There is a familiar pattern in England which goes as follows. Every two years, the national side heads to a major tournament with ‘the best squad they have had in years’ . We continually convince ourselves that we do have a chance of winning. We get through the group stages but then lose in the early knockout phase. We blame external factors which are progressively becoming more embarrassing each tournament (referees, linesman, goal line technology etc.). We encourage an excuse mentality. A week later the media uproar forces the FA investigate the state of the national game. The FA blame the technical deficiency of players. They come up with a blueprint of copying whatever nation is successful in that tournament. Their answer? Spend £100m on a central training hub (despite the fact that 99% of elite academy players will probably spend a maximum of 0.0001% of their football education there) and introduce the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). This article however will not look at the problems currently corroding the national game, but at the specific principles laid down by the flagship side.
In football, every system has its strengths and every system has its weaknesses. When does a numbered system become another system? One must be very careful pigeon holing specific systems to teams as a 4-4-2 becomes 4-3-3 by moving one player five yards. It is the principles, philosophy and responsibilities within the structure that are the most important. In its most basic form, players have to be aware of their collective and individual responsibilities in the four moments of the game; in possession, out of possession, on the attacking transition and defensive transition. Once these are established, and they will change every game and within games, then the team has a generalised basic function and idea of the way they want to play. When looking at the manager of our national side currently, regardless of where Roy Hodgson works, his teams employ the same principles; three banks recovering behind the ball, a low block focusing on rigid distances between and within units with the aim of being extremely difficult to break down. This reactive strategy is his priority and number one concern and has seen him take an average Fulham FC side the final of the Europa Cup Final in 2010. However, is Roy Hodgson’s system a problem for England or is it the players?
From his time in charge, very specific conclusions can be made. When England play against lower ranked teams Hodgson plays a straight line 4-4-2 yet when they play against higher ranked teams he opts for 4-5-1. He would argue that the latter is 4-3-3 but given how little of the ball England have in most games, it often becomes a very defensive 4-5-1. He is an extremely reactive coach who looks to stop teams playing as a priority as opposed to controlling the game. Dominating possession is not his priority and this is rather reflective of the general culture in this country at grassroots, academy and lower leagues still in 2013. Hodgson epitomises the English approach to football; solid, reliable performers who work extremely hard but lack risk taking and creativity. After England’s straight line system was completely exposed by Italy in the last Euros, specifically Andrea Pirlo who controlled the game from a space which ‘could park 5,000 cars’ as Raymond Verheijen summarised, one thought that the system would be widely acknowledged as being prehistoric. The best managers get things wrong, make poor decisions and try things that don’t work, but the fact is that England’s principles are decades out of date.
It may be argued that this season’s Champions League was contested by two sides who both played 4-4-2 but the way in which they employed the principles were different. With Bastien Schweinsteiger dropping in as a deep lying playmaker, clever movement in between the lines, Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben coming in off shape and Phillip Lahm overlapping and underlapping at every opportunity; this was not the 4-4-2 we know in England. Bayern Munich seemed to play principles as opposed to a system.
Let’s look at it from a statistical point of view. In the Premier League, 4-4-2 is used significantly more each season in the bottom half of the league than the top. It dominates the lower leagues as the most prevalent system and possession statistics reflect this too. The current England squad include 95% of players who play for the top eight teams in the Premier League. All of these sides look to dominate possession on a week-to-week basis,( with, arguably, the exception of Everton), yet when these players play for their national side they are asked to play in a low block and on the counter attack.
Twenty years ago 4-4-2 was popular because it simply is the most balanced system. It offers maximum coverage both laterally and vertically giving good equilibrium. However, the game has changed dramatically in the last twenty years with teams now obsessed with territorially controlling the centre of the park. Look at any of the top sides in history and they have one thing in common, they dominate possession. To dominate possession, you simply cannot be outnumbered in central areas. Spain are the most extreme version of this as they sometimes look to play seven players in this zone (Busquets false sweeper, three centre mids, false nine, wingers in off the line). Any team who plays 4-4-2 will find it completely impossible to dominate the middle of the pitch and thus you are not looking to control the game. If you are not looking to control the game, then you are decades behind the rest and will always be playing catch up. There is no worse feeling as a player than getting dominated, outnumbered and overloaded with runners coming from everywhere. It is this simple; the best sides want possession of the ball and try to control their own destiny. If you dominate possession then you have a 79% chance of winning the game, nearly 8 in 10! England surrender territory by dropping into their banks and thus put defence before attack; as Roberto Martinez says “once you don’t want to control your own fate then why are you in the game at all? You are relying on luck, on the bounce of a ball. This is not where the game is at and you will not become a top team relying on luck.”
The ironic thing is that England actually have the players at their disposal to dominate and control games. That’s for another article.