The logic, or lack of it, behind reverting to 4-4-2
So what will the switch back to 4-4-2 mean in practice? The art of tactics – and this again is a point that is often misconstrued – is the art of shifting the battle to where you want it to be fought. It is not that one formation is necessarily better than another. That said, over the 140 years or so of football history there has been a general trend of moving to fewer and fewer forwards, because more men in defence and midfield means it is easier to regain the ball, and tends to provide for more options once a team has it.
Other than accommodating Anelka (and as Guus Hiddink showed, he could be used to the right of an asymmetric 4-3-3 if he really had to be included), it is, frankly, hard to see the logic behind Chelsea’s switch. At United, having lost Ronaldo and Tevez, two fluid, multi-functional players, a return to something more traditional makes sense as a retrenchment, a short-term protection against change. You do wonder, though, whether Ferguson would have gone back to a nominal 4-4-2 had he still had as his assistant Carlos Queiroz, who arguably pioneered playing no strikers with his Portugal youth sides in the early 90s and then was key in United’s move to 4-2-3-1 earlier in this decade.
There are two areas where the classic 4-4-2 logically struggles against 4-3-3. Firstly, in the middle of midfield, where the 4-3-3 has three players against two and so, given equality of ability of player, should be able to dominate possession. The way Park played narrow for United on Sunday suggested he may be used as a counter against that. Chelsea, meanwhile, with a diamond, effectively have four central midfielders anyway; or, given how far forward Frank Lampard played and that Florent Malouda was tugging left, at least two and two halves. The two are Mikel Jon Obi and Michael Essien, so that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
The other problem, though, may be rather more serious. Wingers, recently, have had to take on increased defensive responsibility to check the forward sallies of full-backs (who became increasingly attacking as they got used to having space when 4-4-2 met 4-4-2). Park excelled in that role last season, as, at times, did Rooney, most notably away to Porto in the Champions league quarter-final when he stifled Aly Cissokho.
With two central strikers, rather than two wide men pushed high on the full-backs, that becomes far harder to do. In the first half on Sunday, Nani had the beating of Branko Ivanovic, partly because he was coming at him from deep, and so was already moving at pace when he met a putative challenge – which is an advantage 4-4-2 has over 4-3-3 – and partly because he was supported by the surges of Patrice Evra, who was unchecked by Chelsea’s narrow midfield.
However good a full-back may be defensively, there is little he can do once such a situation has developed; Ancelotti’s solution was to bring on José Bosingwa in the second half, and his capacity to take the attack to United, forcing Nani to defend, had stifled some of his attacking threat even before he suffered the dislocated shoulder.
Their battle was similar to the confrontation between Ronaldo, playing on the left, and Essien, playing at right-back, in the 2008 Champions League final. Then, Ronaldo had the better of the first half-hour, until Essien began to drive at and beyond him, setting up Lampard’s equaliser as his drive was half-blocked, and going on to have the better of the contest for the rest of the game.
On the other side, Malouda did little to trouble John O’Shea, but Cole twice burst past Park towards the end of the first half – understandably given he was also bolstering the right side of midfield and thus dealing in part with Malouda – to set up chances for Drogba, who headed over, and Anelka, who shot wide.