"No juego con mediapuntas* porque no sé bien qué hacen" ('I don't play with advanced playmakers* because I don't know what exactly it is that they do') afirms Manuel Pellegrini.
Below: Pellegrini's 4-2-2-2 lending itself to assymetry as per the characteristics of the players.
The Chilean 'Engineer' outlines a key component of his footballing philosophy, explaining his predeliction for a system which starts from 4-2-2-2, and becomes 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 in defensive phase, depending on the characteristics of the opposing players. However, beyond its immediate implications for Madrid, I thought it opportune to examine the broader conclusions to be drawn from Pellegrini's blueprint, and how such systems can operate, first in the abstract and then in specific application by other teams.
First let us look at Pellegrini's idealised state of football, or something like that, starting with his Villarreal sides as a base; we can assume that the fruits of four years at the helm of the 'Yellow Submarine' club more fully embodied his vision than does at present a Madrid team very much in the incubator stage.
Pellegrini instructed his full-backs to alternate their incorporations to the attack. Ahead of the four-man defense was a duo of holding midfielders but each of constrasting styles; normally one was a pure destroyer (Sebastian Eguren or Alessio Tacchinardi), whilst the other was a robust organising figure (Marcos Senna). One of the pair was detailed to plug defensive gaps when a full-back would advance whilst the other would advance slightly in support of the play ahead of him, but rarely breaking beyond the ball. Two creative players started from a comparatively advanced position on both flanks, often interchanging their respective positions. Hence their attacking movement was as much horizontal as it was diagonal and less so vertical, which distinguished this midfield from that of a classic flat 4-4-2.
It is in this band that we find the most curious detail of the system and one of great concern to those footballers purporting to be 'mediapuntas', to whom Pellegrini refers in the above quote. The team line-up was typically capped off by two strikers, or at least two forwards of some description. One was usually an orthodox fixed central presence, such as the multi-faceted Diego Forlan or the more recognisably target-men Guille Franco/Joseba Llorente. The other tended to be a more elusive, mobile attacker (such as Nihat or later Guiseppe Rossi).
Pellegrini did often face away games in Europe with the presence of a third attacking-midfielder centrally placed to the detriment of the support striker, effectively an enganche/mediapunta in all but name. But this was clearly a plan B borne out of defensive considerations ; not that 4-2-3-1 always need be considered defensive, but in this case it was a slight gesture to caution from Pellegrini who wanted his team to retain posession for even longer periods in European fixtures. Generally speaking, nonetheless, a player like Ariel Ibagaza who was a nimble incarnation of the classic Argentine enganche or even Spain's Santi Cazorla- a player of similar characteristics- usually found himself required to play from a wider position under Pellegrini's 4-2-2-2.
Pellegrini's problems at Madrid can be summarised thus:
-club sold Snejider, ideal player for the 'interior' positions in his 4-2-2-2
Above: how Pellegrini's sides triangulate to create width in a 4-2-2-2
- Cristiano Ronaldo is ideally suited to the outside-forward positions in a 4-3-3, a no-go for Pellegrini who prefers fluctuating width. Failing that, then as either a second-striker in a front pairing or as a very direct No.10 behind the strikers in a 4-3-1-2;trouble is, this role is also ideally suited to Kaka.
- Kaka himself thrives on the aforementioned 'mediapunta role', so how to divvy up one role and one position between two explosive, powerful players, each lethal at striding into the box or shooting from beyond it. Ergo, danger of a redundancy of roles, players making similar runs, getting in each others' way etc.
- Kaka can also play as a second-striker to a partner (as he frequently did in away games for Milan)in a front two. But in Raul, Benzema and Higuain, Madrid already have overbooking in this department.
- As indicated from the opening paragraph to this post, Pellegrini doesn't like to use that type of player commonly known as a mediapunta in Spain (half-forward), enganche in Argentina, meia de ligacao/quarto homem do meiocampo in Brazil, and trequartista in Italy. In English we don't have a specific equivalent (the use of the term 'second-striker' is erroneous since its proper usage refers to a slightly different role, namely that of the mobile attacker employed either side of and in support of the No.9, typically a reconverted winger or a versatile forward). Granted, some enganches have succesfully reconverted into second-strikers and vice-versa, so I'll attempt a coinage for English; 'advanced linkman' (a bit unwieldy, admittedly).
Consider the role of the traditional enganche, whether he be the languidly poetic type (as in Riquelme, Rui Costa or a young Andrea Pirlo) or else the more lively, mobile -and typically shorter- fellow (like Pablo Aimar, Diego Ribas de Cunha, Luka Modric); whether he be playing behind one striker (as in 4-2-3-1) or two (as in 4-3-1-2). It is indicative of the changes creeping across modern football that these players have had to either re-adjust their playing style or else fall into obsolesence, a fate which Rui Costa, if he were still playing, would surely have shared with Riquelme. Andrea Pirlo lit a beacon to the languid trequartista by devising his by-now legendary playing-behind-the-midfield role, but Pirlo's trailblazing inversion of the midfield diamond has inexplicably gone unheeded by like-minded artistes; witness Riquelme's obdurate refusal to compromise his game so much an inch, not even if what his coach proposes turns out to be his only hope of survival in the modern game. The more nimble exponents of No.10-craft have learnt to readjust to slightly deeper role (such as Deco in Barcelona's three-man midfield)or else to a nominally wide position just ahead of the midfield such as Modric in Spurs' assymetrical 4-4-2 (more naturally suitable still would be a wide creative role in a 4-2-3-1 for the purposes of cohesiveness, but the Croat's individual freedom is not curtailed due to said assymetry).
Pellegrini wishes, ideally, to have two such playmakers who can start from these wide positions yet without making for a flat 4-4-2 in the classical sense.
Some questions arise at this point:
- is this magic square essentially a 4-2-3-1 only without the trequartista in the middle and an extra striker of some description? Pellegrini has said that he considers Ronaldo to be a forward without specifying as to whether that might encompass No.9, second-striker or winger, which seems a fair observation given the various roles the Portuguese played at Manchester United. Ronaldo could also conceivably play as a No10 in a 4-2-3-1, and one that was set-up to be counter-attacking but there again, so too could Kaka, hence one of them would be forced wide in such an arrangement. Neither is especially suited to a patient playmaking role, least of all Ronaldo, and both prefer to surge into open space.
- how effective is the 4-2-2-2 when it comes to transitions and the defensive phase and how could Pellegrini's players be comfortably effective in executing such tasks?
- What defensive variant should the 4-2-2-2 morph into when in defensive phase (following the Capello dictum of nine men behind the ball)? How deep can the defensive formation be initiated without compromising the characteristics of certain players?
- if Cristiano and Kaka occupy the advanced midfield positions in this system, would it be more natural in defensive phase to revert to a 4-2-3-1 (one of the strikers dropping off to mark the opposing defensive midfielder) or would a Sacchian 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 not be too exerting and wasteful of their talents? In the 4-2-3-1, Cristiano and Kaka could initate their pressing from a relatively higher station and therefore closer to the oppoenents' goal than they would under two flat banks of four, which in the modern game is better suited to deep defending.
- Would Cristiano and Kaka plus the two strikers make this a 'broken team'( a front four and a back four being tenuously held together by two midfielders), therefore top-heavy like Brazil at the 2006 World Cup? Hence would it not be better for one of them to play as a second-striker, and the other to remain in an advanced midfield role (thereby offering opportunity for a more defensively solid player like Granero to take the remaining wide midfield spot)?
- One would imagine that such top-heaviness might be allayed by spreading the offensive ballast of the team more broadly over the pitch, namely in a 4-3-3 with Cristiano and Kaka as wide attackers, and without compromising the depth of the midfield. But this seems to be anathema to Pellegrini, who has tended to prefer a Wenger-esque 4-4-2 in his teams. Examples of other teams abound: Didier Deschamps' Monaco lit up the 2003-04 Champions' League with a similar approach. More pertinently, Madrid under Del Bosque played the 2000-01 season in a fluid 4-2-2-2.Del Bosque repeated the experiment with the Spanish national team's friendly versus England in February 2009, a game which saw Xabi Alonso and Marcos Senna holding the midfield behind Xavi and Iniesta. At Madrid, Pellegrini obviously counts on the deep organisation of Alonso but can also call on an even more destructive player (relative to Senna who is virtually a double of Alonso) in Lassana Diarra.
- Pellegrini argues against 4-3-3, reasoning that 'permanent width' could make his team too predictable and that in a 4-2-2-2 his players have more chance to occupy and vacate wide spaces at will during the build-up by engaging in a series of triangles horizontally across the pitch before playng the final killer pass. Against this rationale, one could argue that the permanent width that a 4-3-3 creates ceases to be so once the team arrive in the final third. But Pellegrini would argue that he prefers his team to have open pastures of space ahead of it, hence their preference to disoccupy it and hopefully draw their opponents further into the midfield. His teams are also less suited to pressuring high up the pitch, since Ronaldo and Kaka thrive when they have acres ahead of them for the counter-attack. One potential problem is that this can lead to overelaboration without ever penetrating the defence.
This Saturday (October 17th), fortune conspired through injuries and enforced rest for Pellegrini to be without Ronaldo and Kaka, and therefore in a position to use two players who would have thrived in his Villarreal sides; Van der Vaart and Granero. Both were ideally suited to the wide creative roles in his 4-2-2-2, since they don't need a lot of space ahead of them in order to carry the ball, preferring instead to offer quick distribution and defensive dilligence (in the case of Granero, who is more of an 'interior' in the modern Spanish sense of the word) and encyclopaedic passing and fantasy in the case of Van der Vaart, who is more recognisably a Modric-style No.10 and who like Modric, Deco et al, now needs to make the transition playing with more defensive responsibilities. This is all very well, but the reality is that sooner or later Kaka and Crisitano will return to the starting line-up.
My conclusion is that unless one of Ronaldo and Kaka volunteers to play as a second forward, Pellegrini cannot fit them both into a specifically 4-2-2-2 system, due to the 'broken team' scenario, and even then, the other wide creative role should go to a player like Granero who offers balance and positional discipline, whilst Kaka should be less restricted in his station. The overall effect would be to produce an assymetric system, best understood by looking at the graphic provided here. The disadvantage with such an intentionally assymetrical system is that the transition to defensive phase is harder to programme and automate in the players' movements
Accepting that both Ronaldo and Kaka are sacred cows, another system must be employed but one which includes a third midfielder (of some description) situated closer to the Alonso-Diarra double pivot, so that these two will not become overrun (eg; triangulated by the opposition) in defensive phase. More importantly, it offers Alonso another creative outlet in terms of distributing the ball from central areas, assuming that said player is not markedly destructive (which would rule out Mahamadou Diarra, for instance). Guti is conceivably an option but such a player would need to be defensively attentive and industrious during 90 minutes - a big ask of Guti, especially in games away from the Bernabeu.
Whichever way we choose to look at it, an integrally narrow three-man midfield is what we are proposing here. So now the question is, discarding the option of overt assymetry, which concrete formation(s) is/are most suitable for Madrid in terms of personnel? For me, it comes down to a choice between 4-3-3 and 4-3-1-2 as both systems can be built around an identical tight-three man midfield. My own preference would be for the first with Kaka and Ronaldo wide but Pellegrini clearly does not even consider this. So, it seems that the midfield diamond is the next most obvious option.
But how to configure the midfield? Lass is not a static player and, though more than capable of screening a defence a la Mascherano, his best version is seen when his energy and agression can be employed quicker in the tackle, interrupting the opponents' constructive play earlier in the transition. Alonso on the other hand is less mobile and therefore a liability for the wide-of-centre roles, since said role requires the player to track back and assist his full-back, amongst other demanding tasks. Granero can do this on one side but Alonso on the other? There is the argument that Alonso would be too lightweight and indeed too slow to act as the sole holder at the base of the midfield. But this can be counterweighted by either of Granero and Diarra tucking in beside him during certain phases of play.
Fortuitously enough, such an arrangement may be be born out of necessity to cover the positional fleet-footedness of attacking left-back Marcelo: Lass being a constant defensive presence nearby. This scenario would also see some natural balance on the other flank, only in this instance it would be an inverse of the left side since Granero- a considerably less defensive player than Lass, would be less burdened than his French teammate given a more defensively solid and conservative full-back in Alvaro Arbeloa positioned behind him. This may conceivably encourage assymetry should the players lose their bearings, and even invite teams to concentrate their attacks down whichever of Madrid's flanks is left unguarded, but such is Pellegrini's lot. It looks like no system will easily fit this Madrid, but the centrality of Granero to whatever embryonic scheme the coach may hatching is becoming increasingly conspicuous.