A tactical prelude to Nigel de Jong

August 8, 2011
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By Jude Ellery

“Del Bosque spoke of United’s ‘tactical anarchy’ that night, and Ferguson ensured such suggestions could never be made again.  Put simply, up until that game his teams tried to score one more than the opposition; ever since they have tried to concede one fewer… With destruction intrinsically more controllable than creation, it made sense to prioritise the former”

Rob Smyth, Manchester United 2 Real Madrid 3, The Blizzard Issue One.

English football has become much more tactically aware since the turn of the century.  One of the catalysts for this was Manchester United’s home defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final of 2000.

Whether he admitted he had been tactically outclassed or not, from that moment on Ferguson decided to protect against the counter attack – especially in Europe – something 4-4-2 was incapable of doing.  He changed to 4-1-4-1, or variants thereof, with Roy Keane anchoring the midfield and Ruud van Nistelrooy holding up play to wait for midfield support.

This cautious attitude is now commonplace in successful European and International sides – but still scorned by English media and fans alike. Greece’s Euro 2004 triumph was based on a solid back line and set piece goals, but failed to earn them many admirers;  Roberto Mancini is criticised weekly for being a defensive manager – a defensive manager who guided Manchester City to an FA Cup win and joint second in the league in his first full season in charge, that is; Jose Mourinho ultimately earned himself the sack at Chelsea for his ‘negative’ tactics – tactics which won the Londoners six trophies in three years. His next club Internazionale’s 2010 Champions League victory over Bayern Munich was seen by purists as a betrayal of true sporting ideals, a victory for pragmatism over style, as the Italians dumped favourites Barcelona out in the semi-final by deliberately ceding possession in order to maintain their shape.  Goal.com’s headline following the 3-2 aggregate score read ‘Inter Beat Barcelona, Defense Beats Attack.’  It was not an exaggeration.

All of the above are examples of defence winning over attack; careful tactical planning wining over spontaneous, creative individuality.  For a while there was a trend in The Premier League of weak (or away) teams playing 4-5-1, often with pacey forwards playing wide in midfield to offer some support to the lone striker.  Though the statistics are hardly overwhelming, there was a small but noticeable dip in the number of goals scored in the mid-2000s.

In the last few years a better formula has been developed that can be used as either an attacking or defensive setup, depending on personnel, opposition and situation – and we’ve seen the number of goals rocket again in the past two seasons.

The 4-2-3-1 is regarded by most as superior to 4-4-2.  It allows for more play between the lines, most obviously the secondary line of attack who play behind the lone striker.  Usually one full back – but potentially both – can advance, safe in the knowledge that they are covered by a ‘double pivot’ of two defensive midfielders.

This tactic has spawned all sorts of features in the modern game that we rarely saw on English shores in the first decade of the Premiership.  Who knows, one day we might even hear Alan Hansen referring to Rafael van der Vaart as playing as a trequartista instead of ‘in the hole’, such is the rapidity the term is creeping into our vocabulary.  Inverted wingers are as common as traditional wide men now; last season Ashley Young and Stewart Downing regularly swapped flanks at Villa Park to attempt to outwit opposing full-backs.  This development in their games will be key now they have earned moved to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively, who will face more astute opposition in Europe.

One of the most striking changes, however, has been in midfield, not attack.  Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira were both the archetypal box-to-box midfielders in their heyday, but this role is becoming increasingly redundant, as noted by tactics guru Jonathan Wilson among others.  With a clear division of responsibilities in midfield comes increased specialisation, and the defensive midfielder has now become a vital cog in a team’s play.

Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox notes in his ‘How the 2000s changed tactics’ series how the end of the decade saw a return to four bands on a football pitch, instead of three.  Fantasy football sites still divide players into the traditional categories of defenders, midfielders and forwards, but with the split in midfield Cox argues we’ve returned to something akin to the W-M formation.

Note the similarities between the two formations, created nearly a century apart.

Claude Makélelé played as a defensive midfielder with such discipline at Chelsea that the position was famously named after him.  However, playing in a 4-1-2-3 system he was the sole midfield destroyer – though perhaps disabler is a more apt description, such was the innocuous way he went about his work, intercepting and pickpocketing rather than crashing into tackles.  His disciplined placement just in front of the two centre-backs gave fellow midfielders more freedom to roam forwards, as Frank Lampard in particular exploited to devastating effect.

This was how Keane was deployed post 2000 at Manchester United too, but the double pivot is now more popular.  There is still a slight division in responsibilities for these two, a good cop/bad cop element; one destroyer, one creator.  This has lead to the creation of the regista in England – the deep lying playmaker, like Andrea Pirlo in Italy or Xabi Alonso in Spain.  Let’s examine last season’s top six’s most common midfield combinations:

Manchester City: Nigel de Jong (destroyer) and Gareth Barry (creator);

Arsenal: Alexander Song and Jack Wilshere;

Liverpool: Lucas Leiva and Raul Mereiles;

Tottenham Hotspur: Wilson Palacios and Luka Modric.

Chelsea tinkered with their formation, departed manager Carlo Ancelotti straining to adapt them to his famous 4-4-2 diamond formation that was so successful at Milan, especially in Europe.  However they often reverted back to the same 4-3-3 as they deployed years ago under Mourinho though, so neither system includes the midfield pivot.

Manchester United are an interesting case, as though many describe their formation as a basic 4-4-2, Wayne Rooney played in such a free role off the centre-forward – either Javier Hernandez or Dimitar Berbatov – that it could be argued they in fact lined up in more of a 4-2-3-1 after all.  Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Anderson, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs all took turns at playing in the midfield duo, none of whom are particular specialists in either role.  Michael Carrick probably is the only true defensive midfielder among them; he is probably England’s best version of a regista.

International football tournaments like the World Cup often start these trends, or at least display them to a wider audience.  All four of the 2010 semi-finalists employed a defensive midfield pairing:

Netherlands: Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel;

Germany: Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger;

Spain: Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets;

Uruguay: Walter Gargano and Egidio Arevalo.

It was no coincidence that these were the best four teams in South Africa.

These players often go unnoticed by the average fan but are key to allowing a side’s more creative players to strut their stuff.  In the Real Madrid midfield that contained Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, and Steve McManaman/Guti, Makélelé was the one who really made it work.  When he was sold to Chelsea and David Beckham brought in from Manchester United, Zidane said, “Beckham is the gold plating on a car, but what good is a car is if its engine is sold?”

Selling the Frenchman turned out to be the worst decision Florentino Perez ever made. He said, “We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten.” How wrong he was. Real went trophy-less for the next four years, while Makélelé’s new employers, Chelsea, won two league titles. Coincidence?  I think not.

Nowadays the Premier League’s new Makélelé is Nigel de Jong. He may be a different type of holding midfielder, using power and intimidation where Makélelé used guile and experience, but both are great, selfless tacticians. The Dutchman will probably reveal himself to be just as important as Makélelé was for Chelsea in Manchester City’s hunt for silverware.

Download your copy of Man and Ball to read Jude’s tribute to De Jong.  The latest issue, Living On Both Sides Of The Game, features seven articles from the best bloggers around (Josh: including me!), as well as the continuation of Nigel’s adventures. Available for £1.95 at http://www.manandball.com from August 18th.

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3 Responses to A tactical prelude to Nigel de Jong

  1. ttmumbiya on August 9, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    You forgot the passer. mascherano(destroyer)Alonso(passer)Gerrard(creator)

  2. stevenkim on August 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    ^passer = creator

  3. Jude on August 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    I was only talking about the two players in the defensive midfield pivot. I guess you could call them the destroyer and the passer (i.e. De Jong and Barry), and then the trequartista or attacking midfielder would be the creator – so Silva, or Yaya Toure, for Man City.

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