Why are two holding midfielders so crucial in the modern game?

The efficiency that two holding midfielders provide makes them very important to have in the modern game.

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).

Tactical Structure

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.]


72 thoughts on “Why are two holding midfielders so crucial in the modern game?

  1. this is probably the most researched and in depth article anyone has even written about arsenal and its entirely true
    we need to tweak this awesome formation of our from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 this will provide defensive cover as well as plenty of attacking options
    Diaby, fabreags and Song midfield was successful for this and this reason only

  2. I propose that Arsenal fans World wide post letters once a week for the next four weeks to UEFA & FIFA complaining about Barcelona FC’s ‘tapping up’ of Cesc Fabregas. Also post a letter just once to Arsenal FC requesting that they formally complain to UEFA & FIFA. I have drawn up 3 template letters that I will email to willing participants. All you need to do is type in your own Name & Address before printing off & posting. Momentum will be boosted by you forwarding the email to every one of your Arsenal FC fan family & friends, encouraging them to participate.
    Please see …. http://www.goonerettesonline.co.uk/452/other/an-overview-of-the-cesc-saga-time-for-the-fans-to-bite-back/#more-452
    The aim of repetitive letters is to create an Admin headache for UEFA & FIFA with thousands of letters received from all over the world & display the strength of feeling from Arsenal FC fans. The purpose of the single letter to Arsenal FC is again to display the strength of feeling from us fans.
    My email address for this campaign from where I will email you the letter templates is …….. ArsenalFansHateBarcelonaFC@gmail.com

    1. Thanks. It’s taken a long time to make it as user-friendly as possible but at the same time keeping the detail. Glad you’ve enjoyed it. As for hiring a room, a guy named Anto seems to have beaten me to it.

  3. Arsenal do not play 4-3-3, they play 4-1-2-2-1. There is no three in a symmetrical line. The holding player sits in front of the back four with two central midfielders in front of him. The two players in front of that are wide attacking players who do not track back to support the midfield/full backs, but stay up top so as to not isolate the lone striker.

    Unfortunately, they do not offer width, instead they come infield, narrow play and jam up the centre of the park. The full backs are instead supposed to offer attacking width – but are no good at attacking – the result is that the team is left horribly exposed to the counter attack.

    Wenger’s system stinks because he implemented the system first and the players second. It’s been a very crude transformation which does not work because there are too many square pegs in round holes.

    It does not help that Wenger is unable to coach his players effectively, or that a number of them are unwilling to do their defensive duties. He’s out of his depth and not up there with the top coaches tactically, nowhere near.

    All Wenger is good at is locating future starts, motivating and coaching players in pass and move and dietary advice. When you need that 10% extra tactical ability to win a football match, he’s nowhere.

    Of course, Wenger has won things in the past, because he bought great players – the better the players the less requirement for tactics. But now he is encumbered by a lack of finance and overwhelming philosophy to coach youth. As long as Arsenal are in the top four the board are happy and so he doesn’t care what the fans or the club wants only his own private mission to succeed, which, seeing as he surrounds himself by yes men in every respect, is unfortunately doomed to failure.

    1. This article may have been indicating differently, but I feel tactics should not be so complicated. Sometimes it’s allowing the players to flourish and use their initiative in a certain structure.
      -For simple sakes it is a 4-3-3, but it’s asymmetric and the change this season is closer to a 4-2-3-1 when defending, a 4-1-4-1/4-1-1-3-2 when attacking. But numbers are not the point of it and I’ll be explaining the tactics in an upcoming post. Wenger is not perfect – nor is anyone for that matter – but he’s done a fine job considering the circumstances.

  4. wow, but why?

    Editor (The Brain): To get reactions like that. Clearly you have been confused by it’s awesomeness or the title didn’t make enough sense to you….(!)

  5. Brilliant Article. You are a true analyst of the beautiful game and that is why I love your website. The best Arsenal blog around.

    Editor (The Brain): Aww….shucks…

  6. Great article. One thing you didnt mention is that the double pivot allows teams to play with attacking fullbacks without exposing the defense too much. For both Spain and Brazil, one of the holders drops into defense when in possession, freeing the fullbacks to bomb forward.

    Coming to Arsenal, this doesn’t work very well because the two holders also want to get involved in the teams attacks, creating more of a 2-8 formation and leaving the team vulnerable to the counter. There is no one who is assigned to cover Clichy’s runs (especially if you use Wilshere as the 2nd holder). Look at most of Celtic’s attacks in the 2nd half…….too much space on Arsenal’s left flank.
    Frimpong is too keen to win tackles high up the pitch instead of just holding and cleaning up any balls that escape the first wave of pressure.In the 2 games Flamini and Juarez both had too much room to shoot in front of the defense because Frimpong was out of position. He is still young though so he will learn.

    1. That’s why the comment sections are here. Great points and I will also analyse Arsenal’s systems in coming days but if I had covered every detail – man, this article would have gone forever!

  7. The playing of Song occasionally as a centre back and the use of Djourou as a defensive midfield would indicate that Wenger (who is so poor at coaching that he foolishly introduced 4-2-3-1 in his first full season and won the double)considerer those positions to be virtually interchangeable. Coaching players to play in more than one role makes them a great deal more valuable to the club and keeps them involvemore throughout the season. Vital for morale.
    The downside of only playing one DM (usually Song) is that the full-backs have to stay back more than we would probably like – hence two wide strikers who have more leeway to stay forward.
    Most teams defend against Arsenal, even at home, and hence Wenger has to counter this by playing it as he does. On balance, very successfully.

  8. Very lovely article. However, that is why the number of goals keep reducing. You are advocating for 7 defendive playets & 4 attacking players in a game of 11. If both teams play that wau, we can expect 1-nil kinda games. Think of the days of Pele & Co; how many attacking players? These Mourinho philosophy brings about boring victories. Its better to leave the stadium feeling like you’ve just seen a well scripted movie.

    Editor (The Brain):It’s just an analysis. My vision of football is attacking – similar to Arsenal’s currently. But maybe that’s for another day.

  9. First of all, an excellent article, I enjoyed reading it a lot.
    Second, as I have written on different Arsenal forums these last couple of weeks, why not try something different. A 3-2-3-2 formation where we use 2 DM and when the opposing team has the ball, they would deny the room between Defence and Midfield.
    Sagna, Vermaelen, Clichy
    Song, Djourou
    Nasri, Fabregas, Arshavin
    v Persie, Chamakh

    Editor (The Brain): An attacking version of the WW? You’re like a mini Marcelo Bielsa. Interesting although it’s very susceptible on the flanks without wing-backs. Also that is very old fashioned. I can envisage the full-backs in this way playing as the 1930’s full backs in a 2-3-5 or WM. Strange but also somewhat intriguing. Looks a bit dated however, to be honest.

  10. Great piece, a really knowlegble and thoughtful assessment of the role of midfield players and formations. But I tend to agree with James. There is a mismatch between the kind and quality of players Wenger has now and the formation he deploys. In my view, in order to have a team that can do it all (be brilliant at passing, penetration, ball winning and defensive organisition) you need to have really superb players. Not just good ones. In reality, teams that have more limited players tend to be coached to play within their means; more cautiously, more defensively, more simply. Arsene is asking too much of his players. In my view he either needs to get attacking players who are extra special, who can break down the “two rows of four” and create and score goals more easily (we really labour to do this these days)or he has to recognise his current attacking players, while very good, are not Henry, Bergkamp and Pires (or Barcelona) and, in order to compensate, have a formation and use players who can, if needed, defend their way to victory. Currently we fall right between two stalls.

    Editor (The Brain): Let’s not look at the Invincibles era with Arsenal-tinted glasses on. The opponents played very attacking – even at the foot of the table. They would never do that nowadays and that’s why you should have solutions all over the pitch. Late runners, movement behind the backline and penetration of Arshavin is desired.

  11. excellent read mate, well done….
    the role of busquets is an interesting one. I was watching him closely for barca and spain. He basically plays as a sweeper in front of the central defence, and rarely, if ever, ventures forward. Moreover, he is of the physique of a central defender. In many ways, this is similar to Song. However, Song is given more freedom (is less tactically diligent), and can sometimes be seen driving through the centre/being caught out of position.
    Again, well researched and insightful article.

  12. Having now read Jonathon Wilsons piece on The Guardian (he also thinks Wenger is way ahead of everyone else) and having watched the pre-season games, I’m increasingly thinking that Arsenal are moving towards the way that Mexico played when on the attack – namely with three or even only two at the back. Koscielny looks very much like a right footed Vermaelen who is very comfortable bringing the ball out of defence and acting as a distributor in midfield. With the vast majority of teams only playing one up front against them there is little to stop Arsenal playing like this and it means that they can play with two attacking midfielders supporting the front three.
    It may be dangerous when hit on the break but it’s going to be very exciting.

    Editor (The Brain): Wish every fan was as optimistic as you. Just enjoy watching the Gunners play and leave the worrying to two days later, I’d say.

  13. I love the article and the debate has been good too.

    I think the article suggests that diaby is a defensive midfielder. It would be nice if he was as I think we are way too open on the counter. Diaby might see himself as box to box but he is a bit lazy and not disciplined enough to play this role. Same goes for Denilson – at the end of the day these players just aren’t quite good enough for the role they are being asked to do. Wenger may have the right idea but he isn’t getting the right players in to fulfil the plan.

    I agree with Guardiola that you need a proper DM, then a box to box player who can tackle and create, then your creative midfielder all playing on different lines. Currently Arsenal dont have the high energy box to box player that can defend and attack – we used to in Flamini and I would love to have him back. Ramsey was looking like he might be the only one capable of doing the job Flamini did and I remember seeing Song, Ramsey and Cesc together and thinking ‘this is the solution’. Then Ramsey had his leg broken.

    Finally Arsenal need to improve their defending from the flanks. the likes of Arshavin and Walcott amongst others do not do enough to protect the full backs. If you watch Barca play, every single player puts in a massive effort when they dont have the ball – I dream of the day Arsenal are that committed.

    Editor (The Brain): I’d agree it’s highly presumptuous to think Diaby can curb his attacking instincts but the changes towards this season are that the left sided CM is more tactically aware and drops back. Diaby hasn’t trained as much and would expect Denilson to fulfil that role more. Last season’s two examples were that he was detailed to drop back in those games.

  14. we were at our best at the start of the season when we played 433 with song deep denilson slightly forward on the left and cesc bombing up and down on the right. Ever since we went 4231 we became too defensive, we were scoring goals for fun, until rvp and cesc got injured and forced us to go 4231.

    btw international football is very different from premier league football so there is no point comparing.

    But good info…

    Editor (The Brain): Comparing is a word we use quite loosely here. Analysis is the word but what we did say is that international football provides some of the basic fundamentals in coaches thinkings.

  15. great stuff man, been a while since i read about football tactics, and i must say this is briliant , well done

  16. Good article brain.you make good points in there regarding the double six.However the diaby/denilson role is what fails us in our midfield.denilson is a good pickpocket player but he just switches off at crucial times-im still aggrieved when i remember him being outpaced by the ref when rooney scored us.diaby on the other hand lacks that discipline and you will often see him playing quite high on the pitch.flamini would’ve been perfect but as it stands most teams we play try to negate us hence why aw fields the offensive diaby.however when we meet chavs/mancs we get destroyed and its this balance point that is eluding aw for so long.i would love to see us play a back three of tv,kozzer and song in offence mode similar to spain.id also love your thoughts on how rvp and c.kaka will play…cheers!

    Editor (The Brain): Looks like Chamakh will play first few games as RVP gains his fitness but overall RVP looks main forward. Chamakh can play on the right but it is clearly not his best position. In CF position, he drifts a lot to the right, allowing the winger to roam and drift inside. Wenger will try and have to find a way to put them in a 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1 if you will as only one can play centrally). (unless of course one drops behind and works back).

  17. Great Article. Thanks for the great amount of effort that you put in! Keep it up!

    Anyway, my view is that yes, two holding MFs is the ‘trend’ now and it is becoming an essential part of many teams. However, I feel that the relativity of success also depends on the quality and type of holding MFs that are paired together.

    For Example,
    We saw how much of a difference it was when it was Alonso/Masch compared to Masch/Lucas.
    Lucas is much more similar to Masch than to Alonso.
    What I’m highlighting here is that for this system to be successful, especially on the offensive end, one or even both MFs have to be able to read the game well and more importantly, be a really good passer.

    Some of the best-performing teams last season and the WC showed that.
    Spain had Alonso and Busquets, Van Bommel for the Dutch, Khedira n Schweinsteiger for the Germans.
    These 3 teams that deployed the 4-2-3-1 , had at least one ball playing MF, a good passer of the ball.

    Even for a team like ManUtd who usually uses the 4-4-2, the two in the centre of the park are good passers. Anderson, Carrick and Of course Scholes. Not to mention Fletcher, whose passing is improving season after season.
    In United’s case, the ‘2’ that they use in the midfield, is rather similar to the 2 in the 4231. More often than not, we see either one of the above mentioned names joining the attack. And careful observers would have noticed Fletcher joining the attack more often than the other midfielder despite him being labelled as a defensive midfielder.
    And when they defend, the ‘2’ fall back and form a line, performing almost the same defensive duties as the ‘2’ in a 4-2-3-1.
    Therefore, I don’t really see a diff the ‘2’ in both systems.

    I believe its more of what type of players are used in the ‘2’ and what their jobs are.
    what do you think?

    P.S points are scattered and a bit unclear. but hopefully, it’s understandable


  18. I’m not an Arsenal fan but I love this site for its indepth analysis. I’ve learned a lot from just reading your articles.

    By the way, what is a double pivot? (I thought I understood what it meant, but then you used it in a context that made my meaning of it questionable)

    1. Look at Diagram 2 in the Germany section. If my understanding is correct, he means the way that the two defensive midfielders will split into attack and defence, but look to rejoin each other in the defensive phase, with the passer looking to close down the ball and the box-to-box player dropping back in front of the back 4.
      If you were to imagine a length of elastic constantly joining these players then it would be stretched and rotated by the movement of both players pulling on the end, not just one of them, hence the “double pivot.”

      Would appreciate it if the writer could confirm my interpretation, keep up the great blog!

    2. You are correct Ario. It’s important not to overcomplicate things which on such a subject matter as this, it’s difficult not to.I tried to make it as easy to read as possible without skimping on the detail.

      The Spanish use the term for their two holders which I believe is a basketball term. The two movements are closely related which is signified by the elastic, allowing for easy covering of zones and efficiency. Usually it’s a passer and box-to-box type player partnership.

      1. That’s right.

        Plus the Spanish term suggests that those two players really are the axis of the team; they provide a positional reference for the other players who may move more freely.

  19. My problem is also with our central midfielder. To me, this is the most important position in the pitch as they are vital in both defense and attack. My problem is that we have no central midfielders who are prolific in defense or are particularly good passers of the ball. Song is obviously a very good player but he must be partnered with a player who complements his strengths and weaknesses. Frimpong to me is the right kind of player for that role but when it comes to attack he has shown to be a terrible passer of the ball. I’m 100% sure he will improve on that front as that is Wengers specialty but he will hardly improve over night. Therefore I feel the only other way we can compensate is by putting a player in that position who can keep possession very well and provide extra threat from deep, which is what Barcelona obviously do with Xavi. Pep Guardiola has mentioned that he will be playing Cesc in a deeper role when he goes to Barcelona and I think this is a viable option. With Cesc in a deeper role he can act as our Xavi but with much more threatening passing and more dangerous runs from deep. His defense splitting long balls will come in to play as well. This also means we can play someone else in the attacking midfield role who is more of a dribbler and short passer to complement Song and Fabregas. Nasri is the obvious decision and I feel that he will provide an Oezil type of threat as he will be able to push as far forward as he feels necessary. He will also be able to freely swap with Arshavin who adds an even more direct threat. I feel that Van Persie will be a huge threat coming in from the left as he loves to shoot from distance (which we were missing last season) and obviously cuts in as well as being able to swap with Chamakh. If you watch a highlight of his videos you will find that he scores most of his goals cutting in from the left even when playing striker. As brain said, Chamakh also likes to drift to the right. Lastly, I think Song and Fabregas could swap sides because this would spread our attack more as well as even out our defense. (Song reinforcing the left while Sagna is a more solid defender than Clichy.
    ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~ ?
    Sagna Koscielny Vermaelen Clichy
    ~~~ ~~~ Fabregas Song
    ~~~ ~~~ ~~~ Nasri
    ~ Van Persie Chamakh Arshavin

    1. I like Phil’s idea of Fabregas starting deeper (but with licence to move forward). In the case of Barcelona and Spain, such a role also gets the best out of Xavi. What I don’t like to see is either of these two guys played 3/4 of the way up the pitch since they spend too much time with their backs turned to goal; Cesc needs to see the full scope of the pitch in front of him in order to maximise his gifts. perhaps the wide-of-centre roles in a 4-3-3 represent a compromise since there is no fixed man-in-the-hole and either of the two slightly more advanced players can take his turn to drop back and help out the holding player during build-up phase.

    2. Playing Fabregas deeper – which I feel is what the manager wants to do – is difficult because he feels Arsenal may lack Cesc’s penetration. Indeed, the statistics last season of 15 goals and 13 assists show he can play “with back to goal.” Of course not his best role but in World football – better than Sniejder – there’s is only two midfielders/attackers who are as creatively penetrative as Cesc – Xavi and Messi.

      The other benefit of Cesc higher is his “llegada” runs. Of course, he can do that from deep but right now he’s playing an undefined role which he seems happy with i.e. second forward/attacking midfielder with license to drop deep. The pressing part of his game is similar to Messi’s at Barca last season and at the start of that season, Cesc won a lot of tackles up the pitch. Like Roberticus says, it almost represents a compromise but if done well, the 4-3-3 or 4-2-Cesc-3 could be deadly. Of course as Phil says also, the second central midfielder (which incidentally was a similar thing I was going to talk about during my season preview analysis) is a slight concern. Who to balance?

      Denilson seems like a Busquets type – i.e., simple, efficient; Frimpong’s forward play is non-existent; Diaby’s tactical acumen is not great as of yet; can Song push up and be as effective?; has Nasri got the defensive presence to play deeper? Wilshere also? Questions but also a bit of variety….

  20. Combined with Jonathan Wilson’s piece in the Guardian, this was great reading. I’m learning a lot today.

    However, for most of the opposition Spain played in the World Cup, I thought two defensive midfielders made them far to conservative. They controlled possession but lacked a cutting edge. Hence all of those 1-0 victories (following a 1-0) defeat. Busquets was simply a waste of space and the team became much more dynamic once Cesc came on. Their Euro 2008 team with Marcos Senna playing the lone holding role was much more fun to watch. So, while I get the logic of the double-pivot for a counter-attacking and/or against strong opposition, it has its drawbacks as well. In fact, I will venture to say that they would have easily beaten the Swiss if they had played with a more attack-minded midfielder.

    1. It’s true it did make them conservative but as Arsenal felt with Flamini’s absence, Alonso and Busquets may not have been able to cover the same distances as Senna. Also, the two gave them great securities as Busquets dropped deeper allowing the centre-backs to spread. This also helped in transitions – essentially the moment Del Bosque was especially worried about.

  21. Excellent article. Obviously you have done your homework and you have provided usefull diagrams. The material was very informative.
    I don’t think we should use the term symmetrical in describing a formation. Only the fulbacks hold Symmetrical positions, and in some case the wingers (however most teams play with one winger nowadays). The two forwards are not on the same line neither are the central midfielders or the center backs. Even the 1970 Brazil team which played the Classic 4-2-4 had Gerson infront of Clodoaldo in midfield. Pele was the spearhead while Tostao was behind him.
    But I realy like this article and I thank you for it.

    1. Gerson played much like Cesc did during his first few seasons for Arsenal, as sort of a ‘box-to-box playmaker’ (as much as that sounds like an oxymoron); he used to stroll forward from that position whilst Clodoaldo (a cultured holding player like Xabi Alonso) stayed deep.

      This can partly be explained in the tactical evolution of Brazil football between the 1950s-60s. A player like Gerson (b.1942) would have spent his teenage years playing in the diagonal system (a hybird of 2-3-5 and 3-3-4) as a ‘No.8’ (an inside-forward who was withdrawn closer to the midfield whilst the other one, like Pele, pushed closer to the striker; this just before the adoption of 4-2-4 in the late 50s, whereby the No.8 now retreated even further to accompany the classical central midfielder (such was Clodoaldo).

  22. Great stuff Brain! I missed pre season, so I am confused about a few things here…

    Last season, the formation in the defensive phase was a 4-1-4-1, until Wenger decided to push Cesc even more forward and Diaby/Denilson to drop deeper. I think in the liverpool game, we saw a 4-2-1-3 in the second half. Other than that it was a 4-1-4-1 right? So does the second function midfielder play alongside the CDM to form two clear DMs in the middle or does he play slightly further to form a staggered looking midfield?

    And, is Song the only one who will cover centrally this season? Last season the auxiliary midfielder was detailed to cover space left by Arshavin. Going by what you say, he will play deeper than before so that Arsenal dont get caught after the first line of pressure? And this is only in the defensive phase I guess.

    Aside from that, can you tell us a bit more about the structure of the team in the defensive phase(positioning of the front three, functions of 3 midfielders in defensive phase).

    1. I think I will write an article on Arsenal. It’s essentially an extension of the tactics used at the end of last season where Fabregas was pushed higher but unlike that period, the left central midfielder will be required to be play more deeper.

      The Fabregas role, or if Nasri plays, is almost a free role with them helping the main forward press (a bit like Messi actually for Barcelona). Arshavin looks to have also more freedom because one player behind him is more disciplined. Should be exciting.

  23. And yeah, the Spurs Community!
    Redknapp hired you due to your extensive knowledge about Arsenal? Conspiracy!

  24. superb post mate, i am liking that…

    btw: abou diaby is not a defensive midfielder, he just works well with alex song

  25. This is my formation:

    Clichy, Vermalen, Koscielny, Sagna
    Song ??
    Arshavin, Fabregas, Chamakh
    Van Persie

    we do not have another great holdig midfielder sorry. djourou aint ready yet and denilson plays better when he attack i reckon. and diaby likes to attack and charge forward.

    i reckon if i had to choose, i would choose diaby

  26. I got an interesting issue here. Arshavin is selfish, Chamakh is quite the opposite. I cannot see them working fine together by themselves as played in the AC Milan game

  27. Brain,
    there’s an informative article with diagrams in the Spanish sports rag ‘As’ about Mourinho’s pre-season experiments with Madrid; in particular it illustrates how the 4-2-3-1 formation is affected depending on the make-up of the two holding roles.
    YOu can read it at youkioske.com

      1. Yeah, the Thurs/Fri one (daily issue). On the homepage (of youkioske) go to the tab marked ‘PRENSA’, and then ‘Prensa Deportiva’. It’s the one with (as if there were no other players..) Cristiano Ronaldo on the cover marked ‘Mourinho:Primera Victoria’.

        Typing these words, something inside me is dying; really only bother if you’ve got bundles of time to kill!

  28. Hi everyone!!!

    I just want to tell all of you about my opinion about next season’s formation. I think the best formation is 4-2-3-1. It should look like this:

    van Persie-Fabregas-Arshavin

    (Nasri will alternate with Arshavin and Rosicky will alternate with van Persie)

  29. A well researched and written piece, but I don’t agree with this over analysis of football. It is killing the positivity and flair in the game. We’re trying to turn footballers into robots.

    1. It’s something I agree with as well. But how much freedom for expression can you allow players especially as fans crave trophies? Wenger likes to offer players the capacity to perform the audacity but there is still some sort of framework they must adhere to otherwise they will be punished.

      But although this may seem like an over-analysis it’s only a few of points stretched out. Players don’t need to know all this – they do some of it naturally and are aware also that there needs to be a structure. If anything outside influences stop the positivity and flair in the game. Thanks

  30. Olá ! Eu podia jurar que eu fui a este blog
    antes mas depois leitura através de alguns do post que eu percebi é novo para
    mim. Não obstante , estou definitivamente encantado eu achei e eu vou ser bookmarking e checando frequentemente !

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