reasons of pure ‘branding’, rather than because of the actual positioning of the side. OK, the wingers play high up the pitch, but they drop back level with the midfielders when out of possession. It isn’t too much more of a 4-2-4 than Manchester United’s shape at the start of the season with Nani and Ashley Young playing high up – although they tended to come inside slightly more, making 4-2-2-2 more appropriate.

It’s funny that there can be so little difference between 4-2-4, perhaps the most exciting realistic formation imaginable, and the bog standard 4-4-2, arguably the least interesting shape.

In fact, it’s probably less of a 4-2-4 than the system Pep Guardiola briefly used at the start of 2010. That shape was very similar to the Brazilian shape of 1970, in that it had the left-winger (Andres Iniesta) deeper like Rivelinho, and one striker (Thierry Henry) starting highest up but then moving towards the ball, like Tostao. However, if we’re accepting that in all these formations the wide players are level with the midfielders when out of possession and closer to a line with the forwards when the side has the ball, Barcelona’s unprecedented dominance of possession means that they’ll naturally look more like a 4-2-4 than any other the other sides.

Central midfield zone

It’s also interesting that Conte wants to ‘cover the space’  with his formation. The battle of formations in recent years has generally revolved upon ball retention rather than spatial distribution of players (more on this in a couple of weeks) – Jose Mourinho famously outlined why his 4-3-3 always beat a natural 4-4-2 because of the spare man in midfield to keep possession. Playing only two central midfielders rather than three, with two natural wingers and two strikers, indicates a more direct style of football. So, even if it’s not a 4-2-4, the reasons for Conte playing the system are intriguing.

The game against Genoa last night – which Juventus dominated but twice lost the lead – showed off their system well. The most interesting feature – far more so than the formation – is the use of his two midfielders in deep positions. Andrea Pirlo was superb against Genoa, and whilst Claudio Marchisio was more quiet, he was the hero in Juve’s previous home game, a 2-0 win over Milan.

The use of two ball players in a two-man central midfield zone is rare. Pirlo made his name at Milan when his role was possible because he had hard-working runners around him – most obviously Rino Gattuso, but also Massimo Ambrosini and (to a certain extent) Clarence Seedorf. Marchisio is more of a battler, a hard working tenacious player, but he used to be a trequartista in Juve’s youth sides before being converted to a midfielder, and he is far from a holding player.

A Pirlo-Marchisio central midfield is very positive. If there are two basic functions of being a central midfielder – keeping the ball and winning the ball – a manager has to make a decision about the style of players he wants in a two-man central midfield rather than a three. A negative manager would think immediately about his side being overrun in the 4-4-2 shape and therefore field two defensive-minded scrappers. Conte is much more positive, and instead addresses the lack of a midfield triangle to play around the opposition by turning to two players comfortable in possession.

Juve will, at times, need a third player in there. Against Milan and Chievo the energetic Arturo Vidal was added to make a 4-1-4-1ish shape, whilst late in the Genoa game Michele Pazienza came on for Marcelo Estigarribia, with Mirko Vucinic dropping to the left.

Other individuals

There remain question marks about the suitability of other players for the system. Vucinic was playing a relatively static role upfront alongside Alessandro Matri (who was excellent). It made Juve one-dimensional with the ball, and didn’t suit Vucinic’s quality – which is picking up the ball before running at speed.

It has been rumoured that Vucinic could play as the left-winger, in place of Estigarribia, but it might be wiser to use him to the left of the forward duo and let him drift wide from there. Estigarribia has to do a lot to cement his place in the side – this was his first league start, but he was peripheral and there remains a feeling that his impressive displays at the Copa America, themselves brief moments of skill, flatter a player who struggled at Le Mans in France.

Left-back is another area of weakness. Paolo De Ceglie, Fabio Grosso and now Giorgio Chiellini have all been used. Chiellini was terrible against Genoa – ponderous on the ball, beaten in the air for both goals and guilty of wasting good chances at the other end.

Cohesion

These issues can be solved through selection, but Conte remains keen to focus upon the unit. “As far as we’re concerned, we are fortunate enough to have players in the team that may permit us to change and use something different. The idea how we should play remains essentially the same, though.”

The key is cohesion, and this appears to be lacking down the flanks. With the wingers immediately moving forward when Juventus win the ball, it is difficult for the full-backs to make contact with them, even more difficult to overlap. Gael Clichy admits he struggled when Arsenal started playing their wingers higher up, for example.

But the cohesion was most obviously lacking for the first goal Juve conceded. Simone Pepe pressed, but Stephane Lichsteiner didn’t – Genoa had a large gap to play in down the left, and a clever pass resulted in Bosko Jankovic and Alexander Merkel combining, with the German crossing for Marco Rossi at the far post.

For a manager so keen to play a specific system because it ‘covers the space well’, errors like that are a big problem, but Conte’s project remains one of the more compelling experiments in Serie A this season.

Antonio Conte’s system isn’t a 4-2-4, but it still provides excitement

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