4-2-3-1 may not be what England need
In his stint as England manager, Fabio Capello was derided for – among other things – his use of a 4-4-2. As one of them flashy foreigners perhaps, more was expected, and with 4-3-3-s and 4-2-3-1s all the rage, most people were furious. After all, England are a footballing super-power, and must play as such, right?
Well, not really. While we have an absolutely superb league, with incredibly technically gifted players (who do play and thrive in 4-2-3-1s and the like), how many of those players are English? The simple fact is that England do not have the players to play an expansive, free-flowing, fluid game like the club sides in the Premier League.
And Roy Hodgson, like Fabio Capello, knows this, and thus plays 4-4-2. But still this isn’t good enough – still there are suggestions from the press and the fans that England change formations, because 4-2-3-1 is so successful on the club stage. There are a lot of flaws in this though. As mentioned above, England don’t have the players to play fluid football. What England have are a lot of players who are rather limited technically, to be blunt.
So Hodgson, ever the pragmatist, sets them up in a 4-4-2, designed to contain and score goals on the counter-attack. It may not be exceptionally pretty, or reliable all of the time, or what the media want, but a lot of the time it works. The players know their roles in defence, because it’s in the name: 4-4-2 – two banks of four. And that’s proven effective under Hodgson – two 1-0 friendly wins, both won by virtue of goals scored with direct attacking play, and a narrow 3-2 win over Sweden.
Critics may point to the two goals conceded against Sweden as a reason not to play 4-4-2, but that would just be brainless. Both goals were scored by the Swedes from set pieces; not exactly something that could be solved by a change of formation. With two banks of four under Hodgson, you know what you’re getting: a team that’s hard to break down.
And what’s wrong with that? England have ambitiously tried going toe-to-toe with the great footballing sides by playing an attacking game in the past, and have nothing to show for it. It’s surely time for a more realistic view of things and admitting that England don’t have the players to play a technically refined game.
Those who suggest an instant change of styles are probably still stuck in the club football mindset. In club football, managers can decide upon a long-term style and sign players to fit that. When a manager is brought into a national team weeks before a tournament, all he can do is pick a style that best suits the players at his disposal, and that’s exactly what Hodgson has done.
The imminent return of Wayne Rooney is part of the reason for the calls for 4-2-3-1 – he’s more mobile than any of the options England have to play off of the striker. But in England’s 4-4-2, the striker that drops off of his partner and roams is still very much a forward. In a 4-2-3-1, the central player in the ‘3’ is an attacking midfielder. If Rooney was played in that position, it’s likely that his general position would be a little different, and more like a second striker. In this scenario, it becomes more like a 4-2-2-2. Then, the only difference you have is that the wingers are higher up, and can do less defensive work – the banks of four is harder to achieve, and defensive solidity is sacrificed.
That’s OK for teams like Arsenal, who are good at playing on the front foot, and have players who are good at penetrating stubborn defences, but that’s not where England’s strengths lie. Direct, counter-attacking football is probably the most likely way for England to score, and that’s easiest to achieve in a 4-4-2, where defensive solidity goes hand-in-hand.
It is, however, important to remember that formations aren’t what defines a team – Stoke and Manchester United may at times play with the same basic formation, but the style of a team is more based on the players in that formation. 4-4-2 certainly lends itself to a more defensive and less ambitious set-up though, which is why 4-2-3-1 is more wide-spread in the Champions League than through-out domestic leagues.
While England have a massive reputation in football though, the football hasn’t quite caught up yet. There are players like Jack Wilshere coming through, who will allow England to play that technical football they so desire, but right now the Three Lions are far behind Spain, Germany and others in personnel, and should remember that. In a cliche-obsessed media, people would do well to recall the proverb ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’.