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What is the benefit of moving from 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1? Demonstrated by Spain from the 34th minute of the Euro 2008 semi-final

June 10, 2010

It was strange seeing Spain play the majority of Euro 2008 with can be defined as a 4-4-2 system because the ‘doble pivot’ 4-2-3-1 has been the paradigm in Spanish leagues since the mid 90’s. It was only when in the 34th minute of the semi-final against Russia when Cesc Fàbregas came on for the injured David Villa that they changed into a 4-1-4-1 / 4-2-3-1 formation that produced their best football of their tournament.

Jose Mourinho, after three successful seasons with Chelsea playing a counter-attacking 4-5-1 stated that “There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop this”, a quip at the quintessentially English view that 4-4-2 trumps all. This view is still prevalent with many pundits denouncing a 4-2-3-1 for being ‘too defensive’ with its two holding midfielders, instead announcing that a ‘two up top’ is the right way English football should be played. In some ways, it is a formation of faux cultural imperialism, the belief that ‘English football has been the best for years, it has to be played like this, anything else is just foreign bollocks’. The benefit of a 4-2-3-1 is really evident when a team contains technically flawless players and a team suited for short passing and a game plan about controlling possession and produces amazing movement and manipulation of space.

When playing Russia for the second time in Euro 2008, Spain kept with their preferred 4-4-2 system.

In the first-half, Spain often found themselves with possession deep in their own half with plenty of space available to them especially in the middle of the pitch. There is nobody dropping deep here in a natural trequartista role (yellow grid) to take the ball quickly from central midfield, to turn and create something for on-rushing attacking midfielders or the lone striker.

Here Spain’s 4-4-2 shape is obvious to see:

As explained above, Xavi on the ball is unable to release the ball quickly up-field as there is no deep-lying player making himself available. This results in both Iniesta and Silva (furthest forward players marked yellow) holding back, giving time for the Russians to re-organise themselves and retain their shape.

Still without anybody dropping back to pick up the ball, the ball eventually gets to Iniesta on the right. Iniesta carries the ball inside and attempts a ball over the top that gets stopped by a re-organised Russian defence consisting of seven players. Spain struggled to retain possession, and when they were able to keep hold of the ball, it went nowhere as there was no link between midfield and attack. Spain relied on Ramos and Capdevilla to provide width and were used the main-attacking force in the first half, but for full-backs to make runs beyond the wide midfielder takes time, and an organised team can defend a very deep run from a full-back with ease.

Spain also found themselves trying to exploit the channels through the running of Fernando Torres. This long-ball approach is only playing to the strengths though of Fernando Torres whose mobility did cause problems for the Russian defence. This created space for Spain to work with, but from playing such a long-ball from a defensive position, Spain only had David Villa up there to try and find the space created. This just resulted in Torres holding onto the ball for too long and getting hounded out by several Russian defenders and losing possession.

With Villa on the pitch, Spain found themselves with around 43% of possession, however after he left the pitch, Spain controlled the midfield and finished the half with possession being shared between the two teams.

In the second-half is when the benefit of changing to a five-man midfield really paid off. For the first goal, the move started with Senna moving the ball to Xavi, who has found space in between the midfield and defence. As the ball has moved quickly and there is playmaker looking to get the ball, the wingers, Iniesta and Fàbregas in this situation are placed high up the pitch (as compared to sitting deep in first two diagrams in the article).

Xavi moves the ball quickly to Iniesta. The important thing here is that Torres has drifted wide, he has noticed that Zhirkov (purple) is not in position, so he can drag the left sided centre back out to create space for the on-rushing Fabregas, subsequently taking the right-sided centre back with him, creating space (yellow area) in the middle for Xavi to move into.

With Torres pulling wide, it has creates spaces for attacking midfielders to move in to. This diagram really highlights how this goal is going to pan out. Fàbregas will take three defenders with him to the front post whilst Torres will occupy the defender on the far-post. Xavi who is the deepest of the players involved, will look to find a gap in between the two centre-backs.

The goal comes as Iniesta moves onto his right foot and Xavi is able to get into the space and score with a great lunge across the flight of the ball.

This demonstrates the real benefit of Spain having a playmaker who is available when the ball is deep in midfield. In Fernando Torres and David Villa they have intelligent strikers who know how to work defences to create space. With three or even four on-rushing midfielders they can effectively exploit the space created through the runs of either of the two strikers.

The benefit of having a trequartista again manifests in the second goal. Fàbregas is given the ball early and is supported by both Iniesta and Silva.

As Silva strides with the ball to the half way line new substitute David Güiza moves from the centre to the outside right channel.

As Alex Ferguson said, attackers are a lot more dangerous moving inward from wide than the other way around. The ball is moved back and, David Güiza bursts inside and Fàbregas with a subtle touch feeds the ball into the path of Güizawho chips Akinfeev for their second.

The great fit the Spanish squad have with the 4-2-3-1 system reared its beautiful face again against Poland this week during their 6-0 humdinger of a match.

For the first goal, David Villa (cyan) drops deep and Xavi (yellow-middle), in the role of trequartista moved into the space created from Villa dropping deep. Pique, a brilliant player on the ball is able to bring the forward and hit Xavi with a great pass.

Xavi is able to give it back to Villa who now has more space as the central defender with him spotted the obvious run behind which could be made by Xavi or Iniesta. This gives Villa time to give the ball to Iniesta and then drive from deep.

Iniesta carries the ball slightly infield to around the 18-yard box and then plays a majestic ball with the outside of his right foot to drop in front of both Villa and Xavi who have both made a bee-line for the front post. Unfortunately for the Polish defender who was marking both, he got the last touch.

The fabulous second goal again started with Alonso picking out Xavi with a direct ball from just in front of the defence. Again, this goal originated from the system of having a player always available in the middle of the park to quickly turn defence into attack. For Spain, they could not have a better player at spotting space in tight areas than Xavi.His understanding of space complements the intelligent play of David Villa or Fernando Torres and is fantastic passing means the clever runs of Iniesta and David Silva can be found with ease.

The transition from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 for Spain really has brought out the best in a squad where every superlative in the Oxford Chinese Dictionary must have been used on them by now (if not by just Sid Lowe). With Fernando Torres recovering from injury and only playing 35 minutes of football before their first game, we can surely expect Spain to demonstrate the effectiveness of a 4-2-3-1 system this World Cup.

On a personal level, as well as seeing some interesting football, I really hope Spain can help remove the myth so often spouted that playing one up-front is paramount to negative football.

Expected formation and starting XI for Spain in the 2010 World Cup:


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