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.


Just Like Watching Brazil?

8 06 2010

This is an article written for our friends at WolvesBlog to be featured on their site. If you are not a Wolves fan please do not read on!

Of all the chants directed at the home side at Molineux this past season, ”Just Like Watching Brazil” was not, as far as I am aware, one of them. Thirteen goals all season at home and only four since switching to a functional ‘4-5-1’ around the turn of the year, it was a case of getting the job done and accumulating points.

So it is something of a surprise to discover an ally in the most extraordinary of places… the Samba Kings themselves, Brazil. Respected pundits have been queueing up to describe and analyse their unusual system. Such was the level of debate, The Guardian’s tactics guru Jonathan Wilson wrote a fantastic piece last summer discussing precisely what type of 4-2-3-1 it was Brazil were playing at the Confederations Cup that year. The popular ‘nerd nirvana’ website Zonal Marking,  that features some of the most in-depth tactical analysis ever seen, noted that their unusual system was a ”formation [that] cannot be described accurately by mere numbers”. The article was followed up some time later by a fascinating breakdown of the formation, analysing how it shifted from one perceived formation to the next.

Notation aside, most seem to view it something like this:

Luis Fabiano is the sole spearhead of the attack. Robinho is operating in an advanced position on the left-wing but able to provide a goal threat cutting in on his right foot. There is no like-for-like player on the other flank where Ramires (or perhaps Elano) will be asked to tuck inside to help bolster the options in midfield. This enables the forward-thinking Maicon to power on into the wide open spaces down the right-flank. Centrally, there is disappointment in Brazil at the presence of both Felipe Melo & Gilberto Silva – two holding-midfielders with little creative spark who are entrusted to sit in front of the defence, snuffing out the threat from midfield runners and playing simple no-nonsense passes with an emphasis on ball retention. Gilberto, a former central defender in his youth, sometimes even drops into the back line, effectively forming a back three as the wide defenders almost become wing-backs.

At this point you may need to suspend your disbelief because, for some Wolves fans at least, this newfangled Brazil system will start to ring a few bells. One up front: Kevin Doyle. An advanced right-footed left-winger: Matt Jarvis. A tucked inside right-midfielder bolstering the midfield and allowing the full-back to advance: Kevin Foley & Ronald Zubar. Two out-and-out holding midfielders, one a converted centre-back capable of dropping back into defence: Karl Henry & Michael Mancienne.

To illustrate the point, look at the average position data for the visit of Manchester United to Molineux early this year:


Wolves, playing from left to right on this diagram, have Jarvis playing in almost as advanced a position as the centre-forward Doyle. Despite being described by most onlookers as a 4-5-1 there is certainly no sense in which you could argue Foley on the other flank is playing anything like the same role for the team. The average position data shows him operating in a very similar position to Adlene Guedioura, giving an additional presence in midfield. This is allowing Zubar, the right-back (shown at the bottom of this diagram), to operate in such an advanced position he is actually further forward than Henry, Wolves’ most defensive midfielder in this game with Mancienne left on the bench. In other words, this is much like how Ramires shuttles infield freeing Maicon while Gilberto Silva covers him with a defensive brief.

Now I am not saying David Jones is Kaka (although on the diagram that is Jones playing just off Doyle in a surprisingly advanced midfield role) and if you’re not laughing at me already, you would be if I told you Jody Craddock was Wolves’ very own Lucio. However, when the various World Cup pundits write ad nauseam about just how unique and distinctive Brazil’s assymetrical formation is, you might want to forgive Mick McCarthy a raised eyebrow or two. He is never likely to be a coach hailed for his forward-thinking tactical innovations. Indeed, this very formation was stumbled upon more by accident than through design. And yet even so, while the quality of play we may expect to see from Brazil this summer is a far cry from the fare on offer at Molineux, the key elements of both formations are clear to see. You heard it here first.. and probably last – ”it’s just like watching Brazil”!