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Are Formations Overrated?

Are systems overrated? What do I mean by that. I am talking about systems of play and formations that the average fan talks about e.g. 442, 433, 4312 and so on. My question is whether we talk and compare formations of two teams playing against each oth...

Did they win because of their formation or their skills?

Are formations overrated? I am talking about systems of play and formations that the average fan talks about e.g. 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-3-1-2 and so on. My question is whether we talk and compare formations of two teams playing against each other too much. Do we overrate the way a team is written on paper; in the sense that the formation a team adopts on the field has a large effect on the flow of the game and ultimately the result.

To give you a prime and recent example, I point you to the recent game between Italy and Spain in the 2012 European Championships. The major tactical talking point was Vicente del Bosque’s decision to not start with any of his three recognised strikers and instead play with Cesc Fabregas in a false nine position. While this was a surprise to many observers, it wasn’t a major shock by any stretch of the imagination, as Spain can comfortable play without a striker because their ability to possess the ball is unmatched by any other national team currently. In theory, playing a midfielder in the number nine position should enhance the team’s ability to possess the ball for even longer periods of the game. After Italy scored first through Antonio di Natalie, Fabregas equalised soon after and the game ended in a draw. While Fabregas scored a goal in that game, the general consensus from journalists and supporters was that the striker-less formation used by Spain restricted Spain’s goalscoring chances. The media suggested that a striker must play the next game against Ireland and indeed the inclusion of Fernando Torres in that game yielded two goals for him and a 4-0 win for Spain. It seemed to confirm in many people’s eyes that by playing a natural striker who would play on the last man, Spain had a focal point to aim for and created many more chances to score.

You could argue that this is the case, but you could also equally argue against it. Was it the change in formation that allowed Spain to win? Possibly. However, it is even more probable that it was just a case of Spain’s opponent being of a lower quality than Italy. It is natural that you would expect Spain to score more goals against Ireland than you would against Italy. Consequentially, the argument that Spain’s change in formation was the largest contributor to them being more successful in the second game than the first suddenly makes less sense and logic. It is by this example that I question if tactical formations are over-emphasised in the media. I am not entirely dismissing the notion of formations entirely, far from it. I am simply pondering if the result of games are attributed to the formations of the two teams. To show you an example of what I mean, I would like to point your attention to a common stereotype of a 4-3-3 vs 4-4-2 formation battle.

Dream team vs Fantasy team. 4-3-3 vs 4-4-2. Who wins?

The standard perception is that the team playing the 4-3-3 will outnumber the team playing 4-4-2 in midfield and will therefore dominate possession. On the other hand, it is said that the team playing 4-4-2 will deliver a greater threat up front via the twin striker partnership and can also dominate the wings by utilising the space between the opponents wingers and fullbacks. This stereotypical attitude is common throughout the world of the football commentator. You often hear a commentator complain, “The striker is isolated upfront and has no support. I think the manager should throw on [strikers' name] at halftime and change to two upfront. The gaffers’ got to shake things up a bit, otherwise they’ll never get back into this,” or something to that nature. Naturally, the solution always seems to throw on another striker and change formation and somehow that is always the way to fix the problem on the pitch. The problem I have with this attitude from pundits and fans alike is that it seems that they are not trying hard enough to properly think and analyse the situation at hand. To often I find myself in a position of watching a match and virtually predicting word-for-word what the commentator is going to say next. I find it a rather unique skill to be honest.

The main thing to take out of this is that too often in football it is the micro-tactics which are neglected; that is, the tactics which look into really detailed analysis of the individual interactions between players and the movements and spaces these create. It is these aspects (or “finer details”) that ultimately make the difference between who wins and who loses. By being to broad and too general is our analysis of the games, we are missing the key substances which are the real difference makers. It is perhaps a symptom of a lack of expertise in the field of micro-tactics which causes commentators and fans to become so predictable and boring in their communication of the tactics of a match. Not to mention that it takes an incredible amount of data, time and work to compile some resemblance of a usable and useful dossier on micro-tactics. However, this is slowly changing as more data and statistics becomes available to the public in the form of television, internet, communications technologies and modern performance data capturing capabilities.

While the trend is starting to go in the direction of micro-tactics, there is still a huge misconception to those unfortunate enough not to have caught up to modern trends, that believe that a 4-3-3 will always dominate in midfield against a 4-4-2. Unfortunately, you may be hearing that from a commentator who is voicing his opinion in the next game you watch on your television.

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