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Using Chapman's W-M: A reverse evolution for football maybe?

Herbert Chapman – His W-M was the first major tactical innovation in the history of football tactics.

I advise the reader to temporarily forget what the title means, as it will be presented in due course.

We have all seen and recognized evolution around us – cricket changing its focus from a long 5 day encounter between 22 old men in white to the glittering T20 format adored by the youth, white clothing that was challenged by coloured clothing, F1 cars that have very little resemblance to the ones seen a couple of decades ago, etc. We could try providing a dozen more examples on evolution, but I realize I have devoted enough space already here to discuss more about it. What point I am trying to make here is, things change with situations, necessity and demand, so, why not extend the same to football tactics!

Now, for those scratching their heads wondering what the title means, the following few paragraphs will try their best to convey the meaning.

Meaning, origins and use of W-M

A 3-2-2-3 formation is called as the W-M. It was employed way back in the 1930s by Arsenal‘s legendary manager Herbert Chapman, in order to bring more solidity to the defence, and as a reaction to the FA’s new offside ruling. This formation of employing 3 at the back was to mitigate the threat offered by the forwards of a 2-3-5 formation, a standard at that time. The addition of an extra man in defence was viewed as a negative tactic. It contradicted historical beliefs in England, where defending was considered more as a burden than a skill.

The following diagram depicts the W-M formation.

W-M Formation

W-M Formation

As the figure indicates, one can draw successive lines connecting all players in the defensive half and attacking half. This gives shapes of a W and an M, and hence the name. Also, one might have observed a slight discrepancy here regarding the position in the centre of defence. In modern terms, this position is referred to as “centre back”. Here lies the key idea of Chapman – he moved the centre half (the central midfielder if you would like to call, in a 2-3-5 formation) to the centre of defence – the centre-half thus became a centre-back – an extra body in defence. The centre half (midfielder) in the 2-3-5 was the playmaker, the architect, and you could imagine the furore that followed as he was moved to the centre of defence. It was considered to be a suicidal move at the time, sacrificing the hub of the team and adding an additional player in a position that was considered worthless. As for the issue of nomenclature, when compared to the modern system employed now, the defensive midfielders are called left and right halves, the attacking midfielders are called left or right inside forwards. The attacking trio comprises of the wingers and a centre forward.

As mentioned earlier, 2-3-5 was the standard during Chapman’s time. His tactics at the time were simple – to retreat as a unit, invite  pressure and hold shape, and hit the opposition on the counter attack when defending. Chapman’s teams also enjoyed maintaining possession of the ball, and making short simple passes, historically called as a pattern weaving approach, and very similar to the ‘Arsenal way of playing’ that we are familiar with today. Eventually, the W-M was countered in the 1950s by shifting another midfielder to defence – hence creating a 4-2-4 formation. That became the common formation for the next two decades.

What happened throughout the history of tactics, irrespective of the time, was that once a new formation came into being, it became popular instantly. Lesser teams surprised favourites by employing a new tactic, and it would be copied everywhere. Teams started employing the new idea, irrespective of whether they had the appropriate personnel or not, with varying results. If set up with players in appropriate positions, each playing to his strengths in a position that could also camouflage his weakness, the formation would work. Opponents initially had no idea how to deal with the innovation, but eventually found a way to counter it. This ‘new way’ of countering the standard, gradually evolved into a new standard itself, a ‘new formation’.

But is a role reversal possible – the old standard taking over the new ones? Can we think of reverting to the W-M in today’s world of 4-man defences? The basic principles used in the following tactical analysis are space and positioning.

[Please note that the team in red stripes employs W-M formation in all the formation diagrams henceforth.]

The W-M vs The 4-4-2

4-4-2 vs W-M

When compared with the 4-4-2, the W-M formation has a clear numerical advantage in central midfield areas. The two central midfielders in the 4-4-2 take turns to assume the roles of CAM and CDM, producing a midfield diamond temporarily. The W-M meanwhile, has two sets of players playing specifically the roles of attacking midfielders and defensive midfielders. The W-M dominates the 4-4-2 in the central areas by outnumbering it with a 4-2 margin.

The wide areas are where the latter scores though. The wide midfielder is helped by the overlapping fullback (thus outnumbering the wide defender of the W-M by 2 to 1) and can choose to continue making runs wide, or drift infield. The wide defender is then in a dilemma – whether to stick to him cutting inside and get dragged out of position, leaving behind space for the opposing fullback to exploit, or to stick to his designated position, marking the fullback and allowing the winger to continue his run. The centre back in the W-M then gets into an extremely dangerous 3 vs 1 situation, or in a worst case scenario, a 4 vs 1 situation (if the opposite winger mirrors the run) as he would have to face two forwards and wingers cutting inside single-handedly. So, to make the formation work, the defensive central midfielders of the W-M (left and right halves) need to track back by then. If they do not, the centre back is in an unfortunate situation. As an alternative, suppose the wide midfielder does not choose to cut inside, he always has the option of holding up play by the touchline and wait for a late run from one of the central midfielders. Thus the 4-4-2 dominates the W-M on the flanks, and if wingers drift inside with pace, they can create a good goal scoring opportunity.

The next situation one can imagine is how the 4-4-2 defends a move from the W-M. Again, the movement of the wide forwards/wingers hold the key here – whether they stay by the touchline or drift inside. Toying around with the opposing fullback for a while allows 2 attacking midfielders (left and right inside forwards) to arrive in the box to join the centre forward and hence offer 3 targets in the box, but a quick arrival of a  backtracking wide midfielder threatens the move. Drifting inside (and if mirrored by the opposite winger) would temporarily create a 3 vs 2 situation, outnumbering the centre backs.

Summary: The 4-4-2 dominates in the wider areas while attacking but is easily overrun by the WM in central midfield. Wide players hold the key here.

The WM vs The 4-2-3-1

4-2-3-1 vs W-M

The effectiveness of the 4-2-3-1 lies in the passing vision and range of the duo in the middle (called as ‘double pivot’), and the pace and trickery of the trio behind the striker. The central duo, both equally adept at breaking up the opposition’s attack and distribute quickly, hold the key. There is no question of one outnumbering the other as both formations have a double pivot. To reduce the effectiveness of the pivot, the midfielders in the W-M need to close them down quickly before they can find any appropriate forward pass. The role of the double pivot in both formations is similar – to stop the interplay of the opposing attack minded players, and initiate attacks.

However, the biggest advantage of the 4-2-3-1 over the WM is facing the striker and the trio behind him. They get caught in a 4 vs 3 situation if the halves are slow in tracking back. As the case was when countering the 4-4-2, the wide defender faces a similar situation with the wide player of the trio and a fullback supporting him. The case of WM attacking four at the back plays out in a similar way as the previous case.

Summary: Thus, the key points here are the passing range of the double pivots and how quickly the opposition midfield closes them down, how defenders deal with the opposing wide players, and finally the how the central defence compete with the attacking trio.

The W-M vs The 4-3-3

4-3-3 vs W-M

In the 4-3-3, the three in the middle can have various permutations of positioning – two holding and one attacking, or two attacking and one holding, or even two going wide and one staying in the middle. In any case barring the last, the W-M outnumbers the more modern formation in the centre of the pitch. When the centre of the 4-3-3 distributes itself in the manner of the latter case indicated above, a 4 vs 1 situation is created in central midfield in favour of the W-M. That rules out setting up in such a manner. When we analyse the wide areas, there is a clear one on one situation as the forward in a 4-3-3 never ventures to the byline and offers a rare crossing threat. Thus, the only threat offered by the wide forward is cutting inside, which the defenders in the W-M can counteract by man-marking. It is then left to the W-M’s winger/forward to backtrack and keep a check on the opposing fullback. When the W-M launches an attack, the inside forwards have to deal with one or two defensive midfielder(s). The wing forwards are then left to deal with the fullback only, as it would take quite a while for the opposing wide forward to track back and check. This leaves the W-M’s centre forward dealing with two centre backs, with assistance from the inside forwards, who are, in more modern terms, attacking midfielders.

Summary: Neither formation scores over the other here, and provides for an interesting contest.

Can W-M be used now?

As learnt from the study above, the W-M is in no way inferior to the modern formations like the 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, or 4-3-3. But can it be used? Will it be able to compete in a real-life situation? The above analysis is only an ideal scenario, but every formation is prone to few tweaks here and there. Can the WM tweak itself to counter the present day formations? We have seen disasters when teams employ 3 at the back (Chelsea thrashing Aston Villa 8-0 recently), and some great displays as well, like Italy shutting out Spain in the opening game of Euro 2012, or Wigan’s great escape in 2011-12 (their comeback run started when their manager Roberto Martinez opted to switch to a 3 man defence). Then, isn’t W-M another variant of 3 at the back? What stops one from employing it?

Finally, should there be a player in a free role?

Lastly, one can envisage the situation of a player being given a free role. The central midfielder in front of the defence, when given a free role, effectively makes the formation a 3-1-2-3 (he is not included in the nomenclature because his position is fluctuating). This opens up many more possibilities – when he joins the attacking duo, it is a 3-1-3-3 (a variant of 3-4-3), when he tracks back, it is a 4-1-3-2 (a variant of the standard 4-4-2). Basically, he can play anywhere on the pitch (someone like David Luiz or Yaya Toure, who has confidence to feature in most positions), in other words, a versatile player. A free roaming player can add unpredictability to an attack, because his movement can leave any countering man-marking plan in shambles. On the downside, that would leave the defence highly vulnerable to any sort of attack, because the roaming player is unsure of which zone or player to mark (as the case be) and unsure of his initial slot in the formation. A rigid formation would, however, maintain defensive stability but it removes the unpredictability element in attack.

“What goes around, comes around”. This has been used in defence and offence by managers when discussing close refereeing calls, title races, player transfers and what not! Be it while accusing one of being favoured by officials or getting a dodgy decision in their favour the next week, managers have always found this statement come to their aid. Similarly, can we extend it to formations? Evolution never ceases, but can it travel back? What if formations evolve backward? What if the W-M is successful against today’s formations? It might again become the standard, thus evolving back in time and doing justice to the proverb.

Given the recent trend in football management, where managers are fired without reason (like Nigel Adkins or Roberto Di Matteo), it is highly unlikely that any sane football manager who cares about his job security would take such a huge risk in employing an ancient formation and see how it works, he would rather consolidate his job and his team’s position in the table. Thus, it is almost impossible to see a team line up in a 3-2-2-3 formation in the foreseeable future. But for the purists, isn’t it food for thought?

You always have the FIFA and the Football Manager games to try out such an experiment!

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