The Division In Midfield And The English Way – Part One

January 15, 2011
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Ok, I went a bit mad with this idea, so I’m dividing the article about dividing midfields into two pieces, how continental of me, no? Consider this Episode One: The English Way.

Although this site has already had a Nostradamus-esque stab at predicting future tactical trends, it is difficult to determine any currently in vogue. For every 4-2-3-1 that’s prevalent, there’s the success of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United – who both ostensibly use a strict 4-4-2 – and for every Sky pundit who labels the use of two defensive midfielders as intrinsically negative, there’s Arsenal utilising Jack Wilshere as a deep-lying playmaker-cum-defensive midfielder and Alex Song, who has been re-born as a box-to-box midfielder. However, that is not to say that the last few years haven’t shown a general seismic tactical shift, with the main one being the division in midfield.

The obvious point to be made is that football in itself is such a fluid and divided game that there will never be a mass-homogenisation tactically, nor will there ever likely to be the level of tactical invention as there has been before. But that’s not to say that changes don’t occur, nor that other clubs won’t ape these changes. Of these changes, there has certainly been a rise to prominence of a divided central midfield.

It can be argued that, aside from the generic nomenclature, the 4-2-3-1 is nothing more than a fancy Dan version of the 4-5-1, which has existed as a defensive alternative to the 4-4-2 for a long time. And it’s precisely this argument that is used to support the, very English, ethos that having two defensive minded central/defensive midfielders as being completely and utterly negative and somehow wrong.

The failure to recognise the significance of the shift in midfield positioning, thus the evolution of modern European football, could be considered to be both symptomatic of the English problem as well as a root cause. Tactical variation has never really been, aside from a few notable exceptions, a very English thing. It’s always been deemed that spirit and physicality is more important than the abstract nature of the game. An almost reckless disregard for “Continental” football has always been synonymous with the vast majority of British media and managers. Obviously there’s validity to some of their arguments, after all footballers aren’t a group of automatons and it’s not like English football hasn’t been successful. It has. But, the architects behind these successes have, generally, always underlined motivation and man management with tactical astuteness.

The main proprietor of ‘English Success’ in modern football is Harry Redknapp, the man with a thousand transfers up his sleeve and a wilful disregard of a fair proportion of abstract theory. The man, who, with Sir Alex Ferguson – although more on that later -  has his team play a direct 4-4-2 with flying wingers and no intention to change for defensive solidity. However, Redknapp’s tactics have slightly shifted this season with the addition  and accommodation of Rafael van der Vaart to create something resembling a 4-4-1-1 with Van der Vaart being the man to facilitate, and often finish, moves. However, it would be wrong to consider that the Dutch international, though playing in the space between midfield and attack,  a very archetypal attacking midfielder, playing more like a deep lying forward. Tottenham, in effect, are playing in a similar offensive style to how Arsenal operated with fellow Dutch star Dennis Bergkamp (though don’t say that too loudly) in the late 90s.

The quintessential reason for Redknapp’s reverence for the job he has done at Tottenham, who have had a very expensive squad assembled in the last few years, is that he got them to break into the ‘Top Four’ that had existed without disturbance for the latter half of the decade. This is something of a misnomer, however, inasmuch as Tottenham’s ascendancy has been probably only comparable to that of Manchester City following Liverpool’s internal troubles and, this season, Chelsea undergoing a difficult transition. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a feat, but it’s perhaps not as grandiose one as has been said.

Whether or not Redknapp and Tottenham will be able to experience a prolonged period of success is open to debate, after all the Premiership hasn’t been of the highest quality this season. Couple this with the fact that their, though admittedly somewhat impressive, Champions League run was helped by the fact that the teams in their group perhaps weren’t at their strongest, comparatively to previous seasons anyway and it could be that they come crashing back down in the next 6-12 months. Regardless, however, it is very unlikely that this will matter in the eyes of many of the English footballing gentry, because they have done it this season and did it in the idiosyncratic English way, that conquers all.

But it seems that the primary focus of this lauding is not that Redknapp not only accomplished this, but he accomplished it at the expensive of two European tacticians who have been oft derided for their negative football. Roberto Mancini and Rafael Benitez, although very different characters who play very different football, are lumped into the same sum of ‘Other’ and, beyond their own fans, not many people in the mainstream media have bothered to give any credit to the two, but instead only stating that which they have not achieved, which is completely contrary to the compliments extended to make-good English managers.

Meanwhile, the only team left unbeaten so far this season is Manchester United, but whether or not this is entirely down to Manchester United is difficult to tell. As aforementioned, this season has possibly been the weakest, in terms of quality, in the last 10 years or so.

Tactically, aside from the games against the higher quality opposition in the Premiership, Ferguson has reverted to the tactics that served him so well in the 90s. Without the ascendancy (as of yet, anyway) of another golden generation for him, Ferguson has instead played to the strengths of his old hands and tactics that have revitalised one of their most important players this season: Luis Nani. The emphasis so far this season has been a combination of a workmanlike midfielder with a metronomic one, with much of the attacking intent coming from the quartet of wingers and forwards, supplemented by attacking full backs.

The primary reason as to why this case is different to Spurs is that Ferguson has shown, on many different occasions, a willingness to change and embrace new ideas, particularly during Carlos Queiroz’s tenure as his assistant and has been very successful in doing so. But that’s not to deny the fact that the 4-4-2 has found a place in amongst the European elite through United, although their remains the underlying feeling that, certainly on the domestic front, United have not found anything close to the form that was once synonymous with the club. United’s success this season seems to be almost down to a psychological power they exude over the competition, and Chelsea’s spectacular discombobulation, rather than through any particular player shining or tactical dominance over the league.

With much of the country lamenting the lack of advancement on the international stage as well as a constant media-sponsored derision of any tactical development brought by a foreign coach, it is unlikely that their will ever be an embracing of the supposed ‘defensive’ changes that are currently sweeping through Europe. But England, much like after being destroyed by Hungary in the 50s, must realise that there is much to learn in order to improve, otherwise they will just see their domestic clubs successful when taken over by foreign coaches or one certain Scot.

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7 Responses to The Division In Midfield And The English Way – Part One

  1. Mani on January 15, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I think Utd’s success has been down to the overwhelming numbers and quality they get forward in attack. They have the ability to overload either flank and move inwards towards goal. With Nani playing as an inside forward, Berbatov and Rooney being able to roam, Fletcher as a box-to-box player, Evra’s attacking intent and Carrick’s excellent positioning; Utd can outnumber teams in any area of the pitch.

    Whilst in the defensive phase the formation does resemble a 4-4-2, I still find it difficult to label it that because of their fluidity and movement in attack. Said fluidity isn’t properly represented in calling it a simple 4-4-2. Liverpool and Utd have played 4-4-2’s this season, but in totally contrasting fashion.

    The 4-4-2 is a good defensive formation. With the right understanding and discipline you can create a good defensive side, but the problems arise in attack. Liverpool’s transition from defence to attack was poor and it cost them. Utd on the other hand are very fluid in attack and are able to move from areas very well, and that is the difference. It’s not the average 4-4-2.

    I fail to understand the concept that a 4-4-2 is more attacking than a 4-2-3-1. The major difference between the two would be that a forward is replaced for another creator, another playmaker, so would logically create more chances. Not to mention the fact that the majority of the teams that play a 4-2-3-1 would have a deep-lying playmaker in the double pivot (only team I can think of off the top of my head would be Holland at the world cup, although they’ve experimented with van der vaart as a deep-lying playmaker recently).

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ahmed. ahmed said: RT @LeJask: New post: The Division of midfield and the English way – Part 1 http://www.holdingmidfield.com/?p=196 by @schmuckdonald […]

  3. Sacchian on January 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    A very good, well-written article, but is Harry Redknapp’s style of football really all that “English?” Is formation alone a basis by which to judge style? I wouldn’t say so. A formation is merely a template in skeleton form, not a system of play at all, and not even remotely indicative of style of play. Spurs, I would argue, are successful because of a very European style of play. Redknapp employs a relatively high defensive line, meaning that in attack, there is a greater incentive for players to swap positions between the three general bands of play(attack, defence and midfield), as the the distance between these bands is relatively short.

    For example, you may see Assou-Ekotto foraging forward down the left while Gareth Bale drops inside, a centre back shifts over and Huddlestone drops deeper. You may see Van der Vaart drop back into midfield while Modric pushes forward with the ball. It’s a high line that caters for such football, and due to the nature of close bands – which as I said, is a consequence of a high line – it is much easier for Spurs to circulate the ball. Why? Again, because it is much easier for players to ‘pass and move’ without being left exposed. United are similar, but this is very much a European trait, and was a feature of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side. Any midfield disadvantage of a 4-4-2, versus say a 4-5-1 is also negated this way, as close bands mean players can circulate with relative freedom and support each other. Defensively, it squashes space in midfield altogether, and prevents the opposition from having the space to triangulate the ball around Modric and Huddlestone – which again, is very much a European trait.

    So while some may say Redknapp is very much an English, “screw the tactics board, that’s boring” sort sort of manager, the football his Tottenham side plays emphatically suggests otherwise.

  4. Rob McDonald on January 15, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Sacchian: My point was more about the fact that he isn’t the type of manager to utilise tactics to nullify an opponent, something in England deemed a very continental trait. I can’t profess to have watched Tottenham all season, but I stand by my assertion. The high line is a by-product of his attacking style, rather than employed as a defensive measure and I don’t think there’s much totality or certainly enough swapping of positions to merit it as a major tactical characteristic.
    Tottenham play with a lot of pace and through a lot of wing play. Though they have a continental influence in the form of Modric and Van der Vaart who bring their natural tactical nuances, I don’t think that Redknapp has explicitly ever considered tactics as a vital part of football. And I also think it’ll prove to be his undoing. I have been wrong on many different occasions, though, just ask my girlfriend.
    And as far as United go, Mani, I think the first time they come up against a team with confidence and quality they’ll be found as the weakest incarnation of a United side in a long time.

  5. Sacchian on January 15, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    Rob, cheers for the reply.

    I just think people are mislead a lot – Redknapp may say this in interviews, and Van der Vaart has talked of a lack of ‘boring speeches’, but in terms of the way Redknapp coaches his teams, I’d suggest they are very tactical, or at least, he drills his side tactically in training, but out on the training pitch rather than in front of the TV screen. I’m not a Spurs fan, but I can’t see how Spurs can be called an ‘English’ team the minute; they’re playing progressive football, pressing from the front, attacking collectively – which is not at all English. And don’t worry mate, I already have asked your girlfriend, she ain’t happy…

    Sorry couldn’t resist xD

    I feel the view of Spurs is blinded by a stereotypical view of free-flowing, attacking football in England – ie. the ITV commentators who class Barcelona as a team of individuals on European nights, when in fact, they play more within a collective than any other side in Europe.

  6. Scafka on January 16, 2011 at 4:36 am

    I want part two. Now!

  7. Rob McDonald on January 16, 2011 at 10:45 am

    At the risk of re-treading the same ground, I’m afraid I disagree. I think any manager who goes to the San Siro with no tactical plan to nullify an opponent is a definitive proponent of a very English managerial style, that of tactics not being important. And I think you’re missing the primary point I am trying to make, that I don’t think Tottenham specifically set out a tactical plan to dominate their opponents, and they certain never try to out think opposition. They play the same way week in, week out. And that’s get it down the wings and get it forward. And I wouldn’t argue that he ‘drills his teams in training’, after all he’s a professional manager. And I think that playing overtly attacking football, specifically with emphasis on tricky wingers, is a very English style of play. But regardless, I think we’re both happy to disagree.

    And I wouldn’t pay much mind to ITV commentators.

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