Pros and cons of a 4-3-1-2 (diamond)

Over the past few months I’ve sort of entered into a love-hate relationship with the diamond 4-4-2 (4-3-1-2) and the debate within my head needs to be sorted with an article in the form of an analysis. When does a diamond work wonders and when is it completely inappropriate?

 We can start this on a positive note and go with the positive side of the formation.

Strengths and advantages

High starting positions for the forwards

A basic concept but an important one nevertheless. The diamond allows the front 3 to stay relatively high up the pitch and naturally gives optimal positions to exploit the space in transition. And that in it’s own right is a massive advantage. Most teams that play a counter-attacking/transition based game look to exploit the full-back spaces. The 4-3-1-2 means that the two striker will position themselves high enough to be able to attack the channels and offer a quick out ball.

The formation also means there’s a 3rd player in an optimal position in case of a turnover – the number 10 behind the strikers. This adds as well more diversity in the movement. Depending on the rotations between the forwards there are always 2 players that can make runs in the depth, whilst at least one player can show for the ball to feet. This of course causes extra trouble for the defending team and would also allow the CM’s to get up the pitch and be involved in the attack – whether they run in the depth or be the ones to give the killer final pass.

Every positive has a negative and so does playing in this manner. I’ll leave that for a bit latter however, because there are a few more positives to outline. Meanwhile this is a graphic of some of the movements I was talking about:

The forwards and midfielders can rotate between who will drop to collect the ball and who will give the option for a ball in the depth

Pressing shape

Most commonly teams tend to try to force the opposition team and the ball in the wide areas when attempting to press. This is of course a logical thought process. When the ball arrives at the feet of the full-backs for instance you’ve already narrowed the options for a possible pass afterwards. The FB usually has 2 passes to choose from – either a ball down the channel for the forwards to run onto or a diagonal ball to the center. More times than not the pressing teams will shut down the passing lanes towards the center of the pitch, leaving only the channel ball as an opportunity.

What relevance does this entire intro have to pressing in a 4-3-1-2 you might ask. Fairly simple. The diamond’s first priority is to make build up through the midfield pretty much impossible. 2 striker who go man to man on the opposition CB’s, a 10 who marks the DM ( or ball-near CM in a pivot), as well as another 3 midfielder covering behind. The formation is built around forcing a team to pick a side from which to attack.

When the ball comes to the sides it’s very difficult to get it back to the middle against a diamond. Firstly that’s very much down to the sheer amount of the players in the center of the pitch ( 3 CM’s + a 10 who will close the option for a pass to the DM). The option of a diagonal ball from full-back to center isn’t really available especially when the press is done with the right intensity.

The 2 forwards have their own role after the ball goes wide as well. The opposition full-back will undoubtedly think that if he can’t progress the ball forwards he can pass it back to the CB’s in order to start again or switch play. The striker in a diamond need be alive to this danger and quickly switch to marking the passing lanes for a potential back pass. This would either lead to a long-ball or a very risky pass that could be pressed and intercepted. A lot of this can be achieved through good coordination of the movements. It’s impossible to do well enough though without the required mindset and work rate. Mentally and physically draining for sure.

The forwards of the white team cover the passing lanes to the closest option that full back has. The ball far striker comes infield in order to intercept a potential back pass to the keeper. Only option remains a ball the down the channel.

Easier spells of possession

Aside from it’s aggressive nature in terms of quick counter-attacks and intense pressing the diamond offers many relatively comfortable spells of possession. This is very much a result of the numerical superiority that the system allows in midfield ( a 4 vs 3 against pretty much every system). There’s also the fact of the large amount of players who are between the opposition lines at all time, normally 3-4 players.

 The numerical advantage is of course relative since team will often use their wingers or full-backs to counter that superiority in different ways. Using the wide men for example in order to close the passing lanes in midfield means little access to the space between the lines. The close proximity of the defenders though means more space for advanced FB’s to receive the ball outside the block and look for diagonal balls between the lines or even a chipped ball into the depth for onrushing forwards. In general it adds an element of security to your possession game that a passing option is always available.

The red team cuts off the passing lanes to the 3 forwards in between the lines. That however would leave space out wide for a pass to the FB’s since the red teams’ wide players have tucked infield.

That’s all I’ve got in terms of positives so let’s move on to some negatives.

Weaknesses

Lack of natural width

Width is generally a pretty important ingredient to success nowadays. Teams tend to spend hours upon hours training their defensive block, in order to give the opposition less and less of an opportunity to play centrally and find holes between the lines. That invariably means the role of the wide players (forwards and fullbacks) becomes more and more important. The most successful teams over the past few years play with enough natural width so as to stretch the pitch as much as possible. Liverpool and Manchester City are just 2 of the best example of those principles.

It’s commonly known that the diamond 4-4-2 is a very centrally orientated formation in that sense. The opposition have a problem to contain the system in terms of the sheer number of players who can rotate in exchange passes in small pockets of space through the middle. That ultimately brings the need for the full-backs to be the main providers of width and thus instantly puts specific requirements in terms of the quality of the players in those positions. Having the entire flank for yourself is physically demanding and requires vast fitness and athletic levels. Quality in build up and in the final 3rd all of a sudden becomes a must.

Not only does the system demand high quality full-backs but it also could potentially leave gaps in transition. Build up through the middle with FB’s who are positioned high and wide can easily lead to turnovers and massive space for the opposition to exploit down the flanks. This is the risk teams take when playing possession football in this manner.

Defensive shape

So we come to the biggest downer in a standard 4-3-1-2. Defending in a diamond usually isn’t a particularly good idea. The main issue stems from the underloaded wide areas. When defending in a mid or low block the biggest problem comes from defending the width of the pitch with just 3 midfielders in the second line. That way teams can stretch the pitch, overload one side and then switch to the other, potentially leaving 1 v 1 situations out wide and causing issues for the team defending in a diamond to shift quickly enough. A few Tottenham games from last season highlighted a few of the issues relatively well.

Wolves manage to get switch the play on the flank. Tottenham’s midfield 3 is stretched so leaving a 1 v 1 situation out wide. Sissoko has to cover too much ground and the second line is stretched.
City’s second goal highlights the problem as well. The back line squeezes the space close to the ball, leaving Bernardo Silva alone at the back post. Spurs lack another midfield player who can track the run because of the presence of only 3 players to cover the width of the pitch.

The above mentioned issues usually are part of the reason why many prefer defending in a classical 4-4-2 or even a 4-5-1. These formations more or less provide stability in terms of defending the width of the pitch, whist still keeping some type of counterattacking threat in the process. All this could be highlighted by the concept of the 5 vertical spaces that the pitch is commonly divided into.

3 players covering 5 zones

Switching sides when attacking against a diamond isn’t the only way to cause trouble. The next issue was particularly well highlighted during the second leg in the CL quarterfinals between City and Spurs. With Spurs playing in a 4-3-1-2 defensively City used the full-backs to good use to stretch the pitch. Usually when the ball comes to a full-back the player who needs to come out and engage him is the ball near CM in a diamond. That potentially leaves a big gap, which would need to be filled by the DM. If the distances are big enough however that space can easily be exploited by a direct diagonal ball or a 3rd man pass to find a player in space.

Alli comes out to press, which leaves a massive gap between him and Wanyama. The DM can’t cover the space quickly enough, which allows KDB to find Aguero with a diagonal ball.

Naturally you could choose to defend very deep in a 4-3-1-2, which would very much congest the pitch even further and would make the above mentioned issues significantly easier to handle. A low block in a diamond, with the entire team defending within 30-ish yards of goal makes it much harder for the opposition to create gaps. It also has a detrimental effect on the ability of the team playing in a diamond to exert any transitional and counter-attacking prowess. The deep position of the forwards means a distinct lack of an out ball in wide spaces. This was highlighted in some of Manchester United’s first games under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United defending in a 6-3-1. The positions of the forwards is too low for them to be able to launch an efficient counter-attack. The pressure will just continue to come in waves.

Conclusion

In it’s essence the 4-4-2 diamond offers many positives, despite the fact that I’ve been critical of it’s usage on many instances. The system usually requires lots of stamina, dynamism and intensity, both on and off the ball. It’s efficiency can sometimes be questionable for a full game, because of the need for constant high intensity running to press and give option in the depth with runs. That sort of stamina isn’t achievable for just any side in world football.

I would generally find it very appropriate for mid-table and lower mid-table sides to use. Against teams of similar quality the system offers the opportunity to press and attack the depth of the pitch efficiently, as well as keeping stable possession for prolonged periods. The better your forwards are, the better the system can be implemented. The sticking point of course is when faced up against superior opposition that can play through a press. For smaller teams it’s highly unrecommendable to deploy a 4-3-1-2 against the big boys if of course the ambition is to try and win points.

For big teams this is again a system that offers enough positives against weaker sides. The close proximity between the forwards can transfer to quick passing, short passes and combinations in tight spaces. The most recent example were Spurs who used their immense talent pool up front to good use for large parts of the season in a 4-3-1-2. The disadvantages against teams of similar or higher quality were also painfully evident however – the defensive shape was exploited in numerous games.

The analysis was conducted mainly upon viewing many games of Tottenham and RB Salzburg from last season, as well as a few of the earlier Manchester United games under Ole. After having done it’s clear in my mind that the 4-4-2 diamond is far from useless at the top level, but it has some glaring limitations that would require adaptation in the approach across an entire season. That would mainly apply for teams with ambitions of CL and league success.  

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