wrong side XI

A fellow fan of the beautiful game and I had a colorful discussion today regarding who we both considered to currently be the best left back in the world. The two of us argued the merits and flaws of this player and that for longer than what our manager at work would have liked, yet we weren’t actually able to anoint one player as the supreme left back on the planet.

if you could pick any team you wanted, who would you pick?

After I got over the shock of not being able to “win” a soccer argument, I came to a realization…. it’s not a bad thing that we weren’t able to name just one.

Instead, I figured out that in order to actually answer a very subjective question such as “who is the best player in this position?”, we must first define a specific formation and system into which this prospective player would be inserted.

For example, it wouldn’t make any sense to place a wingback such as Ashley Cole — known for hiw swashbuckling, long runs into the attack — into a defensively-conservative system like that of Tony Pulis’ Stoke City. Similarly, an extremely skilled player like Robinho plays very well as a striker in the hole in a counter-attacking culture that’s prevalent in Italy, but didn’t fill the role well in England because he didn’t defend as much as is required by a Premier League midfielder. See what I mean?

And then it struck me: the brainchild of that conversation should be the basis for a new series of posts on wrong side of the pond. Here’s the scenario:

  • I am given the managerial reigns at a super-rich club, such as a Real Madrid or Manchester City.
  • I have an unlimited transfer budget at my disposal for transfers and wages.
  • I am free to pursue whatever transfer targets I like, regardless of price or availability.
  • All players desire to play for my club, and UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules don’t exist (though this may be the case anyway, seeing how most teams will still find loopholes).
  • I can choose whatever formation I want, and place the players in it in whatever way I feel fits the system the best.

So with the rules now defined, you’re probably wondering just who I would pick for my starting eleven. And if you’ve asked yourself that, then you totally understand the format for my newest blog series. If you don’t, I’m picking my very own wrong side of the pond XI. Each week, we’ll cover a single position on the pitch, who I would choose, and why. And this week lay the foundation for the weeks to follow by choosing my side’s formation and tactics. Jump past the break to see how I intend to shape my imaginary squad.

Picking a formation, just like picking the best player for a particular position, isn’t exactly an easy task. If you watch the team selections of the top managers in the game, you’ll notice that many of them adjust their tactics and formations from match to match, depending much on the opposition. Sticking to your guns and only playing with one shape and strategy would effectively be managerial suicide.

But for the sake of the keeping this post under 3000 words, I’m just picking one today.

So let’s start this thing off by saying I’m (perhaps obviously?) a huge fan of the Dutch “total football” ideology. But I’m not trying to take this to the point that I would want to sculpt my side to play like Barcelona. As magnificent and as proficient as the Catalonians and their tiki-taka football are, it can get awfully boring. Sure it can win, but I would prefer to steer a more exciting, attacking-oriented side. That should be of little surprise when you look at the teams I most closely follow: more direct, strong, counter-attacking sides who can possess the ball when the counter attack isn’t available.

Offensively, I want the wingbacks to overlap and get into the attack. I want wingers on the touchlines attacking higher up the pitch. I want a pacy striker who is also capable of holding the ball up and distributing back to the outsides or midfield. In short, I love to use all of the available pitch… so they key to my offensive strategy is width. Now I’m not naive enough to think I wouldn’t be predictable by only using the wings, so this team will need a various-skilled group of central midfielders to help mix things up and maintain possession.

Like I said earlier, I also want this to be a counter attack oriented side. But speed and quickness moving forward can only be balanced out by an extremely well organized defense. The midfield needs to not only be able to link the attackers and backers moving forward, but they’ll also need to clog up the middle and protect the backline. High pressure up top will be applied to force the opposition into errors higher up the pitch, so the counters can start further from our goal and leave us less exposed. If the press doesn’t work up top, then the team should compact their shape to support one another.

So what formation did I choose to achieve all of this? A very shape-shifting formation 4-5-1.

4-5-1
i love me some counter attacking, hence my choice of the 4-5-1. we'll update this image each week with the player(s) i want to fill it.

What’s truly great about this system is it’s flexibility. It allows you the ability to attack with numbers, but also collapse into a compact shape on defense. It’s perfect for my preference for counter attacking football, though also provides plenty of width to maintain possession.

In practice, many opposing sides will see this formation as a more traditional 4-3-3, especially when the flank players push high on the wings. Often times opposing sides will adjust their tactics to try to take advantage of what they think is a numerical advantage when the move forward, as they see what appears to be thin defensive line. But by employing wingers that will trackback, you can negate this tactic rather quickly.

Here’s a quick break down of position responsibilities that I’d expect in this type of formation:

  • Central Striker: Even though that this formation implies there is only a single striker, he isn’t expected to carry the offensive load of the team all by himself.
    • On offense, this formation places a tactical role on the striker called a “False 9,” where the player will check back into the midfield as attacks build, creating an outlet for the midfield and backs. By dropping this far back into the midfield (effectively creating a 4-6-0 formation), it disrupts the opposition’s defense by forcing them to choose whether to send a central defender to follow him and break their own shape. Upon receiving the ball, he can drive forward if the space in front of him is empty, or he can choose to redistribute the ball back to the central midfield or out wide to the flanks. Oh yeah, and it might help if he can be a bit of a finisher too.
    • On defense, the main role of the single striker will be to force the oppositions offensive flow to one side of the field. This is mainly achieved through high pressure as soon as the other team obtains possession. However, it’s important that they don’t over commit and allow the ball to move to the side opposite from where they’re being forced.
  • Outside Mids (2): In this formation, the outside mids are hybrid players: partly midfielders, partly forwards.
    • On offense, when the movement begins, the wingers will be expected to stay close to the touchlines in advanced positions. They’ll be expected to keep as much width as possible, and check back as a quick outlet when the back on their side has the ball. These guys should also try to make long diagonals if the back on the opposite side has the ball. When the center mids have the ball, staying wide is essential. Once the ball at their feet, they have two options: 1) drive forward and attack the goal line to allow for crosses or lay offs for supporting players crashing the goal, or 2) cut in centrally to break the opposition’s shape and look for through-balls.
    • On defense, while they’ll be expected to high pressure, they don’t want to push quite as high as the center forward. Instead, they should cut off passing lanes until the ball is played to the defender on their side, and then high pressure. If the ball is forced to the opposite side, they should hold back and suck in to help out centrally while keeping an eye on the outside back on their side. As the opposing team moves into our defensive half, they should both pinch in to help clog up the middle of the pitch.
  • Attacking Center Mid: In a 4-5-1, the attacking center mid is given a ridiculous amount of freedom.
    • On offense, as can be expected, this player needs to be extremely creative on the dribble and the pass. Improvisation would be a key trait for this player to possess. Playing in the hole behind the central striker, the attacking mid can easily move up top when the center striker drops far enough back into midfield, making him a great outlet for through balls. Alternatively, he should aim to check towards whomever has the ball, quickly receive and turn, and then find find wingers with diagonals or the striker with a quick 1-2 pass. It wouldn’t hurt if this guy could also weave through a field of defenders, only if necessary of course!
    • On defense his primary role will be to cut off passing lanes, by filling in behind the striker as they pressure higher up the field. Secondary to that, he is normally expected to mark any center back/stopper streaking out of the back.
  • Defensive Center Mids (2): This is a bit of a misnomer, as both of these players aren’t exclusively restricted to defensive responsibilities. One will fill the role of a deep lying holding midfielder (the Makélélé role), while the other will sit in front of the backline as an enforcer (like Nigel de Jong, but less a brute). They’ll both move have the ability to move forward, but I’d rather go with two defensive center mids than just one for the sake of protection.
    • On offense, both players will be expected to be good distributors. They’ll want to serve as quick outlets for the back four, as well as provide support for players further up the pitch. Quick passing will be key, as will a solid spacial sense.
    • On defense, the “enforcer” will be tasked with keeping tabs on the opposing side’s attacking center mid. The more offensive of the two will then mainly focus on picking up any runs through the middle, as well as helping out on the wings if a back is outnumbered. Both players will look to stay as central as possible, and help to dictate the shape of their teammates defending higher than them.
  • Outside Backs (2): As a left back myself, I love this formation because of it’s reliance on the wingbacks in the attack.
    • On offense, as soon as possession is won, the outside backs should immediately look to spread to the touchlines to establish width and provide the centerback/keeper a quick outlet to lunge forward. This will stretch the opposing team’s shape and provide more gaps for passing lanes. Additionally, the wingbacks will want to look for combinations with the winger in front of them, particularly with long, looping overlaps on the flank.
    • On defense, one of the many benefits of this formation is that the offense helps to create defense. By pushing my marking backs into such high position on offense, the opposing team will have to drop their wingers into defense to aid their outnumbered defenders, thus minimizing their ability to counter attack. Otherwise, their main defensive responsibility is to pick up the other team’s outside mids/forwards. Not getting caught out of position will be crucial here, and will require excellent communication to keep one of the central midfielders or wingers back to provide cover.
  • Center Backs (2): As with the defensive center mids, the two center backs won’t be playing the exact same role. Instead, the expectation is that one shall be a stay-at-home organizer, and the other will play a littlemore offensively.
    • On offense, though one of them will be more offensively oriented, let’s be honest… they really won’t be attacking that much. He’s still a center half after all. However, the more offensive oriented back will be free to occasionally make a run into the attack (the “libero” role). Otherwise, they’ll look to quickly distribute wide or to the center mids.
    • On defense, this is a pretty simple role: keep the other team’s striker(s) under control. Neither will be assigned to a particular player on the opposing team, but should instead cautiously pass the opposing players back in forth between their zonal areas. At least one will also have the responsibility of maintaining the shape of the midfielders in front of them.

When looking for real world examples of teams that use this system, there are two glaring examples: Real Madrid and Manchester United. Mourinho and Sir Alex frequently play with single strikers (Benzema/Higuaín and Rooney, respectively), a secondary “striker” that plays in the hole behind them (Ozïl and Chicharito/Wellbeck), and wide players that act like forwards 90% of the time (Ronaldo/di Maria and Nani/Valencia). Tottenham have also found success playing in this fashion, though Peter Crouch doesn’t exactly control the possession up top as well as I’d prefer.

So who will i select to fill these roles? It will be a monumental task for sure. And to be honest, I haven’t even finished making all of my choices yet. So you’ll have to check back in the coming weeks to see and scrutinize my dreamworld first XI.

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