Trends come and go. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pokemon, The Candy Dance, and David Beckham’s curtains have all had a limited life span of a couple of years at the very most.
It is the same in football. Underpants with messages on, signs players make with their fingers when they score, snoods; if there is one thing football loves it is a trend.
But there is something that started as a trend, seemed to spread like wildfire, but has now become embedded throughout every team in the Premier League: step forward the 4-5-1 formation.
All of the teams in the Premier League have used this formation in one game or another this year. So why has the 4-5-1 become the new 4-4-2?
Now the teachings and mentality of football in this country have changed dramatically over the past 15 or so years as the Premier League has risen to prominence. I remember when I was playing football, you would get the hair-dryer from your manager for trying a Cruyff on the edge of your own box, a time where you were coached not to express yourself on a pitch with a football, but to play it simple. It seemed all this country could produce were efficient teams of ‘safe’ footballers, playing the 4-4-2 formation, where everyone knew their role and how to play.
Football has moved on now, the Premier League is flooded with speedy and tricky wingers, who play high up the pitch, hugging the touchline and exploiting the space at any given opportunity. Players like Giggs, Ronaldo, Lennon, Nani, Walcott, Downing, Ashley Young, and Adam Johnson have been allowed to express themselves and create natural width for teams. This has been pivotal as to why the Premier League is the fastest and most exciting league in the World.
But it is not just because of the wingers that we see this formation being dispatched so readily. It is the emergence of the one man strikers, like Torres, Drogba, Berbatov, or Van Persi who don’t have to play with the classic second striker to get goals. It is also the increasing number of goal scoring midfielders like Van der Vaart, Nasri and Gerrard who can play off a lone front man, creating and scoring. The modern day striker has to be able to get on the end of crosses as well as hold up play and be deadly running on to through balls.
But things go a lot deeper, there have always been these players around in one way or another. Another important factor to take in to account is the need to win and keep yourself in a game. As the standards within the league continue to increase, clubs like to defend playing a 4-5-1 because of the way it can compact and congest the opposition’s attacks, especially in midfield. With an increasing number of teams relying on a burly defence, it is on the counter attack, when the ball breaks, that this formation can be devastating.
This could keep games tight, allow teams to play on the break, and in these important matches where there would only be a single goal in it, the 4-5-1 became the choice of champions. This weekend Arsenal, Wolves, Man United, Man City, Liverpool, and Wigan all played pretty much a 4-5-1 formation.
But who were the pioneers? Liverpool were one of the key teams to really use this formation successfully. The fact they had great defensive midfielders and strikers that could play wide, like Babel and Kuyt, meant Liverpool used this throughout their league and European campaigns.
Arsenal were another team to adopt this after the retirement of Bergkamp. Surprising as Arsenal are probably considered one of the classic 4-4-2 advocates. In years past you would often see Ljungberg playing off Henry, with support from the wings from the likes of Hleb and Pires.
Teams line up and defend in the 4-5-1 formation, but it is not a rigid formation. It works at its best when play switches between defence and attack with increasing numbers of full backs able to attack higher up the pitch, allowing wingers to really be wingers, and play higher up the pitch. So on the attack, teams are almost playing with two centre backs, one defensive midfielder, and the rest of the team become attacking players, from full backs to a centre forward.
Sounds exciting when you put it like that, but is the 4-5-1 killing Premier League football? Is this why we see more draws with teams being more negative when defending and parking the bus or destroying play in midfield at any cost? I don’t agree.
The Premier League has changed, not because of silly rules or a space aged balls, it is because of the athleticism of today’s modern player and also the way players are coached and now play the game. The Premier League is the fastest league and you need to have a formation that can cope with the constant end-to-end turnover in possession that we see every week.
Abroad, especially in places like Italy, the game is more about patient build up and possession and I for one am glad it is not like that in England. What the 4-5-1 shows us is the evolution of English football and the way in which the game has progressed. The 4-5-1 is fast becoming the trademark of the Premier League and it is up to the rest of the world to cope with it.