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They emerge from seedy obscurity every four years and there are certain give-away signs.
Beware of the Formation Fetishists
06/09/2014
 
Evans on Monday

They emerge from seedy obscurity every four years and there are certain give-away signs.


They talk about being in the 'hole', or 'floating in the pocket'. They might even, if they feel you are open to persuasion, raise the prospect of a 'Christmas tree' or 'a diamond' with you. You will notice them get animated about 'going narrow' and worry intensely about 'lack of width'. And you will certainly know you are in their company should you hear hushed talk about the mysterious 'false nine'.


They are the Formation Fetishists.


If you haven't come across them yet, you soon will. The World Cup with African and Asian teams we rarely see, is their chance to shine.


You will hear them as soon as the teams are announced, quickly declaring that the selection means a likely 4-2-3-1. A fellow traveller might disagree and argue fervently that a 4-1-3-1-1 is far more likely. And you know it is going to be a long afternoon when someone suggests it looks the dreaded 5-4-1.


The Fetishists first emerged in England where there has long been an inferiority complex when it comes to formations. The continentals always seemed more sophisticated and the English desperately tried to keep up with fashion. The Italians had their libero, inelegantly translated into 'sweeper' but by the time English managers had caught on to the idea of having an extra defender to mop things up, the Italians had already moved on. Strangely no-one in Italy talked about numbers – they talked about players.


In recent years, I have noticed their arrival in the United States. At first they remained in football's version of the 'Deep Web' – blogs with strange diagrams that explained everything you never realised about why Porto beat Shakhtar Donetsk by cunning use of 'inside out wingers'. But recently they have edged towards the soccer mainstream here so much that U.S. fans would risk choking on their chicken wings if someone dared to ask “Is Bradley really on top of the diamond?”


The language of any cult can fascinate and lure you in. It all sounds so complicated and exotic. And if you can master the vocabulary, grasp the key concepts, you can not only gain entry to the circle, you can do so while looking all so clever.


Like the conspiracy theorist, you have to remember that nothing is ever as it seems. It couldn't possibly be that with ten minutes to go and a goal lead to defend, a team pragmatically doesn't push forward and asks a midfielder stays deep to protect the back line. No, they have 'switched to five at the back'. Feel free though to ask if that means they are now 5-4-1 or 5-3-1-1. People will understand.


Well, perhaps not those people who actually coach football teams.


They have been reluctant to openly challenge the number obsessives for risk of appearing to be ill-informed but recently more managers and coaches have begun to cautiously raise the question of whether any of these formation 'options' actually exist.


And then last week, in another example of his occasionally brutal bluntness, Jurgen Klinsmann, just came out and said it:


“It sounds always cool when you talk about 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 or 4-4-2 diamond but it's actually useless.”


Thank you Jurgen. Not 'slightly missing the point' or a 'little outdated maybe?' as some other coaches have suggested. No, useless.


If his point was made clear enough. Jurgen offered more:


“All these discussions about different systems are actually not up to speed anymore. The systems are not the key anymore. It was maybe 10-15 years ago”.


Ouch. Not only wrong but massively out of date too.


Klinsmann offered some context for his attack on the Fetishists suggesting Spain's success had shown that it was about what the six non-defenders actually did that was behind their success, rather than which position on a blackboard they filled.


“Because three or four midfielders became strikers. Then they go back and the other ones become strikers. It confused everybody.”


“I think the trend is definitely you're going to away from a systems discussion. It doesn't lead you anywhere. You have a whole team that knows how to support each other and create stuff going forward,” he added.


And that is what we are going to see in the next month in Brazil. Football teams playing in different styles for sure but most of them with fluid midfields that have some players going wide, others going forward and others offering support or cover. Throw in the ultra-fit and mobile modern full-backs and you can often be looking at eight players moving forward and searching for space and opportunities. The modern player can cover so much more ground than players of even 10 years ago that the idea of giving them a limited, fixed role to stick to is counter-productive.


Teams will have shapes of course. Different shapes when they have the ball from when they are defending. Different appearances when they are a goal behind to when they are a goal up late in a game. And players will line-up at kick-off in one position but adapt during the game as spaces or opposition weaknesses emerge for them to exploit. Wayne Rooney may start on the left, slightly withdrawn, in England's attack but when the ball is wide on the right, as England attack, he becomes a centre-forward, and when the team is under-pressure he will help out his full-back. But he won't be a traditional 'left winger' or merely a man on the left-side of a midfield four.


Michael Bradley may be given more license to attack in a U.S midfield that with Jermaine Jones and/or Kyle Beckerman provides some cover to him but he won't be sitting at the top of the midfield waiting for service. Arjen Robben may cut in from the right on to his favored left-foot and try a shot.....well there are still some things that are fixed certainties.


The beauty of the World Cup is that we get to see so many different styles and tactical approaches used and this tournament will offer plenty to discuss for people who are interested in the chessboard element of the game.


But Klinsmann is right. The fixed formation has had its day.


So don't bother polishing the diamond. You can stick it in your pocket.

 
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