When will the endless recycling and regurgitation end eh? No sooner than Hollywood was finished with the 70s the cinema was quickly awash with piss poor remakes and sequels of Eighties nostalgia trips. Watching the likes of the A-Team, Indiana Jones, Transformers and Tron is a depressing experience. I’m no longer entering the cinema to watch a film but instead buying a ticket to a sometimes hazy childhood memory that has been tarnished with soulless CGI effects and a veneer of vapid bilge. It doesn’t end there. Every new band is currently plonking away on a synthesiser. Drainpipe jeans adorn every clothing rail. Now even the premier league has followed suit with many a team trying their luck with the retro staple of 4-4-2.
Systems are certainly go through cycles of popularity and it seems that the 4-3-3 reached it’s nadir at the most boring of world cups in living memory. Terrified of losing most of the national sides flooded the midfield to either dominate possession or suffocate any attacks. Ironically it was the flexibility in the system that perhaps accounted for so many stalemates and the general dullness in South Africa last summer. Too many sides lined up with identical formations – the midfield became swamped, attackers often isolated. Of course it was Mourinho’s Chelsea that was at the frontier of the 4-3-3 and/or 4-5-1 system. The pace and tricky of Robben, Duff and Joey Cole caused problems either side of the battering ram centre forward of Didier Drogba. The holding midfielder was rechristened by Claude Makélelé, a master of, not only reading the game, but both starting and ending attacks. This fluid, adaptable system brought us the most successful period in the club’s history cultivating in last year’s double-winning, goal crazy side. Survival of the fittest demands that you either evolve or you die and so ends the Charles Darwin school of football tactics. Many a side this season saw a weakness in the system, by playing two up front you could pressure the 4-3-3 higher up the pitch and stop the full backs bombing forward and also stop the midfield anchor dictating the pace.
Although the 4-4-2 might look an antiquated or regressive system on the continent, perhaps next to Barcelona’s blueprint, it is a change that is certainly working for us. As Carlo discussed on the official Chelsea website the other week the four four two system is best suited for maintaining pressure all over the pitch. It was one that Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan perfected in the earlier nineties. The two forwards not only increase attacking options or numbers in the box but also allow pressure to take place higher up the field and present opportunities to win the ball back earlier in the phase of play. The signing of Torres, an out and out goal scorer, was a signal of intent that Carlo wanted Chelsea to change formation yet continue to be bold in attack.
The reason four four two went out of favour I think we’ve already seen, in parts, over the last few games. Pressing is a high energy tactic and requires all the team to get close and be compact high up the pitch. This is something we failed to do at times in the first half against Man Utd, see also the slack last fifteen against Blackpool. Teams can flood midfield and outnumber our four across the midfield. It is also risky, in that we can be vulnerable to quick breaks or long balls behind the midfield. What I think Carlo has done, very effectively, is adapt the traditional lines of four four two. Ramires and Malouda frequently tuck in to allow the full backs to run on as in a diamond or the 4-3-3. This gives us more options in midfield by increasing the width and sometimes gives us a central three which can pivot to create passing angles and bursts forward from midfield. The traditional four four two this certainly isn’t.
It’s upfront where things have been really interesting. At first the two forwards were too close and taking up each others pace more often than finding it. We’re beginning to see real partnerships developing now, with Torres, Anelka and Drogba running into space in the channels, dropping deep or looking to run behind the defensive line. I think Carlo might have seen two variations of the system that can be successful. In some away games we’re going to need to be tighter and less gung ho. Anelka and Kalou have had joy dropping deeper and turning or helping to build attacks. Without the ball both these players can also push wide meaning we’d resort to our 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 shape. On the break you then have the pace of Torres on the shoulder of defence and Anelka or Kalou given licence to run from a slightly deeper or wide position. At home the muscle and power of Drogba can bring midfielders into play and cause real problems around the opposition box, which is where the ball tends to be at Stamford Bridge. Over the course of the season I think Carlo won’t favour a settled team and instead pick the personnel that he thinks can get the maximum out of the fixtures ahead. This adaptability may hold the key to Chelsea’s future success.