Is Kevin MacDonald’s 4141 formation ‘too negative’ at the County Ground?

Paolo Di Canio kept to a 442, but Swindon’s new boss likes an extra man in the middle, Alex Cooke looks at the reasons for the shift.

Kevin MacDonald has made the move to 4141 for one simple reason: possession. He wants to play passing football, he wants to play winning football, and he needs to get the best out of the limited variety of players he has.

The 4141 used against Notts County system allowed Town to keep the ball better than Paolo Di Canio’s 442 ever did. And on Saturday, Swindon dominated in both chances and possession, having the ball for 58% of the match – and almost exclusively in the opposition’s half. But this extremely high possession figure wasn’t generated by the hope-free football of Paul Hart. There was no centre-back ‘tippy tappy’ here, the movement was always forward, always on the floor, and always into feet.

This wasn’t a negative line up, far from it. Anyway as author Jonathan Wilson must be sick of saying, for I grow weary of quoting, “Formations are neutral; it is their employment that gives them positive and negative characteristics.” After all look at how Stoke can make a 442 a miserable spectacle while Chelsea produce spark and incision in a 4231.

Swindon’s own system worked brilliantly in attack and nullifying Notts County. Alan Navarro provided an excellent defensive shield for the centre backs, in particular ensuring that the talented Alan Judge couldn’t move into the middle to latch onto knockdowns from the centre forward. When Judge did, it took an excellent save from Wes Foderingham to deny him, showing the value of Navarro.

This shield in turn made Swindon’s full-backs the ‘spare men’. Both to gallop forward from starting positions just short of midfield, playing cross after cross into the middle – and in the case of Nathan Thompson even driving into the box.

Navarro excelled in finding both and only some poor control in the area from Thompson and some poor decision making from McCormack in his continual crossing to static players stopped them creating numerous superb chances. But, again the reason that both could be so effective was the way that the formation freed them.

Notts County were clearly defensive, with a heavy screen in front of their tight back four.

20130325-193324.jpgHowever, notice the positioning of McCormack, top left and Thompson, wide right.

20130325-193452.jpgNavarro’s covering allowed them to become so advanced, even if a poor touch from Thompson saw this chance go begging.

In central midfield, Town’s triumvirate meant that Tommy Miller and Simon Ferry could cope with County twin anchors on even terms, and even break forward. Using Andy Williams and Gary Roberts wide also held County’s full-backs, preventing them adding width and being able to help their lacklustre wingers deal with Town’s marauding full-backs.

The solo centre forward has also been a point of contention, but who, and where, would this second forward play? County already had four defenders and two deep central midfielder screening their goal, so how would placing one extra striker in the middle of that morass make any difference?

20130325-200927.jpgDespite playing just one central striker, Adam Rooney never became isolated.

For them to do so, they would need to be a physically dominant hulk of a man, such as Didier Drogba, where all MacDonald has at his disposal are more mobile but less physical strikers. And so it makes perfect sense for any extra forward to move from outside the box in towards the goal. It makes their run harder to track and allows Swindon to be more patient in create gaps.

It’s a change that has occurred throughout football, including accelerating the retirement of Michael Owen. Three years ago even the England striker could see the writing on the wall for his style of forward: “It hurts me to say it as a striker who needs to play up front with another, but the days of 442 against a good team are going.”

And yet 442 remains the comfort blanket for English pundits and the Linga Franca for fans: Fantasy teams are picked for a 442, salt and pepper sketched systems are slide around into two banks of four. And, of course, it worked for Di Canio.

Part of the reason it did so is in 442’s great strength: its efficiency. It demands just one shape in attack and defence. It puts at least one body in each and every area of the pitch. It is also naturally compact and tricky to play though. This makes it ideal away when teams tend to be deprived of the ball.

Di Canio made a great success of the system precisely because of these strengths: solidity, rigidity and simplicity. He drilled and drove an often limited team to league and cup success by using it in a rigid, defensive way. His two strikers rarely played as a partnership, instead they attacked space individually, relying largely on Matt Ritchie’s delivery and desire to feed them.

The weakness of the system, and it was for Swindon too, is in ball retention and how it struggles against a deep, screened defence, such as with Bradford, or the extra body in midfield – such as against Brentford or Cheltenham at home.

Sir Alex Ferguson once neatly summed up the benefits of both. “The idea behind the 451 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation,” he said. “I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 442, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward and usually you use the two traditional wingers.”

Clearly Town’s stiffened midfield isn’t perfect. The central midfield pair need to offer more threat than one weak header from Ferry. Those playing in the wide positions need to been more decisive in their running and more confident in their shooting, particularly when cutting in. But, as Saturday and last Tuesday at Yeovil also proved, if the system isn’t working, it can be changed. And, so far, it seems that MacDonald has the acumen and awareness to change the way Swindon play, even if he doesn’t have the players.

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