by Rob Shepherd.
Louis van Gaal insists the way forward for Manchester United is to ditch the 4-4-2 formation.
If that is the case then it would seem unlikely United will ever win the English league title under their Dutch manager.
Why..? Just take the Premier League years for a start.
Since its inception in 1992 every title winner – Manchester United, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City – have played with four at the back.
Mostly their formations have been 4-4-2, with variations on that theme.
In recent seasons there has been a move to 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 and twists to those basic shapes often in the guise of an anchor midfielder. But the bedrock has been the same: four at the back.
And, prior to that, no team that won the old First Division did so playing with three at the back on a regular basis.
There were occasions in the Eighties and Nineties when Liverpool –Lawrenson. Hansen, Gillespie – and Arsenal – Bould, O’Leary, Adams (and later Keown) did play 3-5-2 on their way to titles, although in the case of the Gunners under George Graham it was more like 5-3-2.
This five at the back line-up was at times akin to the famous catenaccio tactic favoured in Italy for decades until AC Milan swept all before them with 4-4-2.
But essentially you would have to go back to the 1950s to see when three at back was the rule rather than the exception in England as the old ‘W-M’ formation evolved into what became the accepted shape of a team numbered one to 11 (pictured right).
1 Goalkeeper, 2 Right back, 3 Left back, 4 Right half, 5 Centre half, 6 Left half, 7 Right winger, 8 Inside right, 9 Centre forward, 10 Inside left, 11 Left winger.
This was 2-3-2-3 or 3-2-2-3 depending how deep the centre half sat.
It was under Ron Greenwood at West Ham at the start of the Sixties that 4-4-2 was really born in England when he withdrew his No 6 (a certain Bobby Moore) to play alongside the centre half in the role of attacking centre back rather than defensive midfielder.
Four at the back then became de rigueur. Most teams played 4-2-4, which is 4-4-2 with attacking wingers. But after ditching his during England’s 1966 World Cup win, Alf Ramsey and his ‘wingless wonders’ defined for some time the English way.
Van Gaal has said this system makes his ‘ass twitch’ because it unbalances his Manchester United team, even though they have won more games this season playing that way than in any other shape.
Although Van Gaal never played a senior match for Ajax he was brought up in the Sixties and Seventies at the club which became famed for creating Total Football. It was essentially a fluid 3-4-3 which came to the fore with Holland at the 1974 World Cup finals.
The great irony is that the man who would have created Van Gaal’s mistrust in the English way was, well, English.
The guru of Total Football – according to the kingpin of Ajax and Holland at the time, Johann Cruyff – was Victor Frederick Buckingham who was born in London in 1915.
Buckingham played as a wing half for Tottenham between the wars. In 1959 he quit as West Bromwich Albion manager to take over at Ajax for two seasons. He returned for another spell in 1964 setting down the Total Football template.
While Cruyff dismisses Van Gaal as a control freak he eulogises about Buckingham, who at the start of the Seventies was manager of Barcelona (yes, really), the club where Cruyff would star as a player then a coach, laying down the foundations of the mighty team we have seen in recent years.
But Barca even in this ‘modern era’ (as if men like Buckingham were not ‘modern’ in their day ) play four at the back, although their shape like great rivals Real Madrid is a 4-3-3.
In short it’s the surest way of defending across the width of the pitch. If you have attacking full backs in that system then you have to have one or perhaps two midfielders who are prepared to hold. That’s also known as flexibility.
Of course it is naive to label and pigeon-hole formations. At any given time of a game you will see one shape morphing into another. But even the best teams need a starting shape.
Essentially the great Brazil team of 1970 was 4-4-2. But with so many great players and great movement the front six was more a carousel than a system.
There is another irony here: at international tournaments since 1966 England have performed better when ditching 4-4-2.
In 1990 under Bobby Robson and then France 98 under Glenn Hoddle England played with 3-5-2 sweeper system, more like Germany of those days, and did well.
Although Terry Venables’s ‘christmas tree’ system at Euro 96 had a back four it was a long way from rigid straight lines of 4-4-2 that can limit a team and even promote the long ball as it did in Graham Taylor’s England.
But, as wise managers will say, the bottom line is identifying what shape suits your players best. Generally the better players a manager has, the better his team will be.
For a while at Swindon and then Chelsea, Hoddle saw some success with 3-5-2. Harry Redknapp has used the system with various teams from time to time. Howard Wilkinson did so at Notts County and then Sheffield Wednesday. But they are exceptions and not the rule.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United enjoyed season after season of success using 4-4-2, often with a twist, which usually saw the second striker operate as a No 10.
The rest of Fergie’s tactics were pretty straightforward: a back four, two central midfielders working in tandem (one ‘sticks’ if the other ‘twists’), two attacking wide men, an ‘inside forward’ and a centre forward.
Yet 4-4-2 gives Van Gaal a twitchy ass?
The Dutchman says it affects the balance of the team. Perhaps that’s because he has got the balance of his squad wrong. Either 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 just doesn’t seem to get the best of the talent he has at his disposal. As Gary Neville says it slows the team down too much.
The only time Fergie said he had a ‘twitchy ass’ – aka ‘squeaky bum time’ – was during the run-in for the title.
It’s a position clipboard-toting Van Gaal won’t be in this season. Whether he likes it or not, history proves that four at the back is the key to success in the Premier League.