Variety appears to be the spice of Premier League life
16:40 13 September 2012
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It wasn’t so long ago that English domestic football was famed for its lack of variety as far as team line-ups were concerned.
4-3-2-1 was more likely to be confused with a chocolate bar of a similar name than a formation.
Such was the popularity of the tried and tested 4-4-2 formation, they even named a magazine after it – and many years after first being introduced it is still going strong.
I mean the magazine, not the formation, because the times they are a changing and it would appear British clubs at the very top are increasingly trying new tactics and ways of playing.
Research conducted at the end of last season by the football analyst behind the website thepowerof11.com and using data provided by Opta found that only 33 per cent of formations used by Premier League teams in 2011/12 were 4-4-2. This is compared to 21 per cent using 4-4-1-1 and 16 per cent 4-2-3-1.
Still the most popular choice, but nowhere near the levels at which our domestic game became famous for.
And looking at the formations used so far this season, it would appear that variety continues to be the spice of Premier League life.
In the 58 team line-ups announced so far, only 23 could be classed as traditional 4-4-2.
Only Newcastle, QPR, Stoke and Sunderland have used the formation in all of their games.
Other formations include 4-4-1-1, a favourite of Paul Lambert’s at Norwich last season, and 4-2-3-1, popular with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Brendan Rodgers in his last year at Swansea and now at Liverpool and Robert Mancini at Manchester City.
I suspect there are many reasons why this change has come about.
Firstly, we have seen an increasing number of foreign players, coaches and managers get involved in the British game. They have bought with them new ways of thinking, some of which have worked, some of which haven’t.
The emergence of the Champions League, meanwhile, has also teased and tantalised British managers with new ideas and new ways of playing.
And you often see an impact caused by major tournaments such as the European Championships and the team which wins them.
The Spanish style of play, which involves putting one or two men in front of the defence so the more attack-minded players can roam, appears to be growing in popularity on British soil. It’s also been used with great success by Barcelona, of course.
By my rather organic maths, that formation, or variations of it, have been used in around half of the line ups so far.
There was a period when the 3-4-3 formation was popular, after being pioneered in the Total Football era of Dutch football in the 1970s.
Pick three defenders, with one possibly playing the sweeper role, with enough talent to do the job and play with two wing-backs fit enough to bomb up and down the pitch and the formation works well.
And while it’s fallen out of favour in Britain in recent years, it has been used by both Wigan and Chelsea so far this season.
In fact Martinez used it to such good effect in 2011-12 that, upon adopting 3-4-3, his side collected 27 points from 14 games, pulling clear of relegation.
But what of Norwich, what formation are we likely to see from our beloved Canaries?
The early signs are that Chris Hughton is still trying to work out best way of playing.
He used 4-4-1-1 in the pre-season friendlies and in the opening game against Fulham, with Robert Snodgrass playing behind Grant Holt.
In the last three games, however, he has returned to 4-4-2, with Holt and Simeon Jackson together against QPR and Spurs.
The tactic of having one up front with one behind worked so well for Norwich last season, but that was largely reliant on getting the players in two key positions absolutely spot on.
Put the right man behind the striker, to pull the strings and create, and in front of the defence, to provide extra protection but start the passing, and it can work.
For the majority of last season those two people were Wes Hoolahan and David Fox, neither of whom has started a Premier League game yet in 2012-13.
The future formation of the side is likely to determine Hoolahan’s future at the club, because managers do not seem comfortable playing him on the left-hand side of a midfield of four. I think Hoolahan can continue to be pivotal to us this season. He’s the type of player who will turn games.
However, speaking to a Birmingham season ticket-holder at the weekend, it would appear Hughton was fond of the conventional 4-4-2 – in the Championship at least.
But of course Championship football is very different to the step up, so that provides no guarantee the same will be true at Norwich.
The aforementioned stats suggest that moving away from 4-4-2 can work for teams.
Of the three most popular formations used in 2011/12, teams playing with 4-2-3-1 totalled 1.5 points per game, those preferring 4-4-1-1 1.47 and 4-4-2 1.4.
Time will tell which Hughton chooses and how it turns out.
• Such a shame to see two prominent fans’ groups fold in the last week or so. The winding-up of the Friends of Norwich City Youth is understandable when you consider how many millions Premier League clubs deal in now. Nevertheless their work over the years, especially during some of the club’s darkest days, should not be under-estimated. More concerning is the end for the Independent Norwich City Supporters’ Club.
While I can understand completely their reasons, and it’s no surprise fewer people turn out to voice their opinions when things are going well, it’s such a shame to lose that extra level of scrutiny of the club. If, heaven forbid, fortunes did take a turn for the worse again I would bet we haven’t necessarily seen the last of this dedicated bunch of fans.
• Delighted to see David Fox’s immediate future is with the club. I’m banging a familiar drum here I know but, much like Wes Hoolahan, players with his type of ability and skill are rare and we as a club are better off for having him in the squad.
• You can only take so much from youtube compilations of players and there have been several managers over the years who have admitted to (and no doubt loads who haven’t) being sold a dud for relying on such a compilation of best moments. But sometimes they do provide a tantalising glimpse of talent within. Check out Robert Snodgrass‘ video if you haven’t already and you’ll see why he was chased for so long. And let’s hope Alexander Tettey’s video is equally as good a sign of the talent about to be unleashed.
• Thanks to those out there who joined myself and SportsdeskPete for the recent transfer deadline day live coverage. I never knew it could be so much fun talking about so little for so long. Knowing little about loan signing Harry Kane, it wouldn’t be fair to pass opinion, but I still think our striker purchases aren’t over for the season.