“In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1”

Fabio Capello belives in the modern game, the only formation is the 9-1.
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When asked after the game against Belarus whether England were playing a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1, manager Fabio Capello bluntly dismissed such notions. “These figures are stupid,” he said. “In the modern game, the only formation is 9-1.”

Actually Fabio Capello isn’t rejecting the idea of formations completely; just arguing that there are greater subtleties beneath giving a title to the physical arrangement of players. Regarding his England side, one can see the 9-1 in action. When playing with a full strength side they have Heskey as the focal point ably supported by nine outfield players with the responsibility to defend and attack. Heskey’s contribution is crucial as he plays across the line, linking up play with his back to goal and creating space for others with his presence.

But not all teams play with one up front. Spain won Euro 2008 with Torres and Villa while Luciano Spalletti’s Roma side played with none (though recently they have moved to a diamond formation). However by concentrating on the striker it means one is ignoring the subtleties.

Croatia manager Slaven Bilic feels similarly about formations and can give a greater insight into what the England coach really means. “Systems are dying. Like 4-5-1, what does it mean? It’s only for journalists or at the beginning of each half. When defending, great teams want many behind the ball. When attacking, players from all sides. We have to be compact, narrow to each other.

“Italy won the 2006 World Cup with nothing like the [defensive] Italy you usually think of. They finished the semi-final against Germany with Del Piero, Gilardino, Iaquinta and Totti — four strikers. And two full-backs bombing up. It’s about the movement of 10 players now.”

Now it is much easier to understand. By playing one striker, a coach can accommodate a number of creators, allowing greater fluidity and flexibility. Spain played with a fluid system where Torres was the front runner while Villa played off him but around them were plenty of attacking midfielders and the full backs pushed forward too. Roma’s 4-6-0 uses Totti as the focal point though with great movement and use of space from midfielders he doesn’t need to play as high. One reason why Ronaldo scored so many goals last season as opposed to this, is because there was greater interchangeability across the line of attack, leaving no points of reference for defenders.

The role of the striker has evolved and they are now expected to do more; scoring goals need not be a centre-forward’s principal purpose. They must be able to use their intelligence to drop off into space and play in team mates while also being able to make runs to stretch opposition. An increased mobility and interchangeability in strikers has lessened the need for the traditional ‘goal-poachers’ while there are greater expectations on midfielders to contribute goalscoring-wise. “For me, a striker is not just a striker,” says Jose Mourinho. “He’s somebody who has to move, who has to cross, and who has to do this in a 4-4-2 or in a 4-3-3 or in a 3-5-2.”

Fabio Capello has tried to instill the same ideas in his England side. Gerrard plays as an unorthodox left midfielder and is detailed to come inside when attacking, Rooney is allowed to drift and the midfielders must be able to support. But the main point which is stressed is movement: “I think they know me now – my style, the movement around the pitch that I want. They know and it is better now.” Capello also talks of the importance of the whole collective’s responsibility in scoring goals.

“Only [Spain’s Fernando] Torres is a big striker in this moment in the world. [As for] the others, Italy [are] so-so, Germany [are] so-so, Portugal [have nothing]. Also the French, you didn’t see anything. It’s a big problem now because the teams defend very well. It’s a problem everywhere. You have to play in a different style – the other players they have to score more goals.”

Even so, playing with great movement is a highly specialised skill and not easy to implment for many clubs. But if one succeeds the result can be explosive. Like the ‘Total Football’ sides of Holland in 1974 and Dynamo Kyiv to the more recent examples in Man United and Barcelona, such sides have shown this explosiveness. Arsenal’s youngsters displayed one of the best examples this season as they comprehensively beat a full-strength Wigan side in the Carling Cup with Jack Wilshere, Vela, Ramsey, Gibbs and Merida creating havoc. And with Jay Simpson leading the line it was a perfect example of the 9-1. One must not forget the importance of the central defenders also; their mobility and ability to initiate attacks as well as their defensive nous being the backbone of the side.

Modern football sees clubs looking to deny opponents any space. It is about controlling space and reducing space for opponents when attacking and defending. By playing a 9-1 where the whole team has the responsibility to attack and defend, Capello believes it is not about the individual’s effectiveness rather the effectiveness of the individuals within the system. If the players adapt it means they have created a system of flexibility and fluidity which becomes less predictable for opponents and therefore harder to disrupt. Not many teams can do it but when they do, it can be destructive.

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