4-4-2 diamond was fading from the main screen, until Louis van Gaal used the midfield diamond in the recently concluded World Cup and Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool deployed it last season. A point that has to be noted is that 4-4-2 diamond would have continued on its path towards demise but the success of Dutch national team in the World Cup and Liverpool in the Premier League dented any further reverse gear movement of 4-4-2 diamond.
4-2-3-1 has been the most successful formation in the last decade and it is still favoured by a many managers in Europe.
A couple of days ago, while watching Liverpool vs Everton, I noticed that Roberto Martinez’s side changed formation from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 diamond. Rodgers fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. But in my opinion Liverpool were the better side. Had it not been for their poor display in the final third, the Reds could have easily outscored their rivals by a huge margin.
On Saturday, between Liverpool and Everton, it was not only another Merseyside derby, but a tussle between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 that could define football for a few years to come.
Analyzing 4-2-3-1 vs 4-4-2 diamond
Case: The White team (WT) is playing with a 4-4-2 diamond and the Red team (RT) is playing 4-2-3-1
WT has a man free in the midfield region, i.e. the central attacking midfielder. The three midfielders of WT who are playing behind the attacking midfielder can man mark the opposition players. RT has 3 men (a CAM and two CMs) in the midfield region and they are up against 4 midfielders of WT. So WT has a man advantage over RT in the midfield zone.
The wingbacks have to provide the width for WT due to the narrow midfield set up. RT has two wingers. When in possession (RT), the wingers, with the help of their wing backs, can put pressure the wing backs of WT. If the wing backs of WT are technically weak players, then RT can easily control the wide areas. The wingbacks can concentrate on crossing the ball more often into the opposition’s box and the wingers can try to cut inside whenever possible to be present at the receiving end.
But there is a way with which WT can stop the wingbacks of RT. The strikers of WT need to spread wide and keep the wingbacks busy. This can reduce the pressure on the wingbacks of WT and can help in winning the ball back. While the strikers drift wide, the CAM of WT, who is free, can utilize the space between the defensive and midfield lines of RT.
Everton were doing the opposite of this in the last Merseyside derby. Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas started in wide positions and Steven Naismith dropped into the midfield area to pressurize Steven Gerrard. The two wide midfielders, James McCarthy and Muhamed Besic, who were playing alongside Gareth Barry, the defensive midfielder, concentrated on stopping Raheem Sterling and Lazar Markovic instead of shutting down Gerrard and Jordan Henderson.
Slight alterations in 4-2-3-1
Suppose RT decides to play with a narrow midfield and the wingers tuck inside, then RT will have the advantage over WT in the midfield region. There will be 4 WT players against 5 RT players.
RTs wingers can mark the two wide midfielders of WT. The CAM of RT can keep the DM of WT engaged. This leaves the CAM of WT against two deep midfielders of WT. Now this CAM has two options – to stay and battle against the two or to move higher up the field and play between the centre backs of RT. Moving higher up the pitch worsens WT’s state.
With the White team 4 against 5 in the midfield region, Red team can posses the ball for most part of the match. Whenever RT will be in possession, the wingbacks of WT can be pushed back very deep into their own half.
WT can only attack RT on the breaks and the two forwards of WT will depend on the long balls from the back. The centre backs of RT need to be careful with their positioning because on the counter, the centre backs of RT will be 2 on 2 versus the forwards of WT.
One winger of RT moves wide
RT can lose some control over the midfield if a winger decides to move out wide. The midfield balances with RT 4 on 4 versus WT. Now the RT can overload on one of the wingbacks of WT. RT can switch the ball from one flank to the other and pile up the pressure on both the wingbacks of RT.
This will leave the Red Team with 4 on 4 in the midfield, and 2 on 2 at the back when both the wingbacks are pushing higher up the pitch. Although it seems to be very easy to gain an upper hand over the opponents, this decision of RT can prove to be very risky. If the ball is lost in an advanced position by RT, WT can try to outpace them by counter attacking. Also the wide movements of the two forwards of WT can pose serious problems to RT’s defence.
WT’s CAM decides to stay deep (as Naismith did)
As explained before, this was what Everton did on Saturday. That too, Martinez’s men failed to carry out the complete mission. Tony Hibbert, Seamus Coleman’s replacement, rarely strayed beyond the middle line. So Alberto Moreno, Liverpool’s left back was never under real pressure. Only Lukaku was trying to contain him, which had no impact on Moreno’s forward runs.
On the left, Mirallas and Leighton Baines did their best to overload Javier Manquillo, the right back. But Markovic dropped a bit deep in order to soak up this pressure and aid the young right back.
At least the wide midfielders could have tried to push Henderson and Gerrard back.
4-2-3-1 is a reactive formation. The teams that rely on counter attacking usually adopt this formation. In the first case, the diamond outnumbered 4-2-3-1 in the midfield region and controlled the possession. But possession doesn’t matter for 4-2-3-1 (it is a reactive formation). So diamond, even with all the possession and control -while attacking can be caught out by surprise.
In the second and third cases, the midfield of 4-2-3-1 is narrowed down by risking the control over wide areas. In case three, even after compromising the wide areas, 4-2-3-1 seems to have an advantage over 4-4-2 diamond. In case three, the diamond can break open 4-2-3-1 by using long ball tactics and counter attacks.
Case four again fails to find and target he frailties of both the teams.
After considering four cases, it seems as if 4-2-3-1 can still remain popular for a few more years to come. But this is only a brief study. Even very small tweaks in both the formations can be considered and studied.