4-3-2-1? Just Say No!

David Hallwood 08/10/2017 19comments  |  Jump to last

Well we can’t say that the mainstream media is ignoring us as the inquest into our horrible start to the season is picked over by journalists, ex-pros and general punditry. And they are all making the same points;

  1. Why didn’t we replace Lukaku (statement of the obvious)
  2. He doesn’t know what his best team is (hmmm I think he does, but the problem is that it’s unbalanced);
  3. The team has no shape (yes it has, but please refer to clause 2 for the problem)

For the record, Ronald Koeman deploys the fashionable 4-2-3-1 formation (not 4-3-3) and for the people who bang on about him constantly rotating his team, there are two players you can put the mortgage on who will be picked whether we are home or away, league games or cup games: Gana and Schneiderlin. And in my view, that is main reason for our current slump.

Some years ago in the Roberto Martinez honeymoon period, we were on Sky Sports Monday Night Football and the guest pundit was Gordon Strachan who went into raptures about the (then new) formation, and showed numerous clips of Seamus Coleman bursting into the opposition box and crossing it to Leighton Baines or vice versa, in the knowledge that if the move broke down, one of the holding midfielders would plug the gaps. When he was asked would he be copying the system he replied, “I have nae got those type of players”, meaning Coleman and Baines.


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And therein lies our problem because, four seasons ago, we had the best pair of full-backs/wing-backs in the Premier League. Now, with Coleman sidelined and a rapidly ageing Baines, we have nae got them either. So why does Koeman persist with the system knowing we haven’t got the personnel to carry it off?

I must declare an interest and admit that I’ve never liked the system; I’ve always seen it as far too negative and heavily reliant on having a goal machine up front (á la Lukaku or Kane), but I will admit that Martinez's first season and when Schneiderlin first arrived, the formation worked well; however, these are the reasons why I believe a rethink is necessary.

It Adds Nothing Offensively

In the four seasons preceding this one, we’ve used five players as holding midfielders: Barry, McCarthy, Besic, Gana and Schneiderlin. In that period, they scored 13 goals between them, or 3.25 per season which equates to 1.625 per holding midfielder per season. Given that we play with four defenders, it means that the burden of scoring the goals falls on four outfield players, especially when, as previously mentioned, the problem with the full-backs/wing-banks.

It Doesn’t do Much Defensively Either

I would accept, albeit reluctantly, if having an ultra defensive formation gave us a Moyes circa 2004, binaryesque record – 0-0, 1-0, 0-0, 1-0, 0-1 etc – but it doesn’t. In fact, it’s nowhere near it. Once again, taking the preceding four seasons, goals against was as follows:

2013-14, Goals Against: 39
2014-15 GA 50
2015-16 GA 55
2016-17 GA 44

Clearly, the best defensive record was 2013-14 and even that was a goal a game (+1) conceded, but not a hint of a sub-38 GA... and don’t forget, that was when we had Jagielka and Baines in their prime (but in front of a dodgy keeper).

There is little doubt that currently just about every player is horribly out of form, which no coach can legislate for or predict. But to my mind this only masks the fact that Koeman obviously brought in Rooney, Klaassen and Sigurðsson to play in the same team. Therefore, the perceived wisdom that we went for too many No 10s is wide of the mark, as Koeman isn’t stupid or a rookie coach... so presumably he sees that two of the three, or even all three, are there to play intricate passes through the opposition with the width being supplied by the full-backs/wing-backs who in turn supply Giroud. (We’ve already dealt with the backs... oh and Giroud’s missus gets le nez bleeds when she goes oop nord – so he didn’t come, Ronnie!)

If that is the Koeman masterplan, I’ve forgotten what film is was the tagline for but... Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

So what team would I like to see against Brighton? Well, firstly, I would ditch the 4-2-3-1 and replace it with Moyesy’s favourite 4-5-1. Firstly, it gives defensive solidity; you hear the ‘experts’ drone on about two banks of four, but it doesn’t have to be as rigid as it was in Moyes’s time and modern players are more flexible. Secondly, it would get us further up the pitch and reintroduce good old-fashioned overlapping full-backs. Finally, it would allow players to operate in their preferred positions.

So here goes. My team vs Brighton & Hove Albion:

Kenny, Keane, Jagielka, Baines;
Vlasic, Davies, Sigurðsson, Lookman;

As you can see, I’ve dropped both Gana and Schneiderlin in favour of a more orthodox centre-midfield partnership, and for those who ask what’s the difference between holding midfield and centre midfield, go onto YouTube and type in ‘Arteta’.

Lookman must get gametime; he gives us guile, pace and trickery, and he’s also playing in his preferred position. Sigurdsson, who could be our new Arteta, to be paired with Tom Davies and operate like centre mids of (not so) old, covering lots of ground in both ends of the field, whereas Vlasic reminds me of Trevor Steven and looks a natural on the right. Make Rooney the captain, and his vast experience can only be a positive in the development of our young, exciting talents, dictating the play from his preferred position.

Naturally, I’m not expecting to see this side anytime soon, but something needs to change. We have some fabulous footballers, so this isn’t make-do-and-mend of the early (and even later) Moyes era. In Rooney we’ve got a player who’s seen it, done it but hasn’t got the legs, so surround him with talent that can run all day.

But how much longer can we have a defence that can’t, or would rather not, stray too far from their 18-yard line, behind two holders? Neither of them are recycling the play, but playing 5-yard sideways or back passes. Sigurdsson being played left side of the 3 etc. I could go on but we’ve all been watching the same turgid shite.

Koeman comes across as a stubborn man, but surely he’s not stupid; he must change. It must change – or the club will change him.

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Reader Comments (19)

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Iain Love
1 Posted 09/10/2017 at 23:09:52
Play Gana instead of Siggy, play Siggy instead of Rooney.
George Stuart
2 Posted 10/10/2017 at 00:23:46
Wonderful post. Even if not 100% correct (nothing ever is). But it can get us all talking.

I HATE three at the back, With wingbacks they both need blistering pace and an engine that runs all day. We nae have that sort of player anymore. Laughed at that.

An aging mastermind and kids that run all day off them, that will never work. What do you think, Peter Reid?

Yes I know the game has moved on since the eighties but still I can dream of the past.

And yes, something has to change. Pay me a million pound a season and I'll tell you my plan Ronnie. Stream of consciousness stuff here, Rhino vs Ancelotti? Discuss. :^)

Derek Thomas
3 Posted 10/10/2017 at 01:17:37
3-2-1 eh? trouble is we have to get rid of Dusty Bin first. Then maybe we can solve the puzzle and win the prize.
James Stewart
4 Posted 10/10/2017 at 03:03:29
I prefer 4-3-3 but @1 is correct if we are playing 4411 then Gana should play with Sigurdsson no.10, Rooney benched.

Sigurdsson isn't anything like Arteta but apart from that good thinking.

Alan J Thompson
5 Posted 10/10/2017 at 06:06:26
Poor old Oumar gets the bullet again!
Ajay Gopal
6 Posted 10/10/2017 at 10:18:00
Good post. I agree – something has to change, and you bring out coherent reasons to use this line-up. We have a talented bunch of players short of form and confidence.

If Koeman can hit the right combination and playing style, and with a settled starting XI, we should be able to slowly crawl up the table.

With everyone fit, your line-up would probably change to:

Coleman, Keane, Funes Mori, Baines;
Vlasic, McCarthy (or Davies), Sigurdsson, Bolasie;

With Holgate, Gana, Schneiderlin, Klaassen, Lookman, Niasse on the bench.

David Hallwood
7 Posted 10/10/2017 at 10:34:21
I'd go with that lineup, Ajay (#6).
Laurie Hartley
8 Posted 10/10/2017 at 11:25:46
I like your logic and your team, David – you are going to let the footballers loose.
Rick Tarleton
9 Posted 11/10/2017 at 13:40:19
Three at the back and two wing backs is fine if you have the personnel. We don't. Only Keane of the present five is equipped and able to play his role efficiently. And because he has so much to do making up for the inadequacies of the others, he is fast losing confidence.

I like your formation but, like James Stewart, I'd go with Gueye for Sigurdsson and Sigurdsson for Rooney.

A formation has to suit the players, not the players suiting the preconceived formation – which is what Koeman is trying to do.

William Cartwright
10 Posted 11/10/2017 at 14:16:15
Very good article. Thorough, logical, rational, reasonable etc. Therefore it will be sent straight to the shredder.

Can I use the word 'fuck' in an a response without getting censored? Well here goes...

I am fucking sick to the back teeth of this dumb crumpet of a con-manager who is destroying the Club before my very eyes.

There is not a hope in hell of him addressing the problems staring him squarely in the face, while countless supporters (and probably players too) are almost unanimous with their summaries of how best to proceed.

Meanwhile, Barclay and now possibly Lookman, are likely to follow the Exit sign while Sigurdsson (who is not a wide player, Ronnie – understand... ?) gets played in the position that wasted his time at Spurs.

Please, Ronnie, read the messages and inwardly digest... or simply fuck off!

Colin O'Keeffe
11 Posted 11/10/2017 at 15:09:36
David, I agree with most of the tone of your post – but Koeman doesn't seem to have a preferred formation as far as I can see (if he does it's more likely to be 3-4-2-1).

He ditched 4-2-3-1 after that debacle vs Atalanta. He then ditched 3 at the back after the Man Utd collapse. The last 3 home games he's gone to a back 4 and played either 4-3-3/4-4-2. What next at Brighton? Who can even begin to predict what he'll decide on next, which is a big part of the problem I reckon.

When you scrutinise any possible formation, we currently look very very average – which is down in part to the rank bad recruitment in the summer. We might be able to scrape a point at Brighton, mind.

Steve Ferns
12 Posted 11/10/2017 at 16:11:59
David, I do not think that you understand the formation, Moyes's formation, Martinez's formation or your own formation.

First off, are we actually playing 4-2-3-1? I think we are caught in a half-way house between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3. It is difficult to say because the players are tweaked often by Koeman in the middle of a game.

His formation is not a proper 4-2-3-1 by any stretch of the imagination. The reason for this is 4-2-3-1 is a WIDE formation and we are playing it extremely narrow. As the three are so narrow they are moving out of position to find space. Also the central player of the three seems to play a bit deeper. We obviously have Schneiderlin and Gueye at the foot of the midfield.

Now the question is whether the midfielder ahead of them is a central midfielder or a central attacking midfielder. There are so many No 10s in the side that maybe the central 10 is dropping for space (Rooney) or is deliberately playing a bit deeper (Klaassen).

Moyes played a 4-1-4-1 formation for most of his tenure, with Carsley operating as the anchor. Formations were very different back then. Carsley was able to act as a defensive shield to cover the more attack-minded Gravesen who Moyes freed of defensive duties or the energetic Cahill. At the end of his tenure, he was playing a 4-5-1 where the midfield is a V-shape. This was a different formation again as the left was Pienaar, who was an inside forward, coming inside to create room for Baines. On the right he played Anichebe in his last season or Mirallas or Osman. Neville was an anchor at the foot of the formation and Fellaini could either play up top, or deeper in the Cahill role. What he never played was a flat four with a player in the Cantona role behind the striker.

Martinez went for a proper 4-2-3-1. He had Barry in the Alonso role. McCarthy was in the Mascherano role and his job was to press, harry, and tackle. He was decent at getting forward in his first season and covered a lot of ground. Mirallas was wide left, but coming inside as an inside forward.

On the right we had fleeting glimpses of the likes of Deulofeu, but Lennon was more what Martinez wanted there, pace and width. Central to the formation was a No 10 and that was Barkley (brilliantly so in the first season) with Lukaku up top in the first season. It broke down in the second and third season due to the injuries to McCarthy which stopped him being as effective as in the first season and Barry's skills fading with his mobility.

Your formation is a flat four, with a withdrawn striker in-between the lines. This is a mid-90s formation and was combatted by the 4-1-4-1 (Carsley) formation where Carsley would effectively make players who tried to do a Cantona – a passenger in the game. It's consigned to the bin of history for good reason.

Formations and tactics are all about trying to create overloads. Cantona destroyed the 4-4-2 by standing between the rigid banks of four. In reality he was doing nothing ground breaking for the rest of Europe (see Roberto Baggio 5 years before him), but we had been out of European Competition for so long that we were dinosaurs tactically and so the 70s formation of 4-4-2 was still king here well into the 90s.

After teams were defeating the 4-4-2 with 4-1-4-1, the next fashionable advancement was the 4-5-1 V-shape. Teams took advantage of the deep midfielder and tried to put two players in space either side of him to stop him picking them up. the fullbacks were then isolated 1 on 1 and if the winger got past then there was an overload up top.

We also saw the rise of the Brazilian fullback – ie, Seamus Coleman. The Brazilians played an interesting 4-4-2. They played the midfield four in a box, two out and out defensive midfielders like Gilberto Silva (of arsenal) and two out and out narrow attacking midfielders. So all of their width came from the fullbacks. Which is why we saw so many from them from 1990 onwards, think Cafu. This seeped into the European game as we started to emulate this and have energetic fullbacks to combine with a winger and create overloads.

The 4-5-1 V-shape was defeated by the 4-2-3-1 formation. Now you have two defensive midfielders and they can combine to nullify the advantages of the wingers playing in the channels and outnumbering the defensive midfielder.

4-2-3-1 is by far the most attacking formation when played right. What you need to understand is where all the players are. It is the only formation where SIX, yes SIX, attackers can be getting at the opposition.

So let's go back to kamikaze Martinez. You would have Baines wide left (actually think Oveido in that amazing Man Utd game) then inside him Pienaar, then inside him Barkley, then to his right, Mirallas, and on the outside of him, Coleman. Then, of course, Lukaku up top. So we have six in attack here.

Now in defence, you have the flat back four, but you also have the two "defensive midfielders". So that's SIX again. So it can be defensively sound. Just look at how well Real Madrid defended using the 4-2-3-1 under Mourinho. He and Benitez have been the main pioneers of the formation and both are defence first.

The key thing to consider when we play the formation at the moment, is that the defensive two are far too deep. Also the midfield three are far too narrow to be a proper 4-2-3-1. And the team is far too confused as to who is playing where. Of course, we also lack width and pace. We do not have six in attack. We barely have three or four. We are also not compact or rigid enough in defence, and as I have said elsewhere, Williams's lack of speed is causing the defence to sit far too deep.

The latest tactical evolution has been the 3-4-3. People fail to understand this though. The back three must contain a very mobile centre-half with excellent ball skills. We do not have one, and so we cannot play the formation. What we do is play a 5-2-3 or a 5-3-2.

The 3-4-3 has been devised from previous formations after the likes of Bielsa devised it to great effect to destroy the 4-2-3-1. If you consider the flat back four, then they have to contend with 3 attackers, now add in two wingers (because that is what the wide men in a 3-4-3 are and they are not fullbacks) and suddenly you have a five-man overload on the back four. Okay, the 4-2-3-1 is built in to combat this by the defensive two making it a six, but the midfielder in the 3-4-3 are on top of them creating a seven-on-six overload. What we have seen though, is that if you do not have top class players, with excellent energy and mobility, then you can counter a 3-4-3 and rip a team apart. But to do that you need a 4-2-3-1.

The end is nigh for the 4-2-3-1, but I do not think we have yet seen the formation to kill it off for good.

Peter Thistle
13 Posted 11/10/2017 at 22:32:59
When can you start as our new manager please...
Jamie Evans
14 Posted 12/10/2017 at 18:04:50
Kenny Keane Holgate Baines
Davies Rooney Gueye

Subs: Vlasic, Lookman, Sandro, Jagielka, Robles, Klaassen, Martina.

Alan J Thompson
15 Posted 13/10/2017 at 11:22:41
Peter (#13); When he becomes somebody's old one.
Andy Meighan
16 Posted 14/10/2017 at 05:14:26
Steve (#12), You really need to get out more. What was that all about?
John Smith
17 Posted 14/10/2017 at 10:15:14
But I will admit that Martinez's first season and when Schneiderlin first arrived."

Martinez didn't sign him.

,"but I will admit that Martinez's first season and when Schneiderlin first arrived"

Martinez didn't sign him.,Turned on,BlueKfrog,1,10:13:49,,,probation,18950,10/14/2017 10:13:49,EFC_Fan,probation,, 858695,35647,toffeeweb,14/10/2017,Brian Murray,Br.murray5466@yahoo.com,Throw him in now and swerve Rooney and Schneiderlin. ,Throw him in now and swerve roo n snidey ,Turned on,BlueKfrog,1,10:15:02,,,probation,17916,10/14/2017 10:15:02,Waltonsfinest,probation,, 858696,35626,toffeeweb,14/10/2017,John Smith,editor-in-chief@hotmail.com,""In the four seasons preceding this one, we've used five players as holding midfielders: Barry, McCarthy, Besic, Gana and Schneiderlin."

We haven't had Schneiderlin for that long. Are you confusing him with Barry?

David Hallwood
18 Posted 14/10/2017 at 21:08:15
John (17&18) that should read that the 2 holders formation was successful in Martinez early years AND when schieds first came in January.

Also I was making the point that the 2 holders have only scored 13 goals in 4 years REGARDLESS of who’s playing there.

Mike Allison
19 Posted 15/10/2017 at 09:46:22
The OP lost me when the line up didn't include Gana. Gana has to play, Iain at #1 makes a good correction. I think I'd still start with Rooney up top if Lookman and Vlasic were supporting him from wide. Calvert-Lewin and even Niasse can come on from the bench around 60 mins. The stats bear out that that works.

My main point though is that any formation can work, and any formation can look awful. Players being well prepared, motivated and believing in what they're doing is more important. If you get the mental side of the preparation right, then players cope and adapt to each individual game situation. We seem to be getting this completely wrong at the moment.

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