Watching England line up against Ukraine two weeks ago, it became very clear to me that football has reached a key stage in its evolution, the age of the trequartista. Yes, like short sleeve shirts over long sleeve shirts, the once trusted 4-4-2 is now decidedly out of fashion, and we embrace a new playing style buoyed by 4-2-3-1, where wingers are central, number nines are an endangered species and all but the two full backs operate mostly infield.
So where did 4-4-2 end and 4-2-3-1 begin? Well, if you can’t beat them, join them—at least that’s the theory.
Indeed, so prevalent amongst Europe’s premier sides has this setup become that even the usually backward thinking England have jumped on the tiki-taka bandwagon, with manager Roy Hodgson employing a double pivot of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to support the makeshift number ten, Tom Cleverley in the last World Cup qualifier.
Cleverley’s club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is another convert and the summer signing of Shinji Kagawa further demonstrated his commitment to the abandonment of the outdated 4-4-2. As creative as paper mache, Kagawa is pure trequartista. At Dortmund, he operated in the space between midfield and attack, serving as a conduit, as the German club went on to win the double last season. Slight and forward minded, it is hard to imagine him bound by the constraints of the 4-4-2 which would give him the indeterminate role of “centre mid.”
The same could be said of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa or Manchester City’s David Silva, who have all found a Premier League home at which to ply their most fashionable of footballing crafts.
When you consider the success of these teams—and the men in the trequartista roles—it’s not hard to see why Woy would look to embrace 4-2-3-1 as coach of the national team.
However, with England bereft of a natural trequartista, and from Cleverley’s reasonably innocuous performance against Ukraine, we can see the national side is still in a teething stage. Nevertheless, I am convinced it can and will work, if continued to be explored and espoused at club level – to hell with the Allardyce enthusiasts.
Ultimately, we watch football to be entertained; and despite every insistence Stoke City give to the contrary, the 4-2-3-1’s more lucid, free flowing style is the perfect tonic to the evidently passé 4-4-2. In particular, the three central wingers or trequartistas serve to exploit the gap between midfield and attack. This link up, which retains possession, albeit at the expense of an orthodox striker, propounds versatility and provides a platform for flamboyance. There is after all, nothing more aesthetically pleasing in football, than a player beating his man.
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 defence and midfield, it gives teams a strong spine and the ability to deny their opponents space, case in point the stability offered by anchor men such as Sergio Busquets or Sami Khedira.
4-4-2’s predictability has become its downfall, while the long ball has been its profligacy. Formations rise and fall in football, and now is the time of 4-2-3-1.