A little over a year ago, I was asked to write a short article for our friends over at The Boys From Up The Hill. Naturally, I produced a formation-based essay that attempted to solve a debate upon which football management is primarily based.
I like formations that are fluid and make life difficult for the opposition and as such, after looking at the strengths and weaknesses of several formations, I concluded that 4-3-3 was still the best option available to Oxford United at the time.
The comments section at the bottom of the article proved that three people had made it through the entire article, in all likelihood missing numerous family commitments in the process. All three provided intelligent feedback and their own take on the shape which Chris Wilder should be using. However, my favourite was the final one which had been left by 'Anonymous'. Every point made was valid, but could well have been paraphrased as: 'Thanks for the article. Lots of words, but you're wrong. Four-Four-Bloody-Two.' On second viewing, he doesn't actually say thank you.
Well, Mr or Mrs Anonymous, this is the response. I stand by the theory that 4-3-3 was right at the time, but with the squad that Oxford United currently have available, I have to admit something.
4-4-2 is working far better than my preferred system.
A lot has changed since those diagrams were created and it is time to create some more to look at why we are looking far more cohesive in a 4-4-2 than with threes. Two names are vital to this improvement and make the system work; Andy Whing and Tom Craddock.
I like 4-3-3 as a system because when the personnel in a system are interchangeable, it's very difficult to defend against. Individual responsibility is crucial in organising a defence and when players aren't sure whether to close space, track a runner into a different position or pass him on to a team-mate, spaces are made to be exploited.
With Lee Cox providing a more mobile Paul McLaren, it would be possible for United to play as a 4-3-3, but the injury to enforced deployment of Andy Whing at right-back and the return of Tom Craddock (who was unavailable when the initial article was written) has given a system that requires intelligence a chance to flourish.
When a team-sheet is created United are lining up in a typical 4-4-2. There is nothing complicated about it and that is what a lot of fans want to see. Two lines of four, two strikers and none of that modern day rubbish. However, the shape on the right is how I perceive Oxford when in possession of the football.
Although Craddock was absent against Barnet at the weekend, the opposition were so poor that the game provided a nice opportunity to study the mechanisms of the system being executed with relative ease. Jon-Paul Pittman won more in the air than Craddock would and our approach was more direct at times as a result, but he also attempted to collect the ball in the role between the lines that Craddock is marked as on the right-hand side.
When we have the ball, we don't maintain a simple 4-4-2. Such a shape is easy to mark, easily read and relies entirely on individuals beating their man in a one on one battle to create opportunities. It can work and it allows an easy transition when the ball is lost, but it lacks the fluidity that Chris Wilder strives for in his team.
We will often shift to a 4-2-3-1 relatively quickly after winning the ball. This is the shape that gets the best of both worlds. Two men remain relatively deep to protect the defence in case possession is squandered and four mobile attackers create problems for the opposition. This movement is the key element to the success of our 4-4-2.
Craddock is by no means limited to only coming deep to look for the ball, as Steve MacLean was in his spell at the club. At Cheltenham and Wycombe we have seen what he is capable of when he runs beyond Constable and the opposition defence. He has had his critics at times, but Craddock is a very intelligent footballer for this level of the game and chooses his movements well.
The key to any formation when in possession is giving the opposition a problem and challenging their organisation. In the diagram below, I have highlighted the key areas against opponents playing in a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1, which I am sure we will see plenty of in home fixtures against teams looking for a point.
The 4-4-2 on the left is the easier of the two to play through and the large yellow areas shows the key focus of our passing. Leven and Chapman are constantly looking to play a neat pass into this area for Constable and Rigg, or more commonly Potter and Craddock. The right pass can take the opposition midfield out of the game and leave a situation where our attacking four have exposed four defenders. Too much is often made of statistics in football, but this is a simple one. The more times you can create a situation where a number of attackers are running at the same number of defenders, or (as can happen when a full-back is caught up the field and nobody has covered him) fewer defenders, the higher your likelihood of scoring goals.
The crucial elements to the theory are picking the right pass to get through the midfield and when between the lines on the other side, making clever runs and picking the correct option to open up the defence. When put like this, football sounds ridiculously simple but the best teams are those who can execute the simplest of things with the greatest precision. Have a look at Barcelona. We all know that Lionel Messi has the ability to perform the miraculous, but the movements that create Barcelona goals are very simple. They are just executed with such precision, speed and conviction that it becomes very difficult to prevent.
The shining light since changing to 4-4-2 has been the relationship between James Constable and Craddock in the final third. While Craddock does drop deeper at times, the distance beyond the pair is never too vast. Beano clearly enjoys having a partner in close proximity and they both possess the qualities to give defences problems. Craddock is deceptive in his movement, while Constable has returned to his rampaging former-self. Both can pick a pass for a team-mate and they are more than capable of scoring goals in League Two. The relationship is still developing, but the signs are promising. The best striking relationships are between players who possess different qualities. When the formations article was first published, the two available were Deane Smalley and Constable. That would be a front two who would head the ball, barge people out of the way and rely on their power, but would lack the guile of a partnership that includes Craddock. For 4-4-2 to continue to be successful, the presence of the former-Middlesbrough striker feels crucial.
Although victory was easily gained at Barnet, the performance wasn't quite at the level of the Craddock-aided win at Wycombe. Pittman got himself into good positions between the lines at times, but the effectiveness with his feet wasn't quite the same as his ability in the air. Constable struggled to get on the end of the flick-ons but there was evidence that Pittman can provide something a little different with the phenomenal spring that he possesses in his legs, when such tactics are needed.
Without the neat play on the edge of the area, another asset of 4-4-2 became clear. Although he frustrates at times, I am a Batt fan. There aren't too many full-backs at this level who provide the outlet that he does and the award he picked up from League Two opponents tells you all you need to know about how much they enjoy playing against him. However, as with any attacking full-back, he has to leave spaces behind him as he charges forward and he will never be able to be the defensively unbeatable yet overlapping player that some seem to think he should be. The advances of Batt were often brilliantly covered by McLaren in the 4-3-3, but with only two central midfielders, it becomes far more problematic when a defender is caught in the opponents' final third.
Saturday's fixture made the work of our full-backs in the system very clear. Both Tony Capaldi and Andy Whing are intelligent players, but the bond between Potter and Whing meant that our right-hand side was an effective means of attack all afternoon.
Barnet had major problems with defensive organisation when Potter and Pittman dropped deep. As we will advance with Craddock dropping deep as Pittman tried to on Saturday, I have included him in the diagram below.
Although Barnet attempted to deploy a defensive midfielder in Clovis Kamdjo, he was rarely in the right position to pick up Pittman as he dropped into the Craddock role between the lines. This meant that one of the centre-backs had to come across to cover Pittman's movement. The winger on that side of the field would then pull inside. This was most frequently Potter, although Rigg also gave the Barnet defence this problem.
As a full-back, what do you do? Do you mark the space out wide or do you follow your winger to prevent him picking up the ball? 90% of full-backs will follow their winger, leaving the flank vacant. Andy Whing doesn't get forward with the frequency of Batt, but he is very good at picking the right opportunities to do so. When Potter dragged his man inside (often with a hapless Barnet centre-half vacating even more space to track the deep-lying striker), Whing made his move to charge up the touchline. He put the ball into great areas too.
After the game, Edgar Davids said the following: "The difference was the other team was much, much better. They were much more organised."
The Dutchman has seen some organised teams in his time and the compliment should not be undervalued. Oxford's 4-4-2 provides a solid defensive base, with two midfielders who are usually excellent in possession. Importantly, they also have the vision to find the right pass between the lines to open the game up.
With two mobile wingers and a blossoming partnership at the top of the field, 4-4-2 is the way for Oxford United to go forward this season. It means that Damian Batt, Jake Forster-Caskey, Lee Cox and Deane Smalley are going to have to force their way back into the side, but that is how good squads work.
When writing back in 2011 I said that the greatest strength of 4-4-2 is the partnerships that it creates, as shown below. If these partnerships are to be broken, it will have to be by players who are performing at a higher standard than those who currently possess the shirt. I hope the players who currently occupy the bench can rise to the challenge.
There will be occasions when we need to alter our system. If we come up against an attacking 4-3-3, we may need to match up with them in midfield and allow Lee Cox to do what he does best.
I don't like a rigid 4-4-2 and credit should go to the coaching staff for creating a team who are comfortable mixing their roles in the system with the freedom to pose problems for opposition defences.
So there it is, Anonymous. Unless you come back to me with the confession that you have switched allegiance to the 3-6-0 of Euro 2012 winning Spain, you are right. 4-4-2 can work and although it will need to keep doing so for a lot longer if we are to be successful, we look like a better team for it.