Formations Shaping Talent The World Over

31 03 2011

You could hear it in every pub, in every town, on every weekend of the football season: “The formation doesn’t matter – it’s the players that are important.” As Jonathan Wilson jokes in his prologue to Inverting the Pyramid, such a comment may lead you to consider that these people shouldn’t be allowed to watch football let alone talk about it. Of course, this is overstating but such chatter does overlook, among other things, the fundamental fact that the players you are watching have been shaped by the formations they play in.
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Formations are a key driver to how talent develops.
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Back in 1982, Brazil’s 4-2-2-2 captured the imagination with Zico and Socrates operating as trequartistas while Falcao and Toninho Cerezo provided the inspiration from deep. Over time, this manifested itself as an increasingly negative formation as the deep-lying playmakers became functional stoppers sitting in front of the centre-backs. The sound defensive base, coupled with the fact that the trequartistas did not function as conventional wingers, put an onus on Brazil’s full-backs to give their side attacking width. Cafu and Roberto Carlos remain the most famous exponents but today Maicon and Dani Alves continue that rich tradition.
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In Argentina there is a different tactical tale to tell but the story is still one of the formation shaping the player. Argentina’s devotion to the cult of the playmaker – the enganche – is one of the enduring features of football in the country. Ever since Juan Carlos Lorenzo’s side got the world’s attention at the 1966 World Cup, the enganche has remained central to the nation’s footballing identity. It usually functions within Lorenzo’s 4-3-1-2 formation and, as Wilson points out, “today romantics demand his formation be preserved.”
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The consequence of this is that the creative hub of an Argentinian football side is embodied in one man. As a result, the nation has produced an extraordinary number of creative number 10s – everyone from Pablo Aimar to Juan Roman Riquelme via Andres D’Alessandro is a product of that unique environment.
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In Europe there is a relative paucity of these types of players. Britain’s lengthy devotion to 4-4-2 encouraged a plethora of box-to-box midfielders, while the recent continent-wide shift towards 4-3-3 has even seen the tradition of Rui Costas and Gheorghe Hagis dry up. Michael Cox highlights the implications of this trend over the past decade:
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“Today, the past two World Players of the Year – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – have been primarily wide players who cut inside. Messi and Wayne Rooney would surely have been deployed as trequartistas (or enganches, if you prefer) had they started their career a decade earlier. Indeed, almost every player that would have expected to spend their career behind the front two has had to redefine their game, generally being stationed out wide.”
– Michael Cox, How the 2000s Changed Tactics – Classic No.10s Struggle
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The 4-3-3 family, along with its variants 4-1-2-3 and 4-2-3-1, is now the vogue formation at the highest level all over Europe and this is clearly shaping the development of some of the world’s most famous players. But the signs are there that the formation is spreading beyond Europe. The last bastions of romantic tradition are being challenged. Tor-Kristian Karlsen saw the changes first hand when he attended this year’s South American Under 17s Championships in Ecuador:
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“South American youth national teams have now embraced the contemporary football formation. Even conservative Brazil – not to mention Bolivia and Paraguay – are playing with a central playmaker flanked by two wide attackers. Argentina varies from 4-2-3-1 to 4-1-3-2, while Ecuador are one of the few countries playing a classic ‘Latin American’ 4-4-2 (or 4-2-2-2) formation.” 
– Tor-Kristian Karlsen, Notater fra Quito
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With the modern 4-3-3 now seemingly ubiquitous, there is a temptation to lament the possible demise of the old-style Argentinian enganche or even the marauding Brazilian full-back. Nobody would want to see gifted players marginalised by the modern game, but new formations open up new opportunities:
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“The result of the discovery of the fashionable 4-3-3 formation is the emergence of rapid wingers and a return to the classic “mezzapunta” (behind the striker) type roaming in the final third. In summary, this is good news for entertaining football and the cult of wonderful attacking players.”
– Tor-Kristian Karlsen, Notater fra Quito
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Feel free to shed a tear if this heralds the beginning of the end for Brazil’s 4-2-2-2 or Argentina’s 4-3-1-2. But that’s the cyclical nature of the game. Perhaps the next decade will provide football with a flood of pacey wide-men from South America. And surely that’s something we can all look forward to.


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3 responses

1 04 2011
OverLapping Run » Blog Archive » Friday Potpourri

[...] Ghost Goal: Formations Shaping Talent The World Over [...]

26 04 2011
SpaceGhost

Nice piece. A question about your Brazil example at the end:

If the demise of the trequartista meant these creative players moved wide, how do you think this will impact the Cafu style fullbacks in the longterm?

26 04 2011
Jeremy Betz

if anything the cafu type fullbacks will flourish as fullbacks are liberated by an extremely deep holding midfielder. the current group of trequartistas left play in a 4-2-3-1 but as ‘inverted wingers’ and ‘false 9′s’ become the way people are raised in youth rather than a relatively new trend, formations will shift to a 4-1-2-3 so that the inverted wingers and false 9 can take turns occupying the old number 10′s space. this means that although creativity comes from out wide, it is a narrower wide role which asks the fullbacks to provide more width than in 4-2-3-1 and therefore asks the ’1′ (deep defensive mid) to drop into the back line like busquests for barcelona (and occasionally Spain) It’s hard to say if this can be successful below the top level because it neglects classic centre forwards from a spot in the team and asks for fairly versatile players but it seems to be supported by the claims of Michael Cox (ZonalMarking) and Jonathan Wilson. check out zonalmarking’s posts on the return of the sweeper, and the tactical trends of the 2000′s along with Wilson’s article on Barca returning to a 2-3-2-3 (4-1-2-3 with extremely attacking fullbacks and an extremely deep holding midfielder as mentioned above) The Cafu’s should continue as the attack shifts to a narrow and fluid front three that is truely a ’3′ in that the strikers are dropping deeper and wingers pushing higher and narrower to the point that all three of them will soon be in a position that would be defined as ‘between the lines’ in today’s context of the phrase., thus creating the ‘strikerless’ formations that so many people have predicted.

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