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Captain's Blog: O'Neill Not The Obstacle To 4-4-2 Revamp

With the arrival of Danny Graham, cries for Sunderland to revert to a 4-4-2 system are louder than ever. But is Martin O'Neill and his so-called tactical rigidity the obstacle many seem to insist it is?

Scott Heavey

Ever since Danny Graham arrived at Sunderland on deadline day, there has been one persistent footballing question dominating conversations on Wearside - 4-4-2. It isn't a new line of discussion by any means, of course. It would be fair to say that the former Watford man's arrival has brought the question to the fore rather than actually creating it.

Despite his general popularity amongst the Sunderland support, it has been interesting to witness a growing discontent with what is being perceived as negative tactics and archaic footballing philosophy from Martin O'Neill.

The accusation from these quarters is quite clear - utilizing a system that packs the midfield and can only slot in a lone striker shows insufficient intent to win games and too much commitment to not losing them.

Personally, I am not sure it is entirely fair. In fact I know it isn't.

When an accusation of negativity is laid at a manager's feet following an away game in which his team has come back from a goal down to win the game, such as it was following Wigan recently, then the accusation is lacking in merit. Similarly, when you replace David Vaughan with James McClean in the second half with the scores level away from home, that is not indicative of a safety-first tactical outlook.

The criticism, as far as I can tell, seems to revolve around a pivotal premise - and it is a deeply flawed and probably wholly false premise at that. Specifically, that there is a direct correlation to be found between the amount of strikers you have on the pitch and how much you intend to attack, which singularly makes 4-4-2 an attacking system by default.

By that logic, though, Striker-less Spain were the most negative team in Euro 2012 and England the most positive. By that logic Stoke have been more committed to swashbuckling attacking football over the last 3 or 4 years than Barcelona.

The truth is, that if you have a problem with O'Neill generally favouring the use of a lone striker, then you actually have a problem with the modern game itself.

According to Sunderland were one of nineteen Premier League teams to set up with just one central striker last weekend. The team that accommodated a traditional front two, West Bromwich Albion, lost at home to Spurs whilst recording the lowest amount of shots on goal in the whole division, albeit with ten men for a spell, and the Baggies lining up in that shape this week was very much a surprise.

Some teams had what could be considered two 'strikers' on the pitch - such as Manchester United with Rooney and van Persie, Manchester City with Dzeko and Aguero, or Liverpool with Suarez and Sturridge, but none were set-up as a traditional front pairing. In fact none were set up any differently to how Fletcher and Sessegnon have lined up for Sunderland for the majority of the season so far.

It isn't that everyone is missing a trick here. There is a very good reason that 4-4-2 has been mostly left in the past by football's elite, and that is because tactics have evolved along very deliberate lines to negate its strengths whilst also exploiting its weaknesses. It may have the soothing comfort of simplicity and familiarity, but it is also one of the toughest systems to make work nowadays. That isn't an opinion on my part. It is an empirical fact of the modern game.

The modern staples of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 have been developed to infiltrate the space between rigid lines, overload the middle of the pitch, pin full backs back into their own half, and break up the partnerships upon which 4-4-2 relies. Using it has therefore ceased being a case of asserting your own game and taking the initiative and become one of playing directly into the opposition's hands. I fail to see much positivity in that, personally.

I am not suggesting that the quality of football under O'Neill this season has been anything to really get excited over. Frankly, it hasn't. For the most part his team have struggled to keep the ball and penetrate.

All I am saying is that the reason for that is not a tactical one. What we are watching is not the desired result. The manager is no more thinking to himself ‘I hope the defender plays a long ball to Sessegnon's head, here' any more than any of the rest of us.

But neither has the football Sunderland have produced this season been the kind of antithesis to the purist game that some would have you believe. Swansea, for example, are held in high regard for their style of play, but they were just as guilty of failing to entertain at the Stadium of Light recently as the home side.

The main problem for O'Neill's side this season has been turning some neat approach play into a consistent final ball. Danny Graham's introduction would help enormously there as it would mean another player on the pitch whose natural instinct will carry him into threatening positions to receive a decisive pass.

It doesn't have to necessitate a change in system, though. O'Neill has dismissed talk of Graham being back-up and talked-up the prospect of Fletcher dropping into a deeper position, and that is what we can probably expect to see. Tactically, nothing need change to accommodate the man who has inherited Sunderland's number nine shirt.

But if you are yearning for a return to 4-4-2 and cite a reluctance to use the system as a root of your criticism for Martin O'Neill, then I'm afraid you are directing your disdain in the wrong direction. It is football in general that has largely taken it off the agenda.

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