The gap between Rooney and Ritchie

How Di Canio’s desire for width can leave Swindon outnumbered in central midfield, by Alex Cooke.

“It’s 10% about the formation and 90% about the players. If you have the best ones and they do their jobs, then they can pretty much play any way you want them to.”

Harry Redknapp might be one of Paolo Di Canio’s former managers but clearly the Swindon boss doesn’t always agree with the Tottenham man. Instead Di Canio is a tactical manager who doesn’t hide his desire to tinker, as Alan Connell has probably noticed…

“We do a lot of homework on the opposition before games and quite often we see things the gaffer’s said the day before a game have come to fruition and helped us score a goal or stop a goal in the game,” said the striker.

Which makes it all the more strange that lately Di Canio seems to have forgotten one of the key lessons of this season – that playing two attacking wingers in a 442 doesn’t always work.

The Cheltenham game illustrated the problem perfectly. Even the most blinkered Swindon fan would have to admit that Cheltenham were unlucky not to win, let alone draw last Saturday. They had 60% of the possession and even had one more shot than we did, and they played a disciplined 433 to our attacking, open 442.

But the problem has existed long before Cheltenham. In fact it goes back to the earliest days of the season when Crewe’s 433 caused us similar problems. Although it did seem to have been a lesson that Di Canio seemed to have learnt, at least after Oxford came and beat us playing the same three in midfield system.

But we won against Cheltenham, so who cares, right? Well, if we want to win games in a higher division we’ll need to rely on more than just a completely open 442, however drilled and devastating that formation can be. Especially as JPT Final opponents Chesterfield have played in a 433 this season. As do Torquay with their 433/451 formation.

The problem faced when 442 and 433 meet is neatly explained by Jose Mourhino from his time playing 433 at Chelsea. “Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 442 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 442 can do to stop things.”

In short any 442 versus 433 is risky, ours is a gamble. But it is a gamble that Paolo Di Canio seems to insist on making, and he’s often been right to do so. His hope is that by winning the central midfield battle through the superiority of Simon Ferry and Jon Smith he can then exploit Town’s extra width. Except that good sides such as Cheltenham, and now Crewe, strangled that plan with discipline, organisation and a formation that choked our own.

Cheltenham’s midfield, with three players against our two, was easily able to stop us spreading the ball to the flanks or into the forwards. And with two holding players, including the tidy Marlon Pack, and a playmaker in Russell Penn further forward, they could pass between themselves in neat triangles, around Ferry and Smith.

While central midfield is the key battleground for most matches, 433 restricts us in other ways. We rely on our full-backs getting forward regularly, attacking the space in wide midfield. Playing against a 433 prevents that. For against a 433, Paul Caddis and Callum Kennedy both have direct opponents forcing them back into deeper starting positions, almost level with the centre backs. They can go forward but they know that by doing so the wide forwards can, and did, slip behind them and through on goal. Hence the sight of Alan McCormack ‘hovering’ last Saturday, neither far enough forward to stiffen the midfield, nor far enough back to be part of the back four.

Where Town should have had an advantage was in the wide positions: arguably our best players in Matt Ritchie and Luke Rooney are there, and the Cheltenham full-backs had no support from either their narrow midfield or their pushed up forwards. Obviously both flanks were denied the ball by Cheltenham’s dominant midfield but they were also stymied by being ‘inverted’ wingers. The problem being Cheltenham’s defence could be compact and narrow, safe in the knowledge that neither Rooney nor Ritchie would happily ‘go down the line’, but would instead turn inside – straight into the middle three.

Obviously Town have played other teams which have used 433 and still won easily- Accrington Stanley and Barnet leap to mind. However, Swindon were able to force their game onto the weaker opposition simply by having better players, just as Redknapp says. But you still need everyone to do their jobs and against Cheltenham it took Luke Rooney more than 30 minutes before he made any sort of defensive run. Not exactly what you need when you are outnumbered in central midfield.

The solution isn’t a secret. In fact, it’s already very familiar as is proved by this description by journalist Jonathan Wilson of Brian Clough’s Forest side in 1977.

“[John] Robertson operated as a playmaker on the left, backed up by the experienced defensive left-back Frank Clark. With [Martin] O’Neill [right winger] giving an extra layer of protection in the middle, Robertson’s lack of defensive covering was accommodated, while Viv Anderson provided attacking width on the right, breaking forward from full-back.”

Just as one of the English game’s finest managers had the answer almost 40 years ago, so has Di Canio – width being sacrificed for security. For Swindon the less attacking Raffa De Vita has been used as a tucked-in wide-midfielder supporting the central pairing – exactly as Clough did with O’Neill – exactly as Rooney does not do.

Against Cheltenham Di Canio seemed to try the same thing but with Ritchie in this static role and Rooney sitting high and wide on the left. But with Rooney’s refusal to track back and Ritchie, our best player, neutralised as an attacking force, the team were once again relying completely on the central pairing again.

Against Wigan, Di Canio found another solution – Lukas Magera. With Roberto Martinez’s side increasingly pulling Town open in the second half, the Czech was deployed at top of midfield in a 451 to cut off the supply line from the deep central midfielder. It strangled Wigan and allowed Town to build a platform from which Ritchie and Ferry could get forward from the right in support of Paul Benson to win the game. It’s a role that could suit the mobility of Billy Bodin or Connell, who has played there before while at Hereford.

One final option, which Di Canio is yet to explore, would be to match up with a 433. It wouldn’t interrupt the back four, the midfield could add the disciplined Lee Cox as the extra defensive protection and Simon Ferry could operate further forward as the playmaker. With Benson at the top of the formation, Ritchie and Rooney would occupy the wide slots with direct running, and hard work.

Also 433 isn’t a formation that demands vast amounts of possession. At this level it is a quick and direct formation, solid at the back, smothering in midfield and aggressive up front where direct passes to the wingers create quick chances. 451, by contrast demands greater possession, thought and skill throughout the team.

Any fans who have been scarred by 433 after Paul Hart’s shambolic pretence at that formation should remember the warning of Jonathan Wilson. “Let’s get this clear, for this is one of the prime fallacies in discussions of tactics: 442 is neither more nor less attacking than 4123, 4231, 4321 or any of the other variants of 451. Formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them positive or negative qualities.” After all, as Harry knows, formations don’t matter – so long as every player knows and does their job.

Image courtesy of Flickr user mwichary.

17 comments

  • Thanks Ron. I just turn up to watch the football.

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  • Alex’s articles are among the best-written and best-informed insights you can read anywhere on the web. Great job. Are you a self-taught layman, or do you have a coaching background?

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    • Thanks, that is very kind. Unlike Mr Malpas, I just find the subject fascinating and like reading around it in my rare moments of spare time.

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  • Agreed Red Frog. But without some drawings I find this sort of stuff hard to understand.. Before I read Ron’s articles I never knew football was so technical. Ron …. why not put yourself forward as Paulo’s adviser ?

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    • Please don’t give me the credit for this article….it was written by Alex Cooke.

      I’ll look at creating some diagrams for next time, be warned they’ll be very basic…

      As for advising Paolo… we’ll continue to support Town from the stands.

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  • A really interesting read – it’ll be interesting to see how Di Canio changes things after last Saturday

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  • Excellent article. I didnt go to Crewe, but against cheltenham it was clear thoughout the game that the problems were being caused by their extra man in midfield.

    As mentioned above, If we are struggling against this formation the only real way is to match it like-for-like. Again as mentioned above, it shouldnt have too much of a detrimental effect on our players. 3 from 4 of Risser, Cox, J Smith and Ferry could make up the midfield trio or as a more attacking option we could play 2 of the above as defensive minded mids with 3 from Ritchie, Rooney, Holmes, De Vita behind the lone striker of Benson.

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  • To be honest I quite like the sound of Ritchie, Rooney, Holmes & Benson as an attacking 4.

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  • I was at Crewe and it was clear to see the Tehoue-Benson partnership wasn’t working. They play the role but just execute it differently. They sat too high together and midfield struggled to link-up with the strikers.

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  • Alright Alex!

    Enjoyed the thought provoking article. Would have liked it if you’d explored more how the 4-3-3 and 4-5-1 can be used within the same game dependant on possession.You mention Torquay’s 4-3-3 / 4-5-1 but not how they implement it (or whether you mean it’s interchangeable depending on possession or merely an alternate tactic for different games).

    Fluidity of movement is key to everything for me. I’d be interested in whether or not we think Swindon’s players are empowered to take the decision to fill in gaps off the cuff so to speak, or are drilled in to staying where they’re told to be. I, for one, wouldn’t like to incur PDC’s wrath!

    Having watched Torquay at Fortress Don Valley last Tuesday, I can say that Rotherham used width and attacking full backs to dominate them for long periods. I tend to agree with London Red from thisis… that the inverted winger system falls down when there is no overlap (or threat thereof) from the full backs. But does that mean the 4-4-2 temporarily becomes a 3-5-2 or 2-6-2?!

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  • Hello Joe, Interesting points there.

    First of all I would say that we are very rigid in our set up. It is almost a Di Canio trademark. People do cover but few drift – and keep their place in the side. 

    I haven’t seen training but we look like a heavily drilled team – just watch the middle two move around the field – they do so as if tied together. Anyway didn’t he criticise Wilson and Hart for giving free roles recently? 

    I think I’ve just found my next blog post… Perhaps after why Wes kicks for Ritchie to head on…

    Secondly inverted wingers are ineffective without support – but all wingers are. They do rely on the overlap to create space but an orthodox winger still relies on the midfield to play them in. Is the problem worse? I can’t see any reason it should be? We need Caddis though, whatever formation we play because as you say he adds variety to the attack.

    As for formations don’t get hung up on the notation! It is at best an imperfect representation although still valid. Without resorting to heatmaps it is hard to depict some formations but when they defend it is generally the best picture you get – and ours is a very clear 442. Two banks and two up top. 

    Cheltenham’s could be a 4213 if you tried to really break it down but that would imply a more Bielsa-ish formation so really 433 can cover it. Actually Accrington did play a completely flat middle three – I had to hold my tongue not to shout at them to correct it! 

    Plus I’ve stuck to 3 band systems for simplicity. 

    Finally on Torquay, I haven’t seen them myself this season and so can’t comment really as I’d be relying on others.

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  • I’m wading through “Inverting the Pyramid” which is a fascinating book, but I’d be giving myself undue credit if I claimed to actually analyse games when watching teams play. The majority of Town games I’ve seen this season have been on TV / dodgy live feeds where picking some things up is quite difficult. So I assumed that we were well drilled but couldn’t actually say we were for sure.

    With Torquay I only saw them last Tuesday and I’m pretty sure Rene Howe (who I heard being given a torrent of racial abuse from the Family Stand by the way…) played up front on his tod, but can I actually think back to their formation? Nope. Just that they are a good footballing side who contained pressure quite well and looked very dangerous on the counter. If pushed I’d say it was 4-5-1. But like you say, getting het up on notation is pointless.

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    • “The idea behind the 4-5-1 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation,” he says. “I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 4-4-2, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward and usually you use the two traditional wingers.”

      451 shouldn’t cause the same problems for out full-backs, even if the middle will be overwhelmed in the same way.

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      • I’d have said that in the Premier League you often see the “weaker” sides use 4-5-1 to try and contain the big clubs. Don’t they use it more to flood the midfield and try and stop the better sides having space to attack them, than to retain possession and keep control of the midfield? But I guess I just need to refer myself to your closing paragraph…

        Going back to Jonathan Wilson, I particularly enjoyed his destruction of the pseudo maths behind Reep’s philosophy re moves of 3 passes or less. 88 is less than 91! Or whatever it actually is.

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  • Pingback: Benson’s search for a striking partner – The Washbag

  • Hi alex, good article!

    Would you also agree that Swindon this season tend to struggle against teams who defend with a high line? Doing so denies us space, and we don’t have a quick enough striker to play through balls for, which is normally the disadvantage of defending high up the pitch. Teams seem to have realised we can’t take advantage against a high defensive line and so push up, meaning our midfield don’t have a lot of space to play in, so we just end up knocking it around in the middle third to limited effect.

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