Playing (Against) 4-4-2 Suits Wolves

18 08 2010

After operating with a 4-5-1 for virtually the entire second half of the 2009-10 season, Mick McCarthy returned to his tried and trusted 4-4-2 for the new season. There was always the sense that McCarthy had begrudgingly abandoned his stock formation but change it he did and survival was the vindication of a bit of flexibility from a notoriously stubborn man. However, it would appear that the real cause for optimism regarding Wolves’ fortunes in any individual game comes not from whether they operate with a four or five man midfield but whether the opposition does.

Wolves’ victory over Stoke on the opening day was fairly convincing. McCarthy’s advice to his players that they should get the ball down and play rather than get sucked into Stoke’s direct football proved spot on. The Guardian chalkboard analysis shows that no Stoke player managed more than 16 completed passes in the entire match. In contrast, not one of the Wolves midfield four or indeed either of the full-backs completed less than 25 passes (Steven Fletcher made 15 passes in 49 minutes too).

The really telling factor, however, is the contrast between Wolves’ centre-backs and full-backs. Of course, it is common for full-backs (for Arsene Wenger, the modern-day playmakers) to have more possession than centre-backs but in this instance the contrast is particularly marked. Christophe Berra attempted just 4 passes in the game but even this was positively adventurous in comparison to Jody Craddock’s paltry 3 passes. Meanwhile, Wolves right-back Kevin Foley attempted and completed more passes than any player on the pitch:

The left-hand chalkboard shows Kevin Foley's passes - 45 completed and 5 unsuccessful. On the right you can contrast Jody Craddock's passing - just two completed and both to Marcus Hahnemann.

By playing two forwards in Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones (later Mama Sidibe), Stoke ensured that Berra and Craddock would be engaged in man-marking duties. These would prove to be one-on-one battles the like of which suit two physical defenders of limited ball-playing abilities.  Stoke’s formation also meant that they would rely on the front two to provide the goal threat, playing Matthew Etherington surprisingly deep – often tracking back to double up on Matt Jarvis. This had the knock-on effect of meaning that the men given real space  in the Wolves team were their full-backs, the aforementioned Foley and Stephen Ward. Both players have significant experience playing in midfield (in Ward’s case even as a striker) and so are relatively comfortable on the ball. In other words, Stoke played completely into Wolves’ hands. 

Although the personnel has changed at times, it is noticeable that Wolves have long been more comfortable when operating against 4-4-2 whatever formation they play. Perhaps the best example comes in the 2009-10 results against the top five. Eight defeats out of eight against Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal (just) and Man City but two deserved wins against Spurs. Is it a coincidence that Spurs were the only side to consistently deploy two out-and-out strikers? Berra and Craddock were excellent in both those wins – heading, blocking and clearing the ball for fun. However, they were rarely faced with the difficult decision of whether to drop off or get close to the man playing in the hole. They seldom had the ball at their feet with an obligation to build the attack.


Against Stoke on Saturday, Wolves looked a very capable Premiership side. The centre-backs relished the physical battle while the full-backs and midfield passed the ball impressively. The real challenge will come when the opposition does not play so obviously to their strengths – when the full-backs are closed down, we see the striker(s) drop off deeper and the midfield two are outnumbered. Everton away next up could prove a more revealing test.


England: An Autopsy

28 06 2010

Apologies for the delay. There was quite a lot to take in. Here are a few thoughts on the reasons for England’s weekend elimination:

1) Don’t under-estimate the Germans

Alan Hansen may continue to push the view that they are no better than average, but all the indications are that this Germany team know what they are doing. The defence is largely unspectacular although it must be noted that in Philipp Lahm they possess one of the finest full-backs in the game. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are a dynamic pairing with good passing skills. Mesut Ozil is one hell of a player with that golden combination of pace, skill and intelligence. Importantly, they all know the gameplan and are comfortable in the system. Throw in young Thomas Muller and the continually under-rated Miroslav Klose and you have quite a team. They will cause Argentina, a side with better players than England possess, more than a few problems.

2) Tactics / Formation simply wrong

Of course England’s deficiencies are not solely the responsibility of Fabio Capello and I have long argued that if a man with his record cannot bring success then surely nobody can. However, it can only be frustrating to see him wedded to a stuttering 4-4-2 that so plainly failed to bring the best out in key players. Wayne Rooney favours a lone role up front. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would appreciate being freed of some of their defensive responsibilities. Gareth Barry and Joe Cole prefer to operate in a 4-5-1. Aaron Lennon is more suited to it. As is Michael Carrick. To be honest, pretty much any creative player you choose to mention would be better served in a 4-5-1 and in the absence of a world-class strike partner for Rooney it is baffling that Capello did not seem to entertain the idea. Even if convinced by the success of the qualifying campaign, surely he had seen that it wasn’t working in the group stages of this World Cup? Even if persuaded by the improved showing against Slovenia, surely the 1st half mauling, with Ozil repeatedly enjoying the freedom of Bloemfontein in between the English lines, would see him change the shape? There are many valid arguments for why England fail to impress at the highest level but the chief reason this particular 90 minutes did not go England’s way was down to the way Capello set his team out. For that, he is surely culpable.

3) We Are Just Not That Good

Ashley Cole world-class? Fair enough. Wayne Rooney top drawer? He had a nightmare tournament, but yes. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard? Wonderful players, although they are both the wrong side of 30..

After this, it is hard to make a persuasive case for these players being of the highest order. Robert Green and David James have been involved in relegation battles all season, the latter unsuccessfully so. Likewise Matthew Upson.  Joe Cole and Emile Heskey are not first XI players. James Milner, Gareth Barry, Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon.. these guys have not played regular Champions League football. Glen Johnson of Liverpool won’t next season. These are not top-class footballers and there is just no reason for us to think they should be.

4) The Premiership Style of Play

Capello highlighted tiredness as being the key reason for England’s failure to impress in South Africa. With the entire 23 man squad playing their football in the Premiership perhaps it does have some weight as an argument. The best league in the world? It is certainly the fastest. With a high turnover of possession and a heavy emphasis on the physical, players are proving unable to maintain that tempo in tournament play as the opposition prove unwilling to give the ball back so readily

However, my view is that the problems inherent in the Premiership extend beyond talk of tiredness and winter breaks. It centres around the very types of player that it helps to create and thrive. England posses a plethora of powerhouse midfielders with good engines – I am thinking top class players like Gerrard & Lampard in their prime, or merely good ones like Gareth Barry & James Milner. I’m looking at how a supreme talent like Joe Cole who could do anything with a football was converted into a winger, playing on the periphery of the game, and effectively had his creativity coached out of him for the good of the team. Fine players like Deco are derided for not being able to impose themselves on the English game and the 6-0-6 crew will all have a laugh about how his ilk go missing on a cold November Tuesday in Bolton. Harry Redknapp, a progressive coach if some are to be believed, recently suggested we over-rate Brazil – they can’t be that good because Elano and Robinho couldn’t cut it in the Premiership apparently. Well, maybe the Premiership is not the ultimate judge of a footballer? Maybe that is in fact our problem and not theirs?

Whatever the reason, no Premiership footballer has a World Cup winners medal so far this century and should favourites Brazil win this one, the only outfield player in their squad contracted to a Premiership club is none other than Robinho. Food for thought.


The matter of England’s elimination is as big or as little a discussion as you want it to be. You can get into issues of foreign players, the relationship between the FA and The Premier League, even the blame culture of modern society if you wish. Or you can say Gareth Barry is slow as death and the linesman was blind. I think the key is to retain some balance between the two. Germany are a good side and they won the match because they tactically outwitted the England side. In many ways it was a textbook example of how 4-2-3-1 exposes 4-4-2 with Mesut Ozil free to roam in the hole untracked by the English midfield and confusing their centre-backs. This was the reason for the defeat. But even if we had won the battle, we are still losing the war. Where is the guile? Where are the skilful and creative footballers who can play a simple, passing game? It does not seem a coincidence that they are missing from the England squad. It appears to be the natural result of the way football is played in this country. Oh well, see you in 4 years time for another disaster.

Italy Improve With 4-4-2

15 06 2010

Ghostgoal recently highlighted the advantages Ghana enjoyed over Serbia by employing a 4-2-3-1 against a 4-4-2. The Serbs never gained control of the midfield and were unable to get support up to the strikers. Italy’s game against Paraguay last night then was probably a timely reminder that, if it suits your players, 4-4-2 can be still be the way to go. Especially when 4-2-3-1 clearly does not suit your players…

Italy lined up at kick-off as follows:

The problem they had was Claudio Marchisio playing in a more advanced role than he was used to for his club,Juventus. Lippi had planned to use Andrea Pirlo, another player now used to playing a deeper role, but with Pirlo injured chose to ask Marchisio to operate in an advanced playmaker role. Unfortunately, Marchisio found himseld playing unambitious passes and generally duplicating the work of Montolivo – a far cry from the hard-running and creative display we had seen from Mesut Ozil in the role the previous evening.

In the above picture you can see Marchisio marked by the Paraguayan midfielder with De Rossi and Montolivo not even in the picture and this was indicative of the lack of support the Italians were able to get to Gilardino. On the hour mark Lippi brought the young Bianconeri midfielder off and replaced him with the experienced winger Mauro Camoranesi who operated on the right-flank, with Pepe switching to the left and Iaquinta moved up front where he is more comfortable. The new shape favoured Italy as they understandably stepped up a gear in search of the equaliser and subsequently the win:

This picture also highlights the high defensive line Italy were playing as they pressed the ball and tried to make the pitch small when out of possession. Montolivo and De Rossi are pressing onto the Paraguay midfield in a manner they clearly were not doing in the earlier image and this attempt to institute a high tempo game resulted in an improved performance.


With Ghana and Germany recently earning praise for their performances in a 4-2-3-1 it was fast becoming the formation of the World Cup, at least partly responsible for the low-scoring thus far. Italy’s performance though, served as a reminder that playing players out of position in order to fit the formation can be counter-productive. It will be fascinating to see how Lippi lines his side up for the remainder of the tournament.

Concerns Over Serbia Justified

13 06 2010

Ghostgoal expressed doubts recently whether Serbia ‘s 4-4-2 would be able to deal with a Group D where each of the other three sides play a robust 4-2-3-1. As it turns out, they have slipped up at the first hurdle with a deserved defeat at the hands of Ghana.

Milijas and Stankovic found themselves up against the far more mobile Boateng and Asamoah in midfield and the Ghanaian pair were willing and able to push on in support of Gyan given that they had the insurance of Annan covering in front of the back four. With Tagoe, in particular, also comfortable cutting infield and exploiting the gaps behind the deathly slow Milijas  it was a tough lesson for the Serbs.

What was a little surprising was the lack of impact Krasic was able to have on the Serbian right-flank. Jovanovic had his moments on the left but Krasic struggled to get into the game. Perhaps he was caught between two roles*: conscious of the problems in the Serbian midfield he was unable to push on with freedom and instead frequently found himself receiving the ball infield and running into bodies. Indeed, this was a big part of Serbia’s difficulties. It quickly became apparent that they lacked the mobility and shape to have any hope of passing their way through the Ghanaians with Annan in particular blocking routes forward and easy passes into Zigic’s feet. Instead, Stankovic resorted to hitting regular long diagonal passes that brought little joy.

Going forward it is difficult to be optimistic about their chances of improvement unless Antic reviews their entire shape for the next match against Germany. As discussed previously, Mesut Ozil and Tim Cahill will both operate between the Serbian lines of four and it would makes sense to bring in Kacar as a holding player and get Stankovic and Milijas involved further up field. One thing is for sure, it’s make or break time now if they are to avoid a tournament characterised by under-achievement.

*Or maybe he was just the latest victim of the Ghostgoal ‘ones to watch’ curse.

Serbia – A Newcomer with History

3 06 2010

Technically 2010 is Serbia’s first time at the World Cup. New country, new beginnings? Well sort of. We can still use the past to help understand what may happen in the future, as Jonathan Wilson so brilliantly alludes to in Behind The Curtain:

”[Serbia:] self-doubt suppressing imagination and bringing to the surface the cynicism that has always underlain the technical excellence. Self-doubt, in fact, is the defining characteristic of Serbian football: they are Europe’s most consistent chokers.”

It is a tag that has been well earned. Admittedly, as part of the former Yugoslavia, there was the 1960 Olympic triumph followed in 1991 by Red Star Belgrade lifting the European Cup. However, these achievements come amidst  three Olympic silver medals, two European Championship final defeats and two World Cup semi-final defeats. Throw in a European final defeat each for both Partizan and Red Star and, yes, Serbia arrive in South Africa with a long history of unfulfilled promise.

Three of the current squad remain from last time around in 2006 where the Serbs formed the dominant part of the Serbia & Montenegro side. Qualification had gone remarkably well as they remained unbeaten, topping a group that included Spain. That outfit bowed out of the World Cup at the group stage losing all three games, most famously being on the receiving end of the biggest beating, and the best goal, of the tournament. Amid claims of squad disharmony, a World Cup which they had every right to go into with confidence and belief (some even called them dark horses) had ended in abject failure.

So what about this time around? Well, just like four years ago, the Serbians enter the tournament on the back of an impressive qualifying campaign. On this occasion, France were beaten into second place. A 5-0 home victory over Romania was perhaps the highlight as Raddy Antic’s side showcased the variety of different threats they can offer.

The final two goals that night came courtesy of Milan Jovanovic operating from the left-wing. Still in the Belgian Jupiter League at the age of 29, Jovanovic could be considered something of a late developer. However, with a move to Liverpool now sealed, there is every reason to think big things lie ahead for him and this summer could be the moment he announces himself on the world stage. On the opposite flank, Milos Krasic is many people’s tip to be the breakthrough star of the tournament. The £15m rated talent is attracting interest from Europe’s finest and it is not just his appearance that sees him compared to the former Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved – he has good work-rate, is comfortable with both feet and is capable of playing anywhere across the midfield.

In the centre of midfield, Serbia are blessed with an interesting blend. The skipper Dejan Stankovic, fresh from the treble with Inter, will provide a sound platform for Serbia to play from, working in tandem with the more mercurial talents of the left-footed Nenad Milijas. Milijas has enjoyed contrasting fortunes following an underwhelming first season in English football with Wolves. However, their neat and tidy partnership at the heart of midfield was a key element of a successful campaign.

Up front, newly signed 6′ 8” Birmingham forward Nikola Zigic will, as ever, partner Marko Pantelic in the Serbian forward line. Once again, Antic has complementary styles at his disposal with Zigic’s hold up play and aerial threat combining with Pantelic’s runs in behind the defence. The pair managed only 4 goals in qualifying though, so despite packing a goal threat from midfield, there will be concerns about a lack of firepower.

In defence, Serbia can count upon two men who need no introduction as Nemanja Vidic and Branko Ivanovic have both featured in recent Premiership Team of the Season XI’s. They will join Lukovic and the highly-rated young Lazio left-back Kolarov in playing in front of Stojkovic, meaning Serbia will most likely line up as follows:

As you can see, it is a fairly balanced 4-4-2 that has seen them through qualifying. There was a shift to 4-5-1 for the home draw against France but if Zigic & Pantelic are both fit then they are likely to stick to this shape through the group games at least. This could be their biggest weakness as well as their great strength as they face, in order, Ghana, Germany and Australia. All three opponents could line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that would threaten to dominate Serbia in the middle of the park. Stankovic is clearly an astute and vastly experienced footballer but alongside him Milijas is no Esteban Cambiasso so protection for the back four will be a concern.

Injuries to Michaels Ballack & Essien mean their major group rivals will both enter the tournament without their inspirational leaders, while Australia appear unimpressive. It is all there for Serbia to deliver on the big stage. And yet, predictably, the cracks have started to show – a 1-0 defeat to New Zealand in the warm-up games is bound to set alarm bells ringing. Time will tell whether this is to be a beautiful new dawn for Serbian football… or just another tale of woe from ‘Europe’s most consistent chokers’.