The evolution of soccer is not linear. Residues from the past sometimes rise again despite being deemed outmoded and elements never to be thought of as vanishing suddenly begin to fade. The evolution of soccer happens in waves.
During the last two decades – in some countries even longer – the center of creativity on a soccer pitch was actually not to be found in the center but on the margins. This era saw the widespread use of the 4-4-2, 4-3-3, and 4-2-3-1 formations which all used two or three central midfielders concentrating on keeping the team’s balance between defense and attack intact. In addition to the central midfielders, two full backs provided defensive reassurance out wide. The central midfielders and the full backs meant a relatively free attacking role for the two wingers. The central midfielders even made it possible for the team to attack with one full back at the time (or, for some teams, even with both full backs simultaneously) provided that his defensive duties were respected. Both these facts – free wingers and attacking full backs – emphasize that the team’s attacking threat and center of creativity were to be found out wide.
Some of the most prominent examples of this trend were:
• FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi a few years back when he had his base out right and with Dani Alves providing both defensive coverage for and attacking threat together with Messi,
• Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs who ran up and down the left side for the most part of his career with Denis Irwin or Phil Neville occupying the left back position behind him,
• Cristiano Ronaldo in both Manchester United and Real Madrid who teamed up with Patrice Evra and Fabio Coentrao from his position on the left wing, and, finally,
• Neymar in today’s Barcelona team who has Jordi Alba as support.
However, certain coaches and teams choosing to recycle the 3-5-2, 5-3-2, and the 3-4-3 formations that were the preferred formations of the 1970s and 1980s are now challenging this trend. Antonio Conte has been doing it with his Juventus team for a few years. Brendan Rogers at Liverpool has experimented with three defenders. And during the recently held World Cup in Brazil, several teams used 5-3-2, among them Mexico and Holland. Holland’s coach Louis van Gaal, who has just taken over the hot seat at Manchester United, is set to continue with the formation at Old Trafford.
We often hear coaches say that the formation is not that important, that it is just numbers. Van Gaal himself has said that what matters most is his philosophy – a philosophy associated with “Total Football” demanding multifunctional players and emphasizing speed, technical skills, and tactical intelligence. The formation matters less to Van Gaal who has employed 4-3-3 at Ajax, 2-3-2-3 at Barcelona, and 4-4-2 at AZ Alkmaar. Van Gaal’s formational flexibility stems from his desire to adapt to the players at his disposal. It may be true that for Van Gaal philosophy matters most and formation less, but it is not true – neither for Van Gaal nor for any other coach – that the formation is not important and that it is just a numbers game.
The attacking threat and the creative epicenter of the 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1 are often associated with the wingers’ license to dribble and challenge their opponents one-on-one. The creativity of the 5-3-2, on the other hand, is necessarily moved to the center of the pitch since the formation only has one wide player on each side whose main obligation is defensive (since no full back provides back-up). If number 7 and number 11, the traditional numbers for the two wingers, were key men in the 4-4-2, number 10 is the main man in the 3-5-2 and 5-3-2. The 1970s, 1980s and part of the 1990s were also the heyday of the great number 10s in soccer. This was the decades during which players such as Mario Kempes, Diego Maradona, Zico, Michel Platini, Michael Laudrup, Roberto Baggio, and Gheorghe Hagi dominated the world scene.
If the 3-5-2 formation makes the rebirth of the traditional playmaker possible, it also makes it possible to play with two real attackers, something which fewer and fewer teams have been doing during the last ten years (the 4-4-2 often means 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1). If freedom existed – freedom to roam, freedom from defensive obligations, and freedom to dribble – in the 4-2-3-1 formation, this freedom is transferred onto the number 10 and partly also to the two attackers in the 3-5-2.
Louis Van Gaal’s decision to use the 5-3-2 formation with Holland during the World Cup was mainly because of his desire to give as much freedom as possible to Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, and, not least, Arjen Robben. At Manchester United, he has inherited what he calls an “unbalanced squad” with too many strikers and too many number 10s. If he plays Van Persie as a lone striker and uses Wayne Rooney in the hole behind him, Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa cannot be used in their favorite role just as Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez will be pushed onto the bench. If he employes the 3-5-2, however, he will be able to accommodate both Rooney and Van Persie as strikers as well as Mata as number 10. In many ways this makes sense if one thinks about David Moyes’s problems last year with fitting in Mata and Kagawa.
But it will also mean troubles ahead for some of Manchester United’s many wingers. The Red Devils has been, historically speaking, a club associated with a swashbuckling style of soccer with flamboyant wingers often being the stars of the team. Billy Meredith was the first in a long line of dribbling wide players at Old Trafford including George Best, Willie Morgan, Ryan Giggs, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Today, the club boasts of wide players such as Ashley Young, Nani, Wilfried Zaha, Antonio Valencia, and Adnan Januzaj who were either bought or used as traditional wingers. Some of them will be able to adapt to the role of wingback, some will not. Those who will be able to adapt will face competition for the wingback positions from the club’s fullbacks such as Luke Shaw and Rafael. Those who will not be able to adapt will either have to leave the club or compete with Rooney, Van Persie, Welbeck, Hernandez, Mata, and Kagawa for the three central attacking positions.
Only time will tell who has the tactical intelligence and technical skill to take on board Van Gaal’s philosophy and adapt to his formation. It may be that Zaha is able to convince the Dutch tactician of his attacking talent; Young seems to be vying for a wingback position; Valencia has often been used; Januzaj is simply too good to be sidetracked by formational subtleties (besides, United’s former assistant manager René Meulensteen already said a year ago that Januzaj’s best position was probably number 10); but Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 does seem to be bad news for Nani.
Editor’s note: Søren Frank is author of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, which is available from all fine booksellers.