How to turn a group of hungover, unfit, English amateurs into winners: Part 1…
The overriding problem identified with the English game, particularly at national level, has been the fetishisation of the 4-4-2 formation, and variations of it. Although the 4-2-3-1 has gained a foothold in the higher tiers of our game, the grassroots players, and teams, up and down the country rarely deviate from the unimaginative comfort of the former.
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The idea that it is the most simple, and therefore the most appropriate, formation to use for amateur players retains little credibility however; amateur players in other countries, such as the Netherlands, Spain and South Korea, regularly employ other formations successfully. The question, then, is: how to utilize the English amateur players’ seemingly innate fondness for the 4-4-2 but in a different system.
The answer: by redefining, but not overtly breaking, the monopoly of 4-4-2 it is possible to take a poor, amateur team, up the league and gain a modicum of success.
Sunday league football in England tends to be as predictable as the movements of a particularly large building. The strained calls for ‘get out!’ when the ball is cleared serves as the most obscenely overused, and misunderstood, of all generalisations. The vain shouts of the back-four are as commonplace as the wingers who refuse to track back, whilst vainly attempting to act as strikers (otherwise known as ‘cheating’). The inexplicable decision to try to play offside when using the left-back’s dad to run the lines is also a given. Not to mention the ‘get stuck in/up ‘em’ culture that saturates the majority of pitches. Usually, the gap between midfield and attack could fit a Bournemouth caravan site in it, due to the preponderance of long balls from defence. Very rarely do you see a compact Sunday League team that has a midfield in control of the game, as opposed to a midfield that is perfecting the art of hurtling rather ungracefully from one end of the pitch to the other.
Nevertheless, there is hope for the beleaguered Sunday side, blowing air out of various orifices, in the shape of the 4-1-4-1. The beauty of this formation is that it takes the natural tendencies of English amateur players and provides them with a more compromising environment in which to excel.
There are several ways to play the 4-1-4-1, but it should be implemented in stages. First of which, is to accept a few games of being bombarded rather undiplomatically as you sit deep in your own half when you don’t have the ball. Don’t let your midfielders careen after the ball in the opposition half as it wastes energy levels in leagues generally not known for Sisyphean fitness. Without the ball your defence should sit around twenty-five to thirty yards from goal, with a holding midfielder operating laterally five yards in front, and your midfield another five to ten yards in front of him.
Your striker should only pressure the ball when it is with their centre-backs, to stop them wandering up field and getting a nosebleed. By doing this, the long-balls of the opposition (and there will be long-balls) have no where to land behind your defence, immediately cutting off the main source of goals at this level.
Marking is relatively the same as the 4-4-2; centre-backs pick up strikers, full-backs wingers and so on. The only difference is that you now have an extra man (the deep midfielder) to deal with that pesky deep-lying forward you often come across, or the Crusoe-like adventurism of a midfielder looking to push on.
For when you have the ball, although it goes against every instinct of the team, it is important to show relatively little forward thinking. The idea should be to use your holding midfielder as your playmaker, which means he should be the best ball-player on your team. Your wingers should make runs inside to support your striker to give yourself effectively three forwards but the rest of your team should remain compact. Full backs can support your wingers but never go past them, same with your central midfield, who should offer a relatively limited attacking supporting role by staying goal side of your striker. Although this seems intuitively self-defeating in terms of winning a game, the opposition will have pushed up onto your deep line leaving enough space behind for you to exploit it; three against four is not a terrible ratio to have in amateur football.
Essentially then, rather than play in to the capricious hands of the 4-4-2 English-style game, this first step is aimed at cancelling it out via restrictive and unimaginative ways. Although you may be thinking that this is very unEnglish and claim it is a form of Anglo-apostasism, it will lead to less goals going in and, in the future, allow you to be more expansive with the ball.
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