Where To Go When Our Crude Tools Can’t Capture Carlo’s Trequartista

Nicolas Anelka, the third of two forwards in Carlo Ancelotti's 4-4-2 (Photo credit: jaymeydad/Flickr)

Numeric annotation of formations was on my mind before I started firing off emails late last year. Even before I got his response, I’d seen Michael Cox’s thoughts on the practice, the Zonal Marking owner giving his views to Tom Williams. When the AFP writer asked Cox why we annotated attacking fullbacks as part of the defense when their average position is often in midfield, Cox called himself a traditionalist. ZM depicts the base, defending formations, he said, though there were exceptions for sides that press intently.

When I interviewed Michael a few days later, we redressed the discussion.

“I’m a bit of a traditionalist in the way formations are depicted,” Cox said. “I don’t really like this kind of 2-4-3-1 (idea). I don’t like two fullbacks in midfield, even though it’s slightly more accurate in terms of their average position on the field.”

The reason why we note four defenders when describing formations as 4-Y-Z is because some players, at their core, are defenders, be it by tactic, position, or both. That’s what three band notation is all about. At some point, you need to communicate how many defenders, midfielders and forwards are being played. The annotation doesn’t try to describe roles, and it only poorly hints at shape. It’s only goal is to give a quick and cursory description of formation.

As we seek more and better ways to describe formations, three band notation is proving insufficient. Whereas two years ago, when Joachim Löw switched the German national team’s approach, 4-5-1 was an acceptable way of describing the side’s set-up, now nobody would prefer that description over 4-2-3-1, a description that highlights the pivot’s players. In three band notation, those players are relatively lost.

But another complication of three band notation appeared this weekend in the reporting on Chelsea-Liverpool. While the problem categorizing defenders was evident in labeling Liverpool’s formation a 3-6-1, our comfort with the average, high positions of defenders Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson (the wingbacks) excused that. And Chelsea’s three levels between defense and strikers being crunched into a 4-4-2 has become so conventional as to be expected, with the idea of calling it (the more accurate) 4-1-2-1-2 spine shivering to the point of nausea.

No, the new problem hearkens back to the defender-versus-midfielder issue, only this time, the problem is farther up the pitch, one that asks: What’s the functional difference is between a midfielder and a forward? And, how does that manifest?

Consider these three players, with these Guardian heat maps showing the positions from which each player attempted their passes during their weekend match:

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3

Player 2 has the greatest range of actions. Most of Player 3’s are concentrated in the opponent’s half. Player 1’s somewhere in between but still providing the profile of somebody who does very little in his own half of the pitch. That’s a pattern you normally see from a forward or (perhaps) a midfielder whose side is dominant in possession. Player 1’s team did control 59 percent of his match’s possession. Player 2’s had 52 percent, while Player 3’s saw 57 percent of the play.

Two of these players were described as forwards (supporting strikers) in most post hoc analysis – the match reports where we’re talking if teams played a 4-4-2, 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1. A third was described as an attacking midfielder, some even breaking out the trequartista card.

Can you guess which one was thought the more midfielder-y? Consider it a game, one with a to-be-decided prize, though perhaps more information is needed.

While Guardian chalkboards are the most ubiquitous tool for this find of inquiry, but they’re not the only ones. Both ESPN and Fox Sports’s web sites have tools which allow you to look at average positions and heat maps. Consider first Fox’s average positions, where I’ve circled the players we’re trying to evaluate:

Player 1 Player 2 Player 3
In Player 1’s picture, the team is attacking from bottom-to-top. In the other two screenshots, sides are attacking from top-to-bottom. Starters and substitutes show.

Cute pictures, right? It’s almost hard to take them seriously in the context of an overly analytical piece. Regardless, they provide some depth to the Guardian chalkboards. Player 1 had, by far, the more advanced positioning. Players 2 and 3, have near identical average positions. Again: Two of these were thought of as forwards. One has not.

One more tool, just to put this ailing horse down. Here’s what you’ll find at ESPN’s Soccernet version of a heat map, which seems a combination of the Guardian’s (event-based) chalkboards and Fox’s average position:

Player 1
Player 2
Player 3
Player 1 is attacking right to left. Player 2, left to right, as is Player 3.

Figured out which one is thought the attacking midfielder? I hope so, because it’s time for the reveal:

After looking at all three of these measures, Player 2 would seem the most likely to have played as an attacking midfielder, though that player is Carlos Tévez. Player 1 seems to have the most forward-esque positions and behaviors. That’s Wayne Rooney. Somewhere in between is the player thought the attacking midfielder: Nicolas Anelka.

Before last week, Anelka would have been the least likely of that trio to be painted a midfielder. Both Rooney and Tévez have shown the ability to play a more withdrawn role, where as Anelka profiles as more of an outright forward, if often a wide one. But against Sunderland, in the middle of last week, Anelka was deployed at a level behind the strikers, and when he reprized that role on Sunday against Liverpool, he was naturally thought the tip of a midfield diamond normally associated with Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 variant. Thus the experts – such as Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox – described it as 4-4-2, because … well, that’s what that system is. That’s a 4-4-2, even if one of the players is a forward, had the positioning of a forward, and in the events the Guardian and ESPN tracked, was essentially a forward.

And Wilson and Cox are right, right in a way that’s starting to illustrate the limits of numeric annotation. They’re the the same limits that have the 4-Y-Z label for systems that see two of the defenders act more as wingers than fullbacks. The notation has evolved beyond being a way to describe how many defenders, midfielders and forwards are deployed. It’s becoming language, nomenclature: short-hand that you either understand or you don’t.

“If I say to you a 4-2-3-1,” Cox explains, “you know what it means, and I know what it means, and if it needs more explanation, I think it’s better to elaborate on it afterward rather than confusing people with a new formation.”

Thus you have the three forward system Chelsea used Sunday described as a 4-4-2. It’s less confusing that way.

At least, it’s less confusing to me, and it’s less confusing to Michael. And for those with the patience to make it past nine screenshots and their corresponding descriptions, it may also be less confusing, even if the discussion is slowly becoming less accessible to those trying to catch-up. After all, how does numeric annotation make sense if the numbers become more meaningless?

It’s a slippery slope of which Jonathan Wilson is keenly aware.

“I think there’s a couple of (places) where the modern discussion falls down slightly,” Wilson told me, late last year, “and one of them – possibly I’m sort of guilty of as well – is that you can get too obsessed with the numbers. You can be too obsessed with 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. I think we should always remember, that’s a basis. That’s sort of a very crude tool that gives us a general way of talking about something.

“We shouldn’t get too carried away in thinking there’s some great magic in these numbers. They’re very, very crude tools.”

And as with any tool, crude or otherwise, we should be careful not to misapply its use. After all, crude tools tend to break.

Keeping attacking fullbacks in the first group of a 4-Y-Z is one thing. You can always explain that decision as Cox did (describing base defensive positions) or I did (at some point, defenders are defenders). Describing a three forward set-up as 4-4-2 is different. At that point, the annotation is just a proper noun, like calling Ford Motor calling one of its models a Fiesta, though the compact car is nothing like a party.

I’ve decided to go the other way, to use a different term to describe the same formation. I know the most effective way to communicate Chelsea’s formation is to call it a 4-4-2, but that doesn’t feel right. To me, the numeric annotation should describe the quantities of defenders, midfielders and forwards, even if the rest of this discussion’s evolving beyond it. To my eyes, Chelsea played a 4-3-3 on Sunday, and I’ll take it upon myself to establish the appropriate context for my description.

Unfortunately for me (and illustrating the wisdom of Wilson and Cox), I usually need 1900 words, an undo amount of defiance, and enough pictures to fill a PowerPoint before I’ve established my context. And as a result, I probably won’t be getting any email offers from Sean Ingle, which may make my next assertion even more foolish: Perhaps it’s time we consider the world beyond numeric annotation, even if that world includes even more words.

As four and five band notation are more commonly used, we see a reflection of people’s desire for more information. The 4-5-1 description is insufficient. People want to know if it’s a single (4-1-4-1) or double (4-2-3-1) pivot, and for those who have come to augment the numbers with symbols (4<4>2, shudder), there’s a desire for even more depth.

At some point, we may have to admit it: Simplistic numeric notation does not meet the demands of an ever more curious readership, a readership intelligent enough to deal with more wordy, more accurate descriptions. It’s the same readership that has made for the rousing success of a just-over-one year old Zonal Marking. It’s the same readership that’s made an Eastern Europe specialist into a best-selling tactics historian.

It’s the same group that will understand if you eschew 4-4-2, 4-3-1-2, 4-1-2-1-2, or 4<4>2 for a better (if still imperfect) description: On Sunday, Chelsea used a central defensive pair, attacking fullbacks, a holding midfielder behind an offset central midfield pair, with a trequartista supporting a striking tandem.

That may be too much jargon, but it’s more accurate. It also moves us away from a crude tool we’re starting to misuse, a numeric system that we want to do more than it was originally designed to do.

And ultimately, that undo reliance deceives. Tying ourselves too closely to that numerology, according to Wilson, takes us away from the realities managers face, a world that’s rarely defined by hyphen-delimited numbers.

“It’s almost become counter productive to think of players having a position,” he said, recalling a thought exercise he’d engaged regarding Steven Gerrard. “Of course you have to think of them having a position. That’s how you characterize them. That’s how you have a vague sense of what they do. But I think the best coaches, they don’t think of Steven Gerrard as being a left-sided midfielder or a player that plays off the front man or a holding midfielder. They think of him as being a bundle of attributes, and they think how can I best use that in my team.”

“I think that it has to go that way around. You can’t start from the basis of having the numbers and saying how do I fit the players into this? You got to have the players first and then say how do these players best fit together?

“Obviously the terminology – 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 – has been around for a hundred years and it’s going to stay around, and it is useful, but I think we have to be aware there are limitations to that terminology, and I suspect in time we will develop, as they have in Italian, more sophisticated terms for different players or different roles.”

Quotes from Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox were taken from larger interviews, discussions which will be distributed in audio form later this month.

For full versions of the Guardian chalkboards used, you can visit Rooney, and Anelka, though the Tévez one will not save, thus preventing me from linking to it. To recreate, select 2010-11, Manchester City, Sat 05.02.2011 – West Bromwich Albion (H), C Tévez, Passes, Show heatmap.

A hat-tip to Graham MacAree, writer at SBNation.com/Soccer and manager of Chelsea blog We Ain’t Got No History, for helping me flush out these thoughts, a process that was described by onlookers (who clearly don’t know me well) as “the nerdiest conversation ever.” Graham far prefers using ‘4<4>2,’ with good reason.

Richard Farley (me) is the host of the EPL Talk and Major League Soccer Talk podcasts and is an infrequent author at each site, preferring to save up all his words for one, huge missive. You can email him or talk to him on Twitter or send him snail mail (everybody likes checking their mail). He’s also the soccer editor at SBNation.com. Feel free to contact him to talk football or share recipes.


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