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.
Formations are a key driver to how talent develops.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
“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
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:
“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
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:
“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
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.


Matt Jarvis – Learning His Trade

24 03 2011

Matt Jarvis never played for England’s under 21 side. That probably didn’t come as a huge shock to him – he hadn’t been called up for the under 19s or the under 17s either. But this week, at the age of 24, Jarvis was named in Fabio Capello’s squad and will surely become the 1,173rd man to represent England at senior international level. His story is a triumph of will and a testament to the virtues of hard work.

Hard work and discipline. They’re not the first qualities you think of when assessing a flying winger. However, as someone who has watched nearly all Jarvis’ 126 appearances for Wolves since joining in June 2007, I can tell you that this is what strikes you about him before long. And it’s chiefly because of the way his game has developed over the past four years.

Jarvis arrived at Molineux to operate on the opposite flank to Michael Kightly who had impressed in the previous season. Unfortunately, despite showing promise, it was an injury-hit debut season in which he struggled to get an extended run in the side. McCarthy occasionally favoured utility-man Stephen Ward – a player perceived to be more likely to adhere to the manager’s mantra of “putting a shift in.”

Even in the club’s title-winning 2008-09 season, Jarvis began the campaign on the bench with Ward seen as the counter-balance to the marauding Kightly. It was only when both wingers were unleashed, most notably in the 5-1 thrashing of Nottingham Forest, that Wolves emerged as genuine promotion candidates. But Jarvis remained a crowd thriller rather than an obviously effective performer.

His three goals and nine assists that season saw him outshone by Kightly on the other flank who contributed eight goals and an astonishing 21 assists. Jarvis had no problem finding the byline. But his left-footed crosses would invariably be stabbed towards the near post, while cutting inside regularly resulted in a mishit shot trickling into the keepers’ hands. You sensed he could do better.

The Premier League brought that improvement. And the progress has been conspicuous in a variety of ways. He may have been aided by the increased freedom afforded by Wolves’ 4-5-1 formation but Jarvis appreciated immediately the importance of tracking back to help his under pressure defence. At Wigan in August 2009, one lung-busting 80 yard dash to help double up on Charles N’Zogbia helped secure the three points late on. No longer was the young winger a luxury player but instead a necessity.

Jarvis’ technique has also improved in line with his mental strength. As Lee Dixon has pointed out, Jarvis regularly works on slowing the full-back down to a standstill, only to then speed him up again to find that yard for the cross. And those crosses are getting better – as indicated by the fact he now plays a role in dead-ball duties at the club. He is a more potent goal threat for his side too – despite playing in a higher league this will be the fourth year in a row in which Jarvis has improved his goal tally. All the clear result of hours spent on the training ground.

Mick McCarthy is certainly unambiguous about the reasons for the player’s improvement. He acknowledged: “If there is a criticism that has been levelled against Matt, it’s that he doesn’t score enough goals. What I like – and always will – is that he has taken it on board, gone on to the training ground and spent a long time with my assistant, Terry Connor, and done something about it. It has not just happened. Matt works constantly at his game. He is a great lad – straightforward, very honest and puts in a real day’s work.”

In an era in which footballers can sometimes feel like they’ve made it by the age of 18, it’s encouraging to see a player working on his game in his mid-20s. Don’t expect Jarvis to stop now. It may sound trivial but recent matches have seen him introduce a step-over trick to his game. He developed it in training – now he is implementing it.

If Matt Jarvis does get on the pitch for England at some point over the next week, people should not expect the finished article. What they can be sure of is that every time they see him play they’ll be seeing a better player than the one they saw last time. And I’d say that’s just about all anyone could ask.

Mes Que Un Long-Throw

5 03 2011

Alternative Title: How to Lose Twitter Followers and Alienate People

 “I don’t know if Barcelona have ever gone to a place like the Britannia Stadium and suffered the kind of onslaught from Tony Pulis’ team of long throws and free-kicks or been up to a place like Blackburn and been beaten up by their long ball into the box.” – Andy Gray (December 2010)

It was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. Frankly, for some, I suspect Andrew Gray could have happily draped his ball-bag in Charlotte Jackson’s eye-sockets – but blaspheming Barcelona and Messi was simply unacceptable in the modern world. Gray, you dinosaur! I bet you still think it’s fashionable to prefer Real Madrid too.

But here’s the thing. What if he had a point?

Don’t laugh. Especially you, Liverpool fans. On February 19, Kenny Dalglish contributed this pearl of wisdom to the debate:

“I’d like to see what Tony Pulis would come up with if Stoke played Barcelona — and how Barca would cope with that.”

See. Oh, you’re a Man Utd fan? Ok, I guess I’ve definitely lost you by now then.

As I see it, the problem is that the fully-deserved reverence being showered upon the heroes from the Camp Nou means that anyone wanting to even discuss this possibility is a philistine … a Little Englander. But here are just a few reasons why I think the issue is worthy of debate:

The Physicality of the Premier League

It’s a familiar theme but the intensity of English football is no myth. It’s a big part of the reason Serie A sides have struggled to be as effective as they can be when faced with English opposition.
I could quote several dozen big name players saying “the pace and the aggression of the Premier League was tough to adapt to” etc and if a magazine had been willing to touch this topic with the proverbial barge pole then I’d have made the effort to find such quotes. But as it is I’m hoping you’ll take this bit on faith.
The bottom line is that if teams, even at Champions League level, are struggling with the physicality of the Premier League then it does logically follow that the league’s most physical side would – in this regard at least – represent the ultimate test.
Of course, Stoke aren’t about to win the league so this test may not translate itself to the scoreline but a novel test it would surely be – which leads nicely on to reason number two:

A Unique Problem

If the Premier League is a more intense league then the players who play in it are generally going to be better able to deal with that intensity. They get accustomed to it. The short sharp shock treatment of exposing a team from another league to a one-off game could leave them more vulnerable to a different approach. As UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh said of Greece and their man-marking system at Euro 2004, Otto Rehhagel had “posed a problem the rest of the world had forgotten how to solve.”
Likewise, how exactly are Barcelona supposed to be prepared to solve a problem like the Stoke long-throw …


Barcelona could well be the best team on the planet. They are also the shortest. So by the time the most ardent of Puyol, Pique and Busquets fans have convinced themselves that the aerial threat of Kenwyne Jones, John Carew and Ryan Shawcross can be dealt with – we are left with Abdoulaye Faye, Jonathan Walters and the not-so-small matter of cutting out the old Rory Delap to Robert Huth one-two. Dani Alves may be an improved defender but 14 stone of Teutonic muscle hurtling at him may test that resolve. As Ron Burgundy said, “It’s science.”

Ultra Stoke

It isn’t science that tells us Stoke would become a particularly horrible animal if faced with the challenge of subduing Barcelona. It’s just pragmatism. That is to say, Delap would regard any throw-in within 70 yards of the Barcelona goal as an opportunity to load the 18-yard-box with any big beasts Pulis could round up. And then see what happens. That means even more throw-ins getting the 30-second ball-wipe treatment – and a conscious effort to ensure the ball spends a minimum of time possible in open play.
Sounds fun doesn’t it.

Stoke vs Arsenal

These aren’t all the musings of a man on a train back from London with too much time on his hands you know. Not by a long shot. Because, we’ve been treated to numerous contests between Stoke and Arsenal that shine a light on the fantasy encounter that everybody (indulge me) is talking about. Arselona, Barsenal, Barca Lite – you may want to call them Barca conquerors very soon – but however you view Arsenal they certainly adopt a similar approach to Barcelona. Their results against Stoke since Pulis restored the Potters to the top flight show four wins for Arsenal and two wins for Stoke. There is a total goal difference of 12-7 in Arsenal’s favour. Is it a winning record for the ‘proper’ football team? Sure. Is it a footballing humiliation to redefine the laws of common decency? Not in a million years.


I know Barcelona are great. They’d almost certainly win. They might well break all kinds of possession records. But they’d also be posed a challenge slightly different to anything else they’d be likely to face from any top division side in the world. Which is, I believe, what makes this game interesting. Interesting, you see. That’s surely all the likes of Gray and Dalglish were getting at in the first place.

Now I’m going to go have a lie down before I convince myself Stoke would actually snatch it with a cheeky 1-0.