Did you notice 4-4-2 sneak into La Liga?
Remember that dinosaur formation loved by the British, with gaps between the lines wide enough to drive a ‘media punta’ through? Well it’s back, and not where you might have expected. It’s a formation hardly ever seen in the English Premier League anymore, but at the top of La Liga, where some of the top 10 biggest earners in sport ply their trade. Indeed, Barcelona, Valencia, Real Madrid - one of the top 10 biggest, Atletico and Villarreal have all used variations of 4-4-2 this season.
If you disagree, that’s fair enough because it’s a folly to try to describe the tactics of a complicated dynamic game like football purely in terms of numbers in horizontal lines. But have a look for example at how Madrid lined up against Las Palmas when they lost possession - Marco Asensio was a right midfielder and Isco was on the left; with the ball, there was much more freedom for their talented players. It’s a similar set-up at Barca. Take Paco Alcacer: out of possession at Leganes last weekend, he ran quickly to the right-hand side of midfield, but when his side won back the ball, he had freedom to attack, apparently for as long as he kept out of Lionel Messi’s way.
The old 4-4-2 was little mourned by the football intelligentsia because of its association with crude, direct football and possession being traded at a dizzying rate. Sometimes, the newly-evolved creature simply had one of the strikers deeper and we called it 4-5-1. But if you drop your central midfielders deeper and push your wide men into a line with the second striker/’media punta’, you have a 4-2-3-1. We saw that formation all over La Liga, mainly because it offered to the under-pressure Coach that elusive elixir: control.
In the right hands, a five-man midfield can be exhilarating – with accurate passing, intelligent movement and players skilful enough to beat their opponents, a team can create chances and protect its back four. What’s not to like?
Image courtesy LaLiga
Please don’t think of me as a savage if I say I’ve watched too many games particularly in the bottom half of La Liga, where neither general is prepared to leave the hill and enter the battle. I’ve seen teams desperately in need of a win sapping the soul out of a lonely centre-forward, who doesn’t look like he would score if the game lasted all day and night. Then, when you see a second striker standing by the fourth official, tracksuit off and ready for action, up goes the board and down sinks your heart when you realise it’s the dreaded like-for-like, striker-for-striker swap. For evidence, I offer just about every game played by one of Rubi’s Levante and Sporting Gijon sides as he recorded a back-to-back relegation double. You want more? Pako Ayestaran’s baffling refusal to put Loic Remy and Jonathan Calleri in the same forward line when Las Palmas were 1-0 down at home to Levante and subsequently dropped to the bottom of La Liga. They lost 2-0.
The best two performances of last weekend were Getafe’s 4-1 victory over Alaves and Eibar’s extraordinary 5-0 demolition of Betis. You can guess where I’m heading with this: both winning teams employed 4-4-2. In Eibar’s case, it was a reversion to that formation, having unsuccessfully trialled a five-man defence. Ivan Alejo and Takashi Inui provided width, Charles and Sergi Enrich worked their cojones off up front and Dani Garcia and Gonzalo Escalante snarled at everything that moved in midfield. Betis were the polar opposite: lots of lines and lots of passes, but with the weak links in their line-up, they were outfought and outplayed by the simpler system.
I’m being selective, of course. There were times when Betis played through the middle of Eibar’s midfield, Sergio Leon missed two chances and the Basques’ goals exploited defensive errors. Football isn’t rock-paper-scissors, 4-4-2 doesn’t necessarily trump 4-2-3-1 and I’m certainly not suggesting that Las Palmas would end their eight-month slump if they switched formation.
But if the top teams are prepared to explore the virtues of 4-4-2, why are so many down the bottom seemingly scared to do so? Surely Deportivo La Coruna could work out a system that gets their best two players, Lucas Perez and Florin Andone, on the pitch troubling defenders at the same time.
Yes, it’s a gamble, yes, it leaves gaps for clever opponents to exploit, but with unimaginative coaching and unintelligent players, it can be a blueprint for predictable football. Therefore, struggling Coaches should at least consider taking off the shackles and sticking two men up front to put pressure on opposing defenders, especially if they’re chasing a game. But if Getafe are relegated using a 4-4-2, I will come back on here and write a grovelling letter of apology!