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Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Numbers Don't Add Up

Victory for Spain’s tiki taka and the breath of fresh air wafted across South Africa by Germany suggest nothing less than the pyrrhic victory of 4231 over 442. Idiots like Alan Shearer and Lee Dixon may have to be gently Linekered towards this natural assumption, but much of the media has seized upon it too. “442 is archaic,” they scream. And I must say, I’m inclined to agree on the evidence of this World Cup. England were trounced by the Germans, fair enough. 4231 offered 442 out and gave it a good hiding. But to consider why is to also strengthen the claim that 442 is not dead. It is merely wounded; regrouping.

This blog has made much of the point I am about to dwell on, but I’ll reinforce it again. 4231 garners its strength from the fulcrum of the ‘2’. The fact that the Dutch decided to utilise two ultimate fighters in these positions in the World Cup final merely underlines why they were beaten. Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel are destroyers offering nothing going forward. Spain’s Xabi Alonso and to a lesser extent Sergio Busquets are primarily deep-lying ball players that also get their foot in. So far from being thugs for hire in orange, they start the attacks from this sitting position in front of the centre backs. The Germans, also, were devastating in this regard because Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira are so accomplished on the ball. Schweinsteiger particularly was majestic against the Argies and pivotal in the victory. And remember, this is a player who ON PAPER wouldn’t get in the England side, according to the Beeb ‘pundits’ – the same dreaded paper (presumably the Sun) that deems Germany are crap and England vastly superior.

The point I’m trying to make is that Germany would have beaten England even if Capello had chosen to line England up in a 4231. We’d have put out a team of square pegs onto a pitch full of round holes. Who would England’s two have been? Barry and Gerrard? Barry wasn’t fit and even when he is he is nowhere near the same league as Schweinsteiger on the ball. He’s far too one-footed and one dimensional. Gerrard’s best form (forget last season) has been playing off a lone striker. So he’d ideally be playing off Rooney. Which leaves Lampard. Domestically, he plays at the tip of a diamond. He leaves the donkey work to Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel and Michael Ballack. And he scores shed-loads of goals PRECISELY because of this fact. He can forget kicking off attacks and defending because this is done for him by better players at Chelsea. Any England 4231 would have always come unstuck against Germany, or Argentina or Spain, because they have players that actually fit this system. Intelligent players that can find space. That use both feet and can keep possession easily. England can’t do this.

Unless Owen Hargreaves comes back this season resembling the defensive midfielder we remember from the World Cup in 2006 and Jack Rodwell fulfills his undoubted potential, England won’t have players technically adept enough to use in the holding roles. So any discussion on 4231/442 looks like becoming redundant.
But can 442 work? Of course it can. It hasn’t just become shit. But it will need to be adapted to counteract the surging popularity of the 4231 (which doubles as a bland 451 in the Premier League, where players aren’t as good as Mezut Ozil or Andres Iniesta). It won’t work with Gerrard and Lampard in the same side. I have argued this for years and my resolve was only strengthened by what I saw in South Africa. And it won’t work with Emile Heskey up front. It certainly won’t with the biggest dickhead in England at centre back.

442 can work when the two centre midfielders perform in a diamond a la Chelsea. In the past you’d have had Claude Makelele and now either Essien or Mikel sitting all game and Lampard hanging around the box to smash in deflected 25 yarders. And it worked. The two wingers would also cut inside, squeezing the play by doing so with scope for the full backs to get forward. The case of ‘outnumbering’ levelled against 4231 wouldn’t matter if the 442 is flexible. But of course, it is dependent on good players. The brilliant Milan side of 94 played 442 against the Barca Dream Team’s 433 and crushed it 4-0. Manchester United were scintillating in a 442 in the 90s when they had Giggs and Kanchelskis bursting forward. Chelsea won the Prem with a 442 last season.

What has to be borne in mind is that very few formations suit players who have been brought up to run really fast and kick it really hard. For 442 to work for England, two attack-minded full backs are needed. England have two, though Glen Johnson is going to have to learn how to defend and quick. Pace at centre-back is more of a problem. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single decent English centre-back who is fast. So that aside, let’s just say faster than England’s Brave John Terry or Matthew Upson, both of whom shouldn’t play for England again. Pace is necessary for the central pairings in the two banks of four to be mobile and able to stay relatively close to each other. When gaps appear, as they did all over the place against Germany, technically gifted players such as the aforementioned Ozil and Golden Ball winner Thomas Müller will have a field day. For 442 to work, a pressing game is needed and for a successful pressing game, pace is a central requirement.

It is not all doom and gloom, despite my previous rants on these pages. But fast-tracking young players who are genuinely comfortable on the ball is a must. Hence, Rodwell, Jack Wilshire and Adam Johnson need to be in the squad for the Euro qualifiers and kept there to gain experience at international level. With players like these added to a hopefully focused Wayne Rooney, things aren’t so bad. But what odds a perfect qualifying campaign and then stumbling at the first opportunity England meet a good team? Long, I would expect, considering I checked the odds for Euro 2012 only yesterday and England were fourth favourites. I’ll leave you to ponder that one – I’m too busy laughing. Adam Bushby

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