Saturday, 31 October 2009

The problem with trying to play two formations at once? You end up playing neither

Case study: Arsenal 3-0 Tottenham, Saturday 31st October 2009

Tottenham had the dilemma faced by most 4-4-2 sides visting top four opposition this season – stay with their regular shape, or shift to a 4-5-1 more effective at winning and keeping position in the centre of midfield?

In the end, Harry Redknapp did neither, and settled for a compromise. Wilson Palacios, the left-sided midfielder in a four, tucked in to form a midfield three alongside Tom Huddlestone and Jermaine Jenas, with Robbie Keane dropping to the left to cover the gap left by Palacios’ drift inside. Meanwhile, David Bentley kept the width on the right-hand side. Ideally, it was a 4-5-1 when Tottenham didn’t have the ball, and a 4-4-2 when they did, with Keane joining Crouch upfront.

Clearly, the key player here was Keane. Forced to play in two positions at once, his workload was huge. Keane is not a left-sided player, nor is he blessed with impressive defensive skills. Indeed, Redknapp’s decision to play him on the left against Chelsea earlier in the season was one of the worst tactical decisions of the season, according to the ever-excellent Sarah Winterburn on Football365.

Today, the first part of the plan actually worked very well – Tottenham’s three in midfield matched Arsenal’s three (a), and Arsenal’s passing in the first half was as bad as it has been all season – short passes through the centre were constantly intercepted – Cesc Fabregas in particular found the midfield claustrophic and struggled to link up with Robin van Persie.

The compromise brought two problems, however. Firstly, it meant Tottenham played with Peter Crouch upfront alone. Crouch’s lack of pace meant Arsenal could afford an extremely high defensive line (b), meaning Crouch generally received the ball forty yards from goal. Whilst many a joke is made about Crouch’s relative lack of prowess in the air for someone at 6’7, today was the day where his height could have made a difference in the box. Not only was he up against the league’s smallest defensive partnership in Gallas and Vermaelen, he has a very good record against Arsenal, and has scored headers against them for both Liverpool (left) and Southampton. Arsenal are scared of Crouch in the penalty box, but not 40 yards from goal – as the only person who can score headers from 40 yards is Martin Palermo. This also negated David Bentley’s main talent– his crossing ability – and he was largely ineffective.

The second problem was on the defensive side of things. Bentley’s natural width meant Clichy found little opportunity to go forward (c), but Keane’s dual role meant he had to act as a left-sided midfielder in defensive situations, something he clearly struggled with, as Bacary Sagna constantly found space (d) and drove the Arsenal attack forward.

Two of Arsenal's three goals came as a direct result of the lack of pressure upon Sagna.

Keane’s lack of defensive awareness caused Arsenal’s first goal (above). A fairly innocuous situation on the right-hand side from the Arsenal throw-in, Keane failed at the fairly basic defensive task of picking up either Cesc Fabregas, or the throw-in taker Sagna (most clear on the replay). As a result, with no pressure on the ball, it was easy for Fabregas and Sagna to swap passes, Sagna had all the space he liked to whip a ball in, and Arsenal were in front. It’s hard to imagine a genuine left-sided midfield player would have afforded Fabregas and Sagna such time.

Perhaps Harry Redknapp realised this situation, because at the start of the second half he removed one of his central midfield players, and replaced him with Gareth Bale – a naturally left-sided midfield player, with Keane moving upfront. Bale’s presence largely stopped Sagna’s advance (although the withdrawal of a central midfielder meant Arsenal had a numerical advantage in the centre of midfield).

Ironically, and as if the prove the point that a left-sided player must keep their width, Arsenal’s decisive goal (above) came from Bale’s positional error.

Bale (number three) wandered infield to close down Alex Song, who gleefully knocked the ball out to now-unmarked Sagna (pause the video at 0:01 to see Sagna in twenty square yards of space), who took his opportunity to motor forward. Bale scampers back, but after a one-two and a momentary pause whilst Mark Clattenberg played an advantage, it was the same combination – a Sagna cross and van Persie finish, and Arsenal had won.


  • Compromise formations can only work, but like any formation, only with the right players. Robbie Keane was hopelessly lost away at a big 4 club for the second time this season.
  • The importance of closing down, or at least 'occupying' the opposing full-backs against top sides cannot be overstated. Often, with a congested midfield, they are the most potent creative outlet.
  • Peter Crouch is not particularly impressive at holding the ball up. He is an 18-yard box player, and his lack of pace means it is easy to defend against him as a lone striker by playing a high defensive line. The stats reveal he won 14 of his 17 aerial contests - yet usually headed it down to no-one. What would have happened if those 17 had been in the penalty area?


  1. Very interesting :)

  2. A very good tactical analysis, Michael. Putting the question of tactics to one side, Arsenal have inflicted a huge psychological blow against Tottenham. Spurs' confidence must have been at a huge peak yesterday so being cut down to size so very comprehensively by Arsenal of all people will hurt all the more. As for Redknapp his day would have been made a little worse by Pompey doing so well.
    Given that your article is about a French manager outwitting an English manager what significance if any do you attach to the fact that it is now 17 years since an English manager has won the Premier League/First Division?

  3. Lesson #4: PLAY TO THE FUCKING WHISTLE! My manager in the U12s would have gone mental if we'd have let in that third goal in.

  4. Cheers for comments, wasn't expecting any!

    The point about English managers is interesting, Ron...from a purely tactical point of view, the only two English managers in the past twenty years that been genuinely tactically excellent have been Terry Venables and Roy Hodgson. It probably says something about English football that these two excellent tacticians have never been given a chance at a top English club...and yet they were good enough for Barcelona and Inter!

    And yes, Duncan, how even Sagna stopped with the ball at his feet is incredible...