As we're all aware, this has been a troubling season. While we of course know that the results of each match come down to a variety of factors, I've taken it upon myself to consider formations as a chief concern. I've been going over options in my mind for months now, examining our players' characteristics, and studying the way that various teams use formations to best utilize the player talent they have available to them. As we can see from the way 2012/2013 has gone thus far, and with the helpful post Tim proffered up recently, I think it's reasonable to consider a formation change. Thus, we come to my humble hypothesis: our best formation for the near future is the 4-3-2-1.
The Ultimate - via www.footballuser.com
Forgive me while I assume my professor's robes for a moment. If you know a bit about formations and don't want to read this momentary slip into the didactic tone, I think you're better served skipping to the NB. The 4-3-2-1, also referred to occasionally as "the Christmas Tree" consist of three central midfield players, two forward attacking midfielders, and a lone striker. Commonly, the middle of the three central midfielders acts as the string-puller, and the two others act as box-to-box midfielders, providing width in attack and defense. However, it's not unusual for this formation to be used so that all three central midfielders may act as forward running players, creating space and options for the two technically-gifted attackers ahead.The formation on the whole is considered a relatively narrow formation, and can sometimes depend on full-backs to offer presence in wide areas. Additionally, formation can be one of the most flexible in terms of positioning; these two factors account for why it has dropped out of favor in England in recent years. I'll be discussing its strengths and weaknesses, and positing my argument for why it makes the most of the squad we have.
I've included a couple of options at each position to demonstrate the depth offered in each role. Several players can slot into several roles, as we have seen the versatility of Oscar and Bertrand this season in particular. I haven't spread those names around in this picture attached here, but I'll do my best to make note of the options in the following sections.
N.B. This post is considering the squad in the next season, with returned loanees (perhaps De Bruyne, Piazon, Lukaku, Kalas, and Van Aanholt, though I haven't included the latter two in the formation snapshot above), and the possible departures (Frank, Paulo, FloMo, and the German Messi). It is also based on the assumption that as FFP takes effect, teams will be forced to stick with their player purchases, and the composition of the league is likely to change. The need to explore further revenue streams might mean more televised matches in England and around the world, and the increased pressure on teams to rely on fan support will lead to a demand for more entertaining football. Since the EPL won't necessarily be able to buy the best players in the world, they will have to compete with German, Spanish, and Italian leagues for viewership. The result: more entertaining football.
The Back Four
These guys - via cdn.bleacherreport.net
In any match, the attacking role of the back four will be more or less the same: center backs are to serve as outlets when the team has possession, sending balls flying from flank to flank and cutting through the middle. The full backs offer width and overlapping runs, occasionally popping crosses into the middle for forward players to attack. Same old Shih tzu, different bidet (because this is just ridiculous).
Likewise, the defensive approach will hardly change. Our back four are our back four, and while they could definitely perform better and must adapt to a high line of pressing, their responsibilities are going to be similar. They must cover as the side rotates, and not let the little round white thingy go behind him, especially not if guy in a different colored shirt is headed there. Boy, their job sounds dull. One significant change is that with the band of three moved back, our width will be substantially more defensive. Whereas while we're attacking down one side, the other side's fullback won't be required for possession, as the midfielder ahead of him will provide width for a quick cross-the-field change of the angle of attack. We can better protect ourselves from counter attack by either stopping it at the point of its origin with the high pressure on one side, or by having players better positioned on the other.
The Middle Three
Kevin demonstrating his best talent: telekinesis, Matilda-style - via www.chelseamashup.com
This band offers an incredible amount of versatility. Deep-lying playmakers, destroyers, defensive wingers, and Oscars all have a possible place in this part of the midfield. It also allows us to set up very different looks without having to change formation. For example, if we'd like to play our most attacking set, we'd see Moses, Oscar, and Kevin De Bruyne side by side in this band. However, a more defensive requirement would swap Oscar for Mikel (perhaps pushing the little Brazilian up into the forward two), De Bruyne for Bertrand, and Ramires for Moses. Either side could be adjusted for dealing with the Gareth Bales and Ashley Youngs of the world, and conversely, we'd be able to inject more incisive players into our side for teams that we're expecting to sit deep.
This is where we could change just about anything based on the opponent we're aiming to face. Moses could work of Mata and Cole down the left to break into the box near the touch line and cut passes back to the center or make opportunities for himself. De Bruyne could send balls into the cutting runs of Hazard, or lob them into the box for the head of Lukaku/Ba. Bertrand could work out some space on the wing and find a cross. Oscar could operate in the center, playing one-twos with Hazard and Mata until one of the three finds them self in front of goal with an opportunity. Ramires could make one of his runs and do his thing. The options are pretty much endless, and we can be as cautious as we like and attack in whichever way we think would best exploit our opposition's weaknesses.
In addition to contributing to sounder counter-prevention on the wings, a defensive set up allows Mikel (or his substitute) to compact the space between himself and the center backs. He keeps the ball in front of him, covering for a CB that makes a run (or better yet, trips David Luiz, takes the ball from him and sends it into the forward players himself), and offering an outlet when an attacking player needs to send the ball backwards to relieve pressure. It will require some players to adhere more strictly to the organization on the pitch, but who's to say that's a bad thing? Most importantly, I believe this approach allows our team to operate with more concrete, understood roles.
Throughout this season, goals have come from all over the pitch. While that's a wonderful sight to see, it has also meant some of our least defensively sound performances, the inability to preserve leads, and when the chances fall to someone other than Mata, Lampard, Ba, or Hazard, I don't like our odds of scoring. This should provide many avenues of attack, retaining unpredictability and flexibility, but since the focus will be directed in a particular way at a particular time, players can be better positioned for defense. This is key to becoming something of a fortress again.
The Forward Two
Who wants to see some more of this? - via i.telegraph.co.uk
This is what I'm most excited about employing. In Mata, Oscar, and Hazard, we have three of the most technically-gifted players in the league. When they combine their magic on the pitch, it's enough to make a man need a lap pillow, let alone scare the pants of off the opposition. Unfortunately, as we've seen, it's also a massive defensive liability, and sometimes clogs up the middle a bit. I'll try and demonstrate here how this setup helps to remedy the problem while still offering the wet-dream inducing performances we crave and our rivals fear.
Since the slot is limited to two players, it's not really easy to choose among our plethora of playmakers for these positions. Moses, Oscar, Hazard, Mata, Piazon, and the perpetual-troll-eventual-Blue Neymar would all fit in quite nicely (I also included the little Hazard because I couldn't resist writing Hazard/Hazard, the double hazard). The idea of these young players combining in these kinds of positions with flexibility to move around between the bank of three and the dangerous striker ahead of them (unless for some god-forsaken reason, someone hasn't just forcefully exported Fernando Torres already) is mouth-watering to imagine, especially when you consider the way they'll grow and learn together. I honestly don't know if I need to say more about that, except that they'll have more freedom and space to work with because of the increased support behind them and less attack-minded players in their area. The two players would remain relatively close to one another, playing short, quick passes, and advancing the ball as fast as possible toward goal.
- (I'm doing this one in a bullet because of some format issues on my computer.) This formation is designed specifically to make room for players which don't offer much in the way of defense. We'd still want these two to contribute to high pressure and immediate pressing upon the loss of possession. As we're pushed back into our own half in defense, they along with the striker, would present outlets and be able to orchestrate quick counter attacks. This would force teams to be wary of that, and sit their back line a little deeper, which would in turn help us to regain possession more quickly.
The Krakken is ready to get crackin' - via img.bleacherreport.net
This mutha can get crosses, offer the second ball, pretty much everything that he was doing before, but now he'll basically have two Matas behind him. With a smart man like Lukaku or Ba leading the Christmas tree (if Ba is playing, it becomes a Kwanzaa tree), the players behind him will have more space to operate, as we've seen when the anti-Torres takes the pitch.
Like the forward two, the striker won't offer much in the way of defense with the exception of possession and immediate pressing high up the pitch as soon as the ball is turned over.
I just never gave enough love to this man. - via p.twimg.com
The triangle has been the soundest geometric shape for ages. The fact that it is employed in excellent build-up play wouldn't be a shock to ancient architects (see The Freakin' Pyramids), much less modern structural engineers. The triangle is the foundation of Barcelona-style play, and this is the ultimate formation for that. In it's most basic form, it is a triangle, and what's more, it is staggered in such a way that it is composed of perfect triangles from front to back. We've gotten better about using this way of moving the ball through defenses, but I think we can still improve, and this framework will only help with that.
Ultimately this formation relies heavily on two things: offensive quickness, and defensive discipline. Without quick passing, and incisive movement on and off the ball, we won't get anywhere. That will leave us with the similar problem we've seen with the 4-2-3-1, with our narrowness causing congestion. Additionally, if Oscar plays in the middle of the band of three and were to hypothetically cut up the field to assist in attack, he'd better have a player like Ramires there to cover him. The ultimate problems of not maintaining defensive discipline and not making smart runs won't be solved by any formation or squad that we field. Moreover, this formation doesn't do much to employ the attacking abilities of the fullbacks, but I'm okay with that, since I think our best attacking talent is what we should be focused on using, and this setup makes the fullbacks' job easier.
Disclaimer: This formation cannot fix Fernando Torres. The content of this post is entirely comprised of my humble, considered opinion. I didn't write it in twenty minutes, but I'm also just a grad student in Religious Studies at the end of the day. So what the heck do I know?
A final note:
Some people have started to follow me on Twitter since I got into a miniature throwdown (I believe some of you might call it a minor tiff) with Alexi Lalas on ESPN FC's homepage. Don't do that. I don't have interesting things to say, and I don't want to feel pressure to find any.