It has been one of the great forum debates of the Chris Wilder era: is Wilder right to set the team up in a 4-3-3 formation? With many supporters questioning this formation and many nostalgically longing for a return of the classic 4-4-2, George Dugdale explains why he feels 4-3-3 is the right formation for OUFC.
In the past couple of weeks, it seems as if many Oxford United fans have risen from their Football Manager 2011 desk with an anguished look upon their face. The real Oxford United had – prior to a 1-0 victory in Dagenham - lost a little momentum. Chris Wilder was getting everything wrong and by the modern means of the keyboard warrior, was he going to know about it.
Aside from his signings being useless, half of the team being ushered towards the bench by fans demanding widespread changes and his enigmatic winger being deserving of a chance to show the fans why he was being sent out on loan, the main issue in the mind of the average Oxford United fan was Wilder's formation.
With three points safely collected after an encouraging away performance, the evidence is in place to support Wilder's persistence with the 4-3-3 formation. By looking at the strengths and weaknesses of 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and another modern shape, the 4-2-3-1, we can see what Wilder's thinking is, before coming to the conclusion that he was probably correct all along.
Let's start with what we have come to recognise as Oxford United's formation in recent seasons...
This is the team that started the fixture at Dagenham in the familiar 4-3-3 formation, with Paul McLaren shielding the back four. Why does Wilder like this formation? Why is it difficult to play against?
One of the key strengths in the 4-3-3 formation is the central midfield three. An initial strength, is that this formation is never short of numbers in the midfield. If the opponent plays a 4-4-2 formation, United have a midfield three to cope with the opposition's two central midfielders. If the opponent plays with a 4-5-1 or a 3-5-2, Oxford's midfield can match up on a man to man basis. If the players in the system organise themselves efficiently, the midfield should not be overrun. Additionally, away from home, a midfield three is far more efficient at limiting space than a two. When trying to make the midfield compact, this formation is highly effective.
With Paul McLaren sitting in front of the back four, Wilder also has an effective shield to protect his defence. McLaren's defensive role is to prevent balls into the feet of opposition strikers, whilst also providing cover for the back four on when the opposition counter-attack, as is common when United attack. If McLaren's presence can cause the ball to go wide, where United's full-backs can slow the play, he has done his job.
When on the ball, McLaren is a steadying influence, offering a backward option to his teammates. On countless occasions, the ball will come backwards from Heslop, to be played by McLaren to Leven on the other side of the midfield. McLaren is the midfield pivot and is not needed to do huge amounts of running, something that will help the experienced midfielder over the course of a long season.
As well as being effective defensively, this shape also has potential to add to attacking threat. With McLaren sitting, the midfield three gives Peter Leven and Simon Heslop the freedom to join in with attacks. As both players possess the ability to hit the target from distance, this is of great benefit. Oxford's midfielders can still improve their runs into the box, but as shown by Leven's strike against Burton Albion, the late run can be very effective when timed correctly.
Furthermore, this is the formation that brings the best out of Wilder's full-backs. On countless occasions since Wilder arrived at the club, opposition players and managers have commented on the impact of Oxford's full-backs being so high up the field. This can pen opposition wingers deep in their own half, limiting their thread to the Oxford goal. With a reasonably narrow midfield three and the wide attackers free to roam, there is plenty of space for United's full-backs to advance into. With no winger on the full-back's toes, he can time his runs into opposition territory when the space becomes available. You will often see United recycle the ball from wide on one wing, playing the ball through McLaren into the space the opposite full-back has available. Without a flat midfield four to limit space, it is very easy for Oxford's full-backs to get involved in the opposition half.
If the wingers are not part of a midfield four, how do they operate as part of an attacking trio? The two key features of Wilder's wide attackers is that they play high up the field and have the freedom to roam across the front-line. By offering an attacking threat at all times, opposition full-backs are aware of their presence and can often be scared to venture forward as a result. Moreover, Alfie Potter and Robert Hall are very difficult for opposition defences to pick up. Although their starting position is often on their flank, they have the freedom to drift around in the attacking third. Potter is especially good at drifting along the opposition back line and this makes defensive organisation extremely difficult. If United were to play Potter and Hall in a flat midfield four, it would be far easier for opposition defences to match their full-backs to Oxford's wide men. In this formation, Wilder's wingers change position too often to simply match up to and can find pockets of space. With the opposition full-backs often asked to step out to Liam Davis or Damian Batt, Potter and Hall have the opportunity to momentarily isolate themselves one on one with central defenders, if the ball is fed inside. For any opposition defence, this is an organisational nightmare.
A front three of Potter, Hall and James Constable have a terrific work rate and this makes life extremely uncomfortable for opposition defences. With Constable harrying centre-backs and the wide men closing down full-backs, it is possible for United to win back possession high up the pitch and prevent opposition attacks from building.
As well as being flexible in terms of position, this formation also allows Oxford to play in variety of ways. Whilst the 4-3-3 allows you to play the ball through the midfield three, you also have the option of playing a longer ball into the channels, or a the diagonal used by Michael Duberry, for the wide men to feed off Constable's knock downs. In a league where a varied style of play is needed, the 4-3-3 allows both consistency in terms of shape, but variety in attack. Furthermore, the defensive shape 'breaks the lines' on the field. Rather than having two banks of four to play through, opposition teams must find a way to play through three separate banks of Oxford players to get to the back four. This poses a problem that many sides aren't used to and can make Oxford a difficult side to attack, if the defence do their jobs correctly.
This is a very effective formation, both in attack and defence. However, the key issue defensively is addressing opposition players in wide areas in the central third of the field when on the counter-attack. These areas are shown below:
The last thing Wilder wants is for his full-backs to engage opposition players in these areas, leaving the defensive line without shape and allowing runners to occupy the vacant full-back region. The only solution is for the midfield three to deal with the threat, ideally with Heslop covering the right, Leven the left and McLaren maintaining his position in the centre of the field. However, if Heslop and Leven are caught up the field, with one of the full-backs also out of position, United sometimes have problems. It is on these occasions that Duberry, Wright and McLaren need to organise on the spot, slowing the attack whilst team mates return to their positions. Thus far, United have dealt with these situations well, but it is one of the key issues with the formation.
In attack, problems can arise if the front three become too static. If the front men are rigid, each could become isolated and attacks will break down. To be effective, the front three need to be fluid in their movement and willing to work along the front-line. Thankfully, each of United's attackers are mobile and willing to work hard to receive the ball.
The key strength of the 4-3-3 is that is working for Oxford United. Whilst fans have been frustrated at dropped points, it has not been linked to the formation. Plenty of chances have been created in attack. No change of formation will suddenly help a misfiring front line to find their shooting boots. At the back, the system also works. When United have conceded goals, it has been off the back of defensive errors. If the defence can cut out individual errors, there is no reason to suggest a formation change is necessary. Greater communication is needed between Davis and Wright to prevent the centre half being pulled out to the left flank and concentration at the back must be maintained during long periods of Oxford pressure at the other end, but the system itself works. In no game this season have United been cut open freely by opponents. This would be a cause for concern and a reason to change the system. However, whilst the system is creating chances at one end and looking solid at the other, there is no reason for mass overhaul.
The most popular option presented by those calling for change has been the return to the traditional, but decreasingly popular 4-4-2.
The main justification for using the 4-4-2, according to the fans, is the extra body in the box when attacking. The use of a striker partnership can be extremely effective if the personnel involved are on the same wavelength. Constable and Smalley have similar qualities and would certainly be a physical challenge for opposition defences. However, the variety of attack seen with the 4-3-3 is likely to be lost. Potter and Hall both have the ability to beat a man in wide areas, but would be asked to maintain width in the midfield, thus removing Potter's greatest quality, elusive movement. Despite this, you are usually guaranteed three men in the box (both strikers and the opposite winger to the side the ball is crossed from attacking the back post) with a 4-4-2, the key reason for fans wanting to change shape.
In terms of organisation, a 4-4-2 is reasonably simply to manage. The defence works in two banks of four, matching up with the opposition on a man to man basis. Additionally, the entire team can work in organised partnerships, as shown below. This allows a series of efficient pairs to win battles in different areas of the pitch, both defensively and in terms of working together to build attacks.
However, with many managers choosing to work with five men in midfielder, serious issues arise when trying to play a central three with only two men in your own midfield. More often than not, this results in one of the strikers having to drop deep to help the midfield, removing the attacking threat they were included to provide.
The 4-4-2 formation has been replaced by many managers due to the numerous issues that can arise against other systems.
With many sides deploying three players in central midfielders, the issues for a midfield two have already been outlined. Furthermore, to provide an attacking threat, a 4-4-2 requires one midfielder to push forward to attack the penalty area when the ball is in the final third. With McLaren likely to be deployed as the deeper midfielder, he would be asked to get through a great deal of work defensively. Whereas a midfield three can work together to make the field compact and maintain McLaren's base position in front of the back four, he would be unable to provide the same service in a flat midfield four. A midfield four requires two mobile central midfielders, who can cover the entire field. In McLaren and Leven, Wilder's two most effective midfielders do not fit the 4-4-2 system and putting square pegs in round holes would be foolish. Oxford's midfield would lack the balance of the 4-3-3 if they were to change the system.
On the flanks, there would be a far greater defensive role for Potter and Hall. Whereas a midfield three can deal with issues in wide areas, a midfield four would require Oxford's wingers to match up with their opposite full-back. If Oxford come up against an attacking full-back partnership, it would be easy for Potter and Hall to be pinned back in the same way opposition wingers are when facing Batt and Davis.
If the wingers are asked to occupy wide areas at all times, it is also likely that Oxford would lose some of the attacking intent provided by the full-backs. For full-backs to attack the final third, they require space to run into. This can either be provided on a simple overlap, or by a winger drawing his full-back inside, leaving empty space for a full-back to run into. If the wingers do move inside, this creates a very compact central third of the field.
With two wingers and two full-backs who can beat a defender in a one on one situation, it can be argued that the 4-3-3 suits the side better. In a 4-4-2, both the wingers and full-backs want to attack the same areas. It is possible to work this, as has been seen with full-backs such as Gary Neville providing quality service from wide areas in the 4-4-2 system. However, with full-backs such as Davis and Batt who like to cut inside, as well as providing crosses from wide, it is beneficial to leave the open spaces created in a 4-3-3.
The key to selecting a formation is picking one that suits the players. Rather than picking a formation and trying to fit players into it, good managers will find the formation that brings the best out of their players. Put simply, Wilder should look to put round pegs in round holes. Much has been made on the decisions to play the likes of Tom Craddock, Jack Midson and Steve MacLean in wide areas last season, but with these players Wilder has the right players in the right places. In a 4-4-2, this is not true. McLaren and Leven are vital players for Oxford, but would not suit a two man central midfield partnership. Furthermore, this system limits Potter, Hall, Davis and Batt, preventing them from doing what they do best in attack. Whilst fans like to see two strikers down the middle, their supply lines can't be sacrificed in doing so. On occasions, this would be the case. Whilst flexible tactics are important over the course of a season and 4-4-2 can be useful in certain circumstances (Wilder has been willing to change shape during games, when appropriate), it would not get more from the current players than a 4-3-3.
Finally, it is worth looking at an increasingly popular formation in world football. Originating in South America, the 4-2-3-1 has been used successfully in recent years.
One of the key reasons for the popularity of the 4-2-3-1 formation has been the central midfield 2, shielding the back four. As with McLaren in the 4-3-3, this partnership should protect the centre of the field, preventing the ball from reaching the opposition strikers. The two holding players will also have varied roles. Whilst one is very much there for defensive purposes, the other usually possesses great passing ability and looks to dictate the play from deep. In Leven, Wilder has a player who would be able to fulfil that role, but his presence may be lost further up the pitch. Ideally, this player should be encouraged to continue forward movement after starting attacks, before making late runs into the box or sweeping up opposition clearances. If this player is mobile enough, the two man holding midfield can be utilised going forward, as well as providing a strong defensive shape.
Another key strength of this system is the four man attack. Although the three men behind Constable can drop back into the midfielder to add to the six man defensive unit, they are primarily there to work in and around the lone striker. Like in the 4-3-3, Potter would have the freedom to roam, but Hall and new arrival Andy Haworth would be expected to provide a natural width. Playing behind the central striker, Potter could drop deep to collect the ball, before driving into space as he does so well. The number of attackers in the final third should provide bodies in the box, with the possible variations of attack seen with 4-3-3 still possible. The ball can be played through Leven, to link with the four men at the top of the pitch, or into the channels for willing runners to work for.
The 4-2-3-1 offers balance, strength in numbers in attack and utilises the strengths of the players Wilder has at his disposal.
Like all formations, there are issues that need to be addressed. As with the 4-3-3 system, there can be defensive issues in the wide areas near the halfway line. Without a three man midfield to defend these areas, Wilder would be forced to ask the wide men in his attacking three to track any runs from opposition full-backs. In theory, this should be easily managed but United could be susceptible to the overlap if the wide men don't work hard enough down the flanks. If Potter and Hall were forced to track back, they should not allow themselves to become pinned back for long periods of time, thus removing any attacking threat.
The central attacking midfielder carries a great deal of expectation in this role. Potter would need to be constantly on the move to make sure he doesn't become peripheral. If Potter can drop deep to collect the ball and be involved consistently, this is a role that could suit him down to the ground.
However, the greatest concern in regard to the 4-2-3-1 system is whether it could be effective in League Two. This is a division in which the pattern of play can often be end to end and it is possible that this formation could be overrun. If the ball is given away cheaply, this system does not have three central midfielders to recover the team's shape. If one of the holding midfielders and one full-back are caught out of position, teams can expose a vulnerable defence very quickly.
4-2-3-1 has been successful in teams that can maintain possession for long periods of time, but may not be perfectly suited to the lack of time available in League Two. Whilst this interesting system may be useful at home on the wide Kassam Stadium pitch, the midfield is not compact enough to stifle opposition in away games.
We are all entitled to our opinions on Oxford United. However, we all see the game in different ways and each of us has a different vision for how they want the team to play. Chris Wilder is the man that matters. He wants the team to get the ball down, make good decisions, get the full-backs forward and pass through the opposition. For these purposes and the players in the squad, 4-3-3 is the most efficient. Every formation has strengths and weaknesses, but 4-3-3 carries the least weaknesses and has shown that it works.
The system is solid defensively and creates chances going forward. The real issue for Oxford United has been individual error. If the side begin to finish chances and remove defensive errors, any debate over formation will be quickly forgotten.
George Dugdale – You can find George on Twitter here.
Are you happy with 4-3-3? If you are unhappy with the current system, how would you like Oxford United to play? This is simply my opinion. Please leave your own feelings in the comments section below.