What is the A-League’s most popular formation?

In a rare Friday night double header, back-to-back games featured a battle between two sides playing identical 4-2-3-1 formations. Then, the weekend’s marquee fixture, the Sydney derby, featured a similar match-up, with the preceding match, Melbourne Victory v Brisbane Roar, featuring two sides that could also be described as 4-2-3-1, although the Victory might be better described as a 4-4-2.

But formation notation is a numbers exercise that can only partly describe the complex series of movements in a football match.  Football philosopher Juanma Lillo says “the formation is only the first snapshot. After that, the players are always on the move because the ball is on the move, so the formation no longer exists. In any case, [a team’s] style of play is related to an idea, not to a geographic positioning on the pitch.”

Another technician, Slaven Bilic, says “formations are dying out.” “It’s increasingly difficult to mark the movement of the players, with respect to the ball, just by assigning numbers to each line.”

Although the notion that formations are ‘dying’ seems a bit of an exaggeration, his point is salient. One may call describe the Victory as a 4-2-3-1, the other might call it a 4-2-2-2. The former does it justice, but doesn’t adequately account for the movement of the two false nines, while the latter negates the fact that Finkler and Flores both frequently drop into midfield. What is the Victory formation?

The easiest way to asnwer that is to identify the team’s shape from the way they line up defensively, and the Victory’s focus on creating two lines of four was obvious against Brisbane, with Archie Thompson and Marcos Rojas dropping deep alongside the central midfielders, leaving Guilherme Finkler and Marcos Flores as the most advanced players. When you look at it from that angle, 4-4-2 is the closest description for Ange Postecoglou’s side.

This tactic of dropping the wide players back and pushing the central attacker forward is also used by the Central Coast Mariners, Melbourne Heart, Perth Glory, Newcastle Jets, Western Sydney Wanderers and Sydney FC – all sides that are generally described as using 4-2-3-1, but in truth are probably closer to 4-4-2. It might not be the classic strike partnership that used to be so immediately recognisable, but it is still a partnership, albeit an unnatural one.

Individuals interpet instructions differently, but for most sides, the principles remain the same – use eight men in tight lines of four to keep a good defensive structure. If you can sit the midfield line deep on the defenders , you minimise the space between the lines for creative players and deep-lying forwards. Arsenal’s struggles against teams that sit deep is a good example of how this approach can limit penetration.

Therefore, it would be accurate to say that 4-4-2 is fast becoming the A-League’s standard tactic, despite trends in modern football suggesting that the once standard 4-4-2 is now dead, or at the very least, on the wane. The reality is that although its ability to be used as an attacking formation is now limited, its structural strengths are benefiting many teams, not just those in the A-League, but across the globe.

The difference is that in the past the front two – normally a pair of strikers – were absolved of defensive responsibility – now they are the first line of defence. The standard strategy is to have them block the opposition centre-backs from playing passes into midfield but more proactive sides – such as the Victory – instruct the front two to press at high intensity and win possession quickly. Given the propensity for four-man defences in the A-League, a front two makes numerical sense, seeing as a duo can ably cover the width of a back four.

Furthermore, all of these sides generally use an attacking midfielder in support of a lone striker, meaning coaches can instruct the former to drop deep and help compete in the midfield battle. This much was clear in the contrast between either side in the Sydney derby – Shinji Ono was clever and became an extra man in the Wanderers’ midfield, whereas Rhyan Grant spent too much time in support of Blake Powell and left Sydney’s pivot exposed.

When a side does use a more ‘pure’ 4-4-2 with two out and out strikers, the disadvantages are clear: a disparity in midfield, and a tendency for directness. This theory is grounded in the correlation between Perth Glory defeats and their use of a 4-4-2: against the Victory and the Heart Shane Smeltz and Billy Mehmet operated in tandem and the Glory lost both. The restoration of Steven McGarry as an attacking midfielder against Newcastle resulted in a 3-0 victory.

It’s not the whole reason, but it’s a crucial factor. The two banks of four approach gives a good balance between defensive structure and attacking impetus – especially when the front two stay high up the pitch and become an out-ball for easy counter-attacks.

Of course, a 4-4-2 defensive shape can be vulnerable to sides that play with good width to stretch the central midfielders out of position, as well to lazy wingers who struggle to keep good defensive discipline.

But every system has it’s limitations, and whether it be termed a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, it’s clear that the system is a good template for A-League sides.

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