Friday, 30 September 2011

Putting Holger's system in context

Ever since Brett Emerton was suspended in the group stages of the Asian Cup, and Matt McKay justified Holger's faith in the diminutive midfielder by delivering influental match-winning performances, Osieck has favoured deploying Australia in an asymmetric 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid. This system operates with a double pivot in midfield, a winger/wide player on one flank and a midfielder drifting central on the opposite. Width on the 'narrow' flank is provided by an overlapping fullback, while the withdrawn forward/second striker/attacking midfielder drops deep to defend or pulls wide in attack.

With the current proliferation of 4-3-3 variants in club and international football, even Verbeek utilised a conservative 4-2-3-1, there aren't any elite European clubs who use anything like an orthodox 4-4-2 as their default formation. Manchester United come close, but Rooney's movement during the game means he often spends more time closer to the central midfielders or overloading the flanks than waiting for service near the 18-yard box.

This general trend, from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 variants, has resulted broadly from the liberalisation of the offside law which has stretched the effective playing area and an increased emphasis on possession football. This has prompted exchanging one of the forwards in a 4-4-2, for an extra central midfielder in a 4-3-3. Jonathan Wilson more thoroughly explores the evolution of the offside law, the switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, and even the origin of the 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid, which was popularised by Brian Clough

In the 1970s, Brian Clough recognised that playing with two wingers left the midfield vulnerable to attacks if his side were caught out in transition. At Nottingham Forest, Martin O'Neill tucked in as a right midfielder, while John Robertson played wide as a left winger. Tery Curran, previously a regular starter at right wing, never played for Forest again.

But over 30 years later, where can the 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid be found? Keeping in mind the current supremacy of club over international football, the only Premier League side who uses a similar system is actually Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool. At first glance it might seem perplexing. But delve deeper; the pinnacle of Holger's managerial career was acting as Franz Beckenbauer's assistant manager during Germany's 1990 World Cup win, while Dalglish's last spell at Liverpool ended in the early 90's. Osieck's and Dalglish's fundamental conceptions of football were formed before the general paradigm shift from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and the hybrid formation was the solution at the time to a porous midfield.

Since the beginning of the 2011-2012 Premier League season, Liverpool has used Downing as a winger, either on the right or left flank, and Jordan Henderson drifting central, opposite to Downing.
Does Holger's use of the 4-4-2/4-3-hyrbid owe more to accdient or design? The imperative to formulate a fluid system with the players at hand is obiously of more central import in international football than club football. Quite simply, this is because at club level, a manger has the ability and the discretion to sell players who can't adapt to his preferred system, and buy those who will. At international football, no such discretion is available; if there aren't any good left wingers at Liverpool, Dalglish can go out and spend $16M on Stewart Downing. If there aren't any good left wingers who are Australian; tough shit Holger.  
Before the Asian Cup, and prior to McKay's emergence within the national team, Holger used a symmetrical 4-4-1-1, which became 4-2-4 when Brett Holman and Brett Emerton advanced at left wing and right wing respectively. This was fine when contesting against minnows such as India; Australia were so dominant, the opposition were unable to exploit obvious deficiencies.

Holman is a central attacker; when stationed on the right he plays narrow and doesn't attempt to beat his fullback. On the left, he ignores that flank entirely, cutting in central. Holman's failure to cover Carney at left back, exposed Carney's weakness at defending and rendered Australia very vulnerable to counter-attacks down that flank. Following Emerton's suspension, Holger switched Holman to the right, and pushed McKay, who was deputising for Carney at left back to left midfield. Suddenly, Australia were balanced in play, and fluent in midfield.

So while Holger may have arrived at the 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid coincidentally, its no accident that McKay's place in the line-up has since been confirmed and is practically unassailable, despite the presence of Alex Brosqie and James Troisi, two genuinely pacy left wingers. McKay's drifting from left enables Australia to have 3 players in central midfield, which obviously increases our ability to retain possession. His intelligent movement, based around rapid short-passing and positional interchange, facilitate Zullo and Carney, converted wingers, rampaging up from left-back. If you factor in Kewell, who when used as the most advanced forward, naturally drifts left as a remnant of his days as a marauding left winger, Australia's left flank looks remarkable fluid and moreover, potent.   

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