International competitions are always fascinating tactically if anything for the inflexibility they confront managers with. Arrigo Sacchi, in charge of the Italy side who reached the final of World Cup ’94, stated it was “impossible” for a national manager to drill the same understanding that club level coaches are afforded due to the lack of day-to-day availability of personnel. The sporadic amount of time they have with players means it can be difficult for coaches to develop plans so they usually are forced to stick with philosophies they think are correct – and that in turn highlights the common trends in the thinking of modern coaches. And certainly, what has become oblivious from the recent World Cup in South Africa and indeed club football for the past few years is that the use of two holding midfielders in front of the back four is become crucial in the modern game.
Importance of being compact
All four semi-finalists in the 2010 World Cup used some sort of double screen in front of the back four with Holland, Spain and Germany deploying a variant of the 4-2-3-1 (18 of the 32 teams played some form of 4‑2‑3‑1). Uruguay showed the rigid 4-4-2 isn’t exactly dead but the difference between theirs and England’s interpretation was that the Uruguayan central pair played deeper to counter the threat of players in “between-the-lines.” England’s central midfielders in the system are both required to attack and defend (as classical box-to-box midfielders) and as a result Germany, in their 4-1 win, were able to profit in the large gaps afforded to them. “We knew that Gerrard and Lampard always support the forwards and that the midfield would be open, there would be spaces,” explained Joachim Löw after the nation’s ruthless victory.
England’s failure to get compact quickly also seemingly went against the Fabio Capello doctrine that in modern football, all teams must employ some variation of a 9:1 defensive split in relative to the ball when they lose possession. The use of two defensive midfielders allow for such an easy transition into a defensive block while even the deployment two wingers on the “opposite side” are a means to push opponents inside. “The trend,” says Gerard Houllier, “is to bring the opponents into a defensive block and then aggressively press the ball.” With England playing with two orthodox forwards and one attacking midfielder in Frank Lampard, they were essentially a broken team and that placed too much pressure on Gareth Barry to hold the defensive fort. Arsene Wenger succinctly sums up the conservative trend in South Africa in which most teams were all to willing to get nine men behind the ball. “Tactically, the World Cup was very, very one-sided,” said the Arsenal manager in the club’s magazine. “All teams played five men in the midfield and that was their priority.”
Tactics at club level are expectedly more varied although the desire to stay narrow and compact in the defensive phase still rings true. Most intriguingly, the UEFA Cup was one of 4-4-2 with the quartet in the last four all deploying two deep box-to-box midfielders and placing much reliance on the firepower of the two forwards – perhaps as a means to compensate for the lack of creativity. In fact, in playing the formation nowadays, it is essential to remain compact and that means the central midfielders are forced to play deeper.
I recently watched a friendly between Celtic and Lyon and despite the French side being the one expected to take the ascendancy; it was Celtic who initiated the first signs of adventure. The distance between the backline and forwards for the first thirty minutes was at times, no more than 40 metres apart but as the game wore on, both sides expectedly became more stretched. The two central midfielders, Joe Ledley and Scott Brown, had to start deep to compress the space in front of the defence while the running and natural creation of triangles in Lyon’s 4-3-3 was more superior to their flat four in the middle, not to mention their higher technical ability. The game also showed just how redundant a second striker can be if the team is outnumbered in the middle and the defensive midfielder – in this case Jean II Makoun – able to drop back to mark one of the forwards. Gary Hooper did pull a goal back to help Celtic equalise but only after Lyon rang massive changes to make what essentially was a reserve side.
Between the lines
As Alan Hansen so regularly dissects in the highlights programme Match of the Day, teams must be set up in bands when defending (the term “two banks of four” is usually heard on the show because of the prevalence of the 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 formations in the Premiership). In attack, however, things are likely to get slightly more complicated and, especially for a more forward thinking side, two holders may be repressive. Brazil were perfectly able to switch from their asymmetric diamond formation into a 4-2-3-1/4-3-2-1 in defensive transitions to stay organised but, in the end, were undone due to Dunga’s own stubbornness to abandoning their two defensive midfielders.
Volker Finke, a former coach of German side SC Freiburg, says that the use of two holding midfielders – or the double six as it is more commonly known in his native country – must not be on the same line, a point Pep Guardiola was adamant to stress in the tweaking of his formation last season. “This new look was implemented so that Messi could connect into the game more often because it’s good for us when does,” explained Guardiola when using the same system earlier last season in a 2-1 win over Malaga. Journalists speculated it was a 4-2-3-1, many saw it as an asymmetric version of the 4-2-4 but because of the individual defensive assignments, it more closely resembled an attacking version of their 4-3-3. “We found him more often than in other games. It also puts him closer to Ibra. It’s as if Messi were an ‘interior.’” And upon being questioned on the roles of Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets in front of the defence, he added: “They (Xavi and Busquets) were never on the same line. We have never played with a double pivot. However, we did make a small adjustment with the wingers and their defensive roles.”
Rather, Finke says the two in the middle must be “staggered” i.e. one slightly higher than the other.* Germany, the side who had most resembled a club side in the World Cup due to their efficiency, displayed that with Bastian Schweinsteiger dictating from deep and Sami Khedira essentially supporting and “knitting” things together in a box-to-box role (see Figure 1). For Spain, Busquets and Xabi Alonso only dropped alongside each other in the defensive phase, otherwise Busquets played almost as a third defender while Mark van Bommel, for the Dutch, looked to push up in attacks. “Defensive zones will be broken by players who seem to run out of nowhere,” said Czech Under-19 coach, Jaroslav Hrebik on the anticipated prominence of players such as Khedira. The fact that Lyon played with two similarly deep midfielders, writes Hristo for Ases Del Balon, contrived to the French club’s failure in Europe as he says “most major league teams (in Europe) are concerned with covering and controlling the midfield” and Lyon failed in regards to the latter. Of course, there is no right or wrong partnership although coaches are conscious that the area in front of defence is the space that needs to be controlled. Andrea Pirlo, a great modern day orchestrator, is himself performing a defensive duty just by operating in the zone in between defense and midfield. Yes, he possesses a panache and finesse about him than most holding midfielders but the idea of Carlo Mazzone, the coach who converted the Italian, was that Pirlo was to play as a libero (sweeper) in front of the defence.
<Figure 1> Imagine the two holding midfielders positioned in a 4-4-2 as in the graphic number one. The left-sided central players is the box-to-box midfielder (Khedira) and the right sided midfielder, the passer (Schweinsteiger). In attack one can envisage the pair attached by a bungee cord, giving an easy point of reference to each other. The pair can cover zones almost simultaneously with Schweinsteiger holding the midfield as a pivot. Now imagine below the ball reaches a defensive position – the deeper midfielder can go towards the ball to help out in channels and the other able to hold the fort. If the ball moves to the left, the pair can move likewise and ensuring the sensible covering of zones. (Graphics from Spurs Community – no, we’re not moving to the dark side).
Jose Mourinho, when talking about the impact Wesley Sneijder has had for his Inter side last season, claims it was the team’s strong “tactical structure” which gave the Dutchman the freedom to play as an ambiguous midfielder/forward role. Equally, Thomas Muller had an undefined role for Bayern in claiming the domestic double while Germany’s two holders allowed for Mesut Ozil to almost play as a striker (see figure 2). Maybe then, should a team have a strong defensive structure as indicated by the above examples, there isn’t the need to have nine back as Capello indicates. Indeed it’s a point Wenger is trying to make at Arsenal although, by pushing a midfielder alongside Song, seems to signify the importance of a double defensive base. Ozil hardly dropped back for the Germans although they did display some acknowledgement that the deep-midfielder must not have time on the ball. Over-enthusiasm however from Miroslav Klose saw him receive a red card against Serbia for persistent fouling.
<Figure 2> Germany’s average touch position in the 4-0 win over Argentina. The closeness of the Schweinsteiger (7) and Khedira(6) shows the understanding the two have and the concept of universality – one being able to cover for each other. The solid base allows Mesut Ozil (8) to play in an ambiguous playmaker/striker role.
Generally though, two holders have many benefits such as the protection they offer to the back four and the full-backs to bomb forward, and guard the team in moments of transition. As well as having the capability to stop attacks, the best sides make it their base for starting attacks. Johan Cruyff may have loathed the use of a double pivot by Spain and Holland, but the formation still allows for the natural creation of triangles he insists is a must. Zdenek Zeman, feels similarly a 4-3-3 is the “most rational way to cover the spaces” and that perhaps highlights why many teams have a preference of the double shield. Zeman is an attacking romanticist so his views may be considered quite an anomaly, but in an increasingly holistic game, turning the midfield triangle around presents a more efficient defensive structure. Of course in football all is relative and a strong defence aids a good offence. That was Rafa Benitez’s argument in building his Liverpool side around a 4-2-3-1 and for essentially half a season culminating in the Reds finishing second in the league, we saw that power as they demolished Real Madrid 4-0 in Europe earning a flattering comparison by Arrigo Sacchi to his own all-conquering AC Milan side.
The self-conscious symmetry the 4-2-3-1 gives allows coaches an easy division of labour. Holland’s 4-2-3-1, although effective in the grand scheme, was too functional in regards to ball circulation but that solid base gave freedom for their glut of individuals to prosper. Argentina and England were the ultimate description of the broken team as the former, with Macherano holding by himself, was too top heavy and so in essence attacked with five men and defended with five.
Arsenal Case Study
It was in the summer of 2005 when Arsene Wenger had to make the difficult decision of whether to let his captain Patrick Vieira go having in previous seasons rebuffed an offer from Real Madrid to make him a Galactico. Vieira was still good enough to compete in the Premier League but the emergence of a young Catalan, Cesc Fabregas, made, for the first time, the Frenchman droppable. The problem was that as a tandem, the pair did not work; the 4-4-2 left space for only one progressive midfielder and Fabregas’s displays in the middle made him indispensable. “When Cesc Fabregas was 18, 19, I would play him in a 4-4-2 with Patrick Vieira and I saw it did not work,” said Wenger. “Then I had the decision to make about letting Patrick go, because Gilberto Silva and Vieira worked, Fabregas and Silva worked, but I could not play Fabregas and Vieira.”
The formation was unlikely to change also as Wenger felt the 4-4-2 was “the most rational formation in most cases.” And he added in Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti’s book The Italian Job, that it was “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 in covering space.”
The “double six” in front of the defence made much of that efficiency under Wenger’s reign; Petit and Vieira helped Arsenal to their first double in the Premier League era before Edu joined the latter to guide them to their second in 2002. Niggling injuries to Vieira meant it was a rotated central midfield between him, Edu and Gilberto in 2004 as Arsenal went the whole league season unbeaten. Starting in front of the defence and playing very compact, the midfield was the base of which allowed the front four to flourish and had the same capability of halting attacks as it did the ability to springboard the side’s own.
In subsequent seasons however the 4-4-2 has become more inefficient for Wenger’s side. Matthieu Flamini bucked that trend somewhat with an all-action style and tactically astute display in 2007/08 but that was not to mask the intensity and astronomic distance he was required to cover. It was evident Gilberto Silva had his work cut out in the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup the same season. Some may feel part of the blame should be attached to Cesc Fabregas from a defensive viewpoint although statistics do show he covered more distance than nearly all players on the pitch. Indeed, Wenger felt that it was crucial to have Fabregas’ penetration up the pitch and certainly that has become more evident in recent seasons, the switch to the 4-3-3 looking to liberate the Spaniard. “Cesc likes to be at the start of things and then get on the end of things, and he can push forward more because he has two players around him who can defend,” said Wenger last season.
This season Wenger has stuck with the 4-3-3 formation as at the end of last season, with right central midfielder playing higher. The left-sided central player is detailed to drop alongside the holder effectively making it a 4-2-3-1 in the defensive phase. In the case of pre-season it was Jack Wilshere who played this role and alongside Emmanuel Frimpong the pair performed a solid base for which Arsenal could build attacks around and press better. The previous season, Alex Song was often left isolated in what essentially was a 4-1-4-1 formation and Wenger found that, if a team bypassed the first wave if pressure, the Gunners could be exposed in the centre. The revitalisation of the two in front of the defence should give Arsenal greater structure in defence and organisation into four easily identifiable bands. Of course, part of that solidity was displayed last season in a 1-0 win over Liverpool and 5-0 against Porto where Diaby’s late running was difficult to pick up as well as his ability to turn the momentum of an attack by winning the ball back quickly.
Literature on the use of two midfielders in front of the defence still seems to treat the matter beyond the simplicity; they obviously bring greater solidity to the team but further research and statistics such as area covered could provide a more accurate description of their roles. They do give more protection down channels, especially if full-backs are the most potent weapons in the modern game then two midfielders, similar to the “interiors” in the 4-3-3, can easily shuffle right and left. But perhaps simplicity is also apt because as Volker Finke says, the 4-2-3-1, the formation that is so synonymous with holding midfielders, “is less demanding in terms of team tactics, because it’s easier for the players.” Indeed in the second half of the 2008/09 season, Arsene Wenger made a switch to the formation as Arsenal’s league form faltered and goals leaked. The move proceeded to bring an 18-game unbeaten run to the young side.
Two central midfielders, as a means for a solid base have been around in some way or another for a long time. In Herbert Chapman’s WM formation the two half-backs, Baker and John, could have been primitive versions of the holding midfielder. They did not exactly screen as per the functions nowadays but were detailed mark the inside forwards. While Brazil’s 4-2-4 in 1970 World Cup owed much credit to it’s success to the tempo setting and zone patrolling of midfield pair Clodoado and Gerson. And fast forward to 2010 and despite being lambasted in the 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in the first game, the securities Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso gave ensured that wasn’t anyway close to happening again. It seems finally that two holding midfielders are here to stay.
*[Carlo Mazzone’s quote on between-the-lines players may help: “There are trends in football. This is a time of between-the-lines players. From a classic 4-4-2, we now have a 4-1-1-1-1-3-0 as we have at Roma.” That transforms to a 4-3-3 in the defensive phase but the asymmetry is important as it helps the side press better as Guardiola will also insist in his side’s interpretation of the 4-3-3.]