While all the talk this weekend has been about Manchester United’s third successive loss, Mourinho’s previous club, Chelsea put in a listless performance of their own. Wayne Rooney’s continued inclusion made the headlines at Manchester, where as in London, it was all about Cesc Fabregas’ continued exclusion. Both of them have had highly successful careers, winning many major trophies but looking back, both haven’t quite lived up to the potential they showed us when they were in their teens. Why are we talking about Rooney and Fabregas, when this article was supposed to be on 4-2-3-1? You will get your answer at the end of the article.
Coming back to our topic, the rise in the deep lying playmaker over the past decade has changed the role of the number 10 in football. The number 10 is expected to press and stop the opposition’s deep playmaker, here is where both Rooney and Fabregas failed to evolve. Rooney has always given his 100% on the pitch and his team-play and workrate are unquestionable. But his tactical indiscipline and a lack of intelligent positioning led Ferguson to drop him for the Champions League Quarter final in 2012-13 against Real Madrid for Danny Welbeck. Welbeck performed his duties perfectly and shut out Alonso until Nani’s infamous red card. Another famous example is of Park Ji-Sung, who completely nullified Andrea Pirlo in a Champions League tie.
Fabregas, on the other hand has always been accused of lacking the work-rate and being too direct and loose with his passing. Growing up in La Masia and coming of age in the Premier League has its advantages, but Fabregas now seems unsuitable to both the English and the Spanish leagues. After joining Chelsea, Mourinho deployed him in a double pivot alongside Matic and the duo looked unstoppable initially. Matic did all the dirty work and Fabregas started racking up the assists. Trouble arrived, when Chelsea lost form and were not dominating games anymore. Fabregas struggled defensively in a double pivot and was often pushed to play higher ahead of a Ramires-Matic axis. But in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Oscar with his tactical discipline and work rate is a better choice at number 10 and Antonio Conte so far, has picked the Brazilian.
Although it’s very early in the season to draw any conclusions, two top managers, who are struggling to impose their identity on their teams, are stuck with a 4-2-3-1 formation without suitable players in their squads. For a 4-2-3-1 formation to work,the double pivot is crucial.
The efficiency and the compactness that the double pivot provides, makes it vital to the modern game. The double pivot actually is the usage of two holding mid-fielders in front of the defence. One generally more creative than the other, is termed as the “Deep Lying Playmaker“. All the 4 semifinalists at the 2010 World Cup used the double pivot. Spain,Holland and Germany all made their own interpretations of the 4-2-3-1 whereas Uruguay played with a classic 4-4-2(atleast on paper) but unlike in a typical 4-4-2, the Uruguayan central midfielders stayed deep and acted as a double pivot. The Double Pivot or the players playing in that position are the ones who determine the tempo and also the overall setup of the team. You choose Busquets and Alonso as your double pivot like Spain did, then obviously you will dominate possession. Or if you are Germany and play with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, you would be devastating on the counter with Sami’s energy and Bastian’s intelligence. Or you can also park the bus like Netherlands did against Spain in the world cup final, with Van Bommel and De jong.
Currently, Matic-Kante and Pogba-Fellaini are the double pivots for Chelsea and Manchester United respectively. Matic and Kante although good defensively, lack the passing ability to bring the attacking players into play. Where as, Pogba and Fellaini are themselves unsure on how to interpret their roles in the pivot. Pogba’s performance against City clearly showed that the Frenchman was not bothered in helping Fellaini maintain shape and protect the defence. The lack of defensive nous and the playmaking ability in the pivot is especially exposed, when up against a midfield 3. And when the opposition players chase you like mad dogs (Like City,Liverpool and at times Arsenal do), then you are in deep deep trouble. Liverpool’s midfield completely overran Chelsea’s a week after City did the same to United. Even when you manage to keep the ball, there is no creativity in midfield to bring the attacking players into the game which means that most of the attacking transitions fail. Liverpool have their own issues against smaller teams which sit back, but in the big games, they
It is quite likely that both Mourinho and Conte will ditch the 4-2-3-1, at least in the big games. We have already seen, Wenger switch to a 4-3-3 sometimes on Arsenal’s away days. Like in most cases in football, the success of the formation depends on the players, and in this case, the lack of a genuine deep lying playmaker in United and Chelsea will probably make them abandon the 4-2-3-1. Michael Carrick and Cesc Fabregas might still be able to do the job against smaller sides, but against Liverpool or City, they will struggle. Santi Cazorla does a decent job for Arsenal, but with current repertoire of central midfielders available, 4-3-3 will be a strong option for Wenger. A switch to the 4-3-3 might give Fabregas a new lease of life where as the same switch at Old Trafford will surely see Rooney’s days of being in the starting lineup come to an end.