The Rise of 4-2-3-1 and the Trequartistas Who Would Be King
Formations rise and fall in football, but there can be no doubting that we are now living in the age of 4-2-3-1, where trequartistas are king, central wingers wreak havoc behind a main striker, and all but the two full-backs operate mostly infield.
So prevalent has this setup become that even the usually backward-thinking England are employing it, with Roy Hodgson using Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard as his "double-pivot" holding midfielders and putting the crown upon Tom Cleverley's head.
Cleverley's club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is another convert, and Manchester United's signing of Shinji Kagawa demonstrated his commitment to parting with the outdated 4-4-2 that has won the majority of the trophies in his quarter-century reign at Old Trafford.
Kagawa is a pure trequartista. He operates in the space between midfield and attack and acts as a conduit. Slight and forward-minded, it's hard to imagine the Japanese international playing in a regulation 4-4-2 as a central midfielder.
The same could be said of Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Tottenham's Gylfi Sigurdsson, Arsenal's Santi Cazorla and perhaps also Manchester City's David Silva and Samir Nasri—all of whom have found a Premier League home for their most fashionable of footballing crafts.
The trend is evident across Europe, too. As Akarsh Dorma noted for Goal.com, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid won titles in Germany and Spain, respectively, playing 4-2-3-1 last season, while Chelsea won the Champions League using it.
So where did 4-4-2 end and 4-2-3-1 begin?
Jonathan Wilson, writing for SI.com, believes the system was born in Spain in the early 1990s but cites the 2010 World Cup as the moment it truly took hold.
Here's Zonal Marking in complete agreement, from December 2010:
This summer’s World Cup confirmed the predominance of the 4-2-3-1, with three of the four semi-finalists (Spain, Germany, Holland) all using this system. This, of course, requires a central playmaker, and Xavi, Mesut Ozil and Wesley Sneijder were widely regarded as three of the stars of the competition.
When you consider the success of these teams—and the men in the trequartista roles—it's easy to see why Hodgson would look to embrace 4-2-3-1 as coach of the England national team.
If you can't beat them, join them—at least that's the theory.
But formations live and die on the players you have to exploit them. And with England bereft of a natural trequartista, Hodgson is trying to mould one out of Cleverley, while simultaneously asking two largely forward-minded central midfielders to keep guard behind him.
Then there's the key central winger positions, which were occupied by the raw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and largely one-dimensional James Milner for England against Ukraine in a recent 2014 World Cup qualifier.
Real Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo, Barcelona Lionel Messi—albeit in what is usually closer to a 4-3-3 than 4-2-3-1. These are exaggerated examples, of course, but the guile and attacking threat offering up the Ox and Milner in comparison rather dilutes the power of 4-2-3-1 when you send out England in play in it.
But 4-2-3-1 is not just about offering different angles in attack. With as many as eight players loaded into the central area between defense and midfield, it gives teams a strong spine and the ability to deny their opponents space.
That's predominantly why former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, in his pre-tournament column for The Independent, recommended England use it against France at Euro 2012:
The 4-2-3-1 set-up has the advantage of giving you plenty of numbers in midfield to contain the French who are a fast, technically gifted side. England certainly need to be strong in the middle against Laurent Blanc's team. But I also believe that 4-2-3-1 will play to the strength England have in the wide areas.
So is 4-2-3-1 a positive or negative formation? The answer depends wholly on the players you use and the mentality you attach to it.
For an example, see Chelsea's defensive stance last season, compared what we might expect from Roberto Di Matteo's Hazard-infused lineup this time around.
One system can be played many different ways, and how the many exponents of 4-2-3-1 deploy its nuances will be one of the defining factors of the season ahead.
All hail the trequartista. And less so the two defensive midfielders.
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