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An ode to 4-2-3-1 - the formation that could take Sunderland AFC forward

When you look at Sunderland’s squads, we have a host of skilful attacking midfielders and versatile wide forwards. So is 4-2-3-1 key to playing the Sunderland way?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

If the Sporting Director-Head Coach model is to work as it should, then Sunderland will look to adopt a “brand” of football and bring in players who can fulfill that brief and do this throughout the different squads. That’s basically what was promised when KLD took over.

What does it mean to play the Sunderland way? For many, it's about hard-tackling midfielders, big dominant centre halves, full backs who can get the ball into the box, creative attackers who have a touch of class, and a striker who knows where the back of the net is.

For a time it looked like Lee Johnson was the man to implement that kind of football philosophy in the men’s first team and it would be a way of playing that would permeate all age groups at the club, one that seemed derived from that idea of playing the Sunderland way.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

And it seemed to be working, until - that is - it all went pair-shaped after last Christmas and the utilitarian Alex Neil was recruited to do a short term job.

It was a job he did with aplomb, but with his departure and the appointment of Tony Mowbray, there’s the opportunity for some of that longer-term thinking to be implemented.

He landed at the club with Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms heading up a team playing well while locked into Neil’s preferred 5-3-2/3-5-2 system, and didn’t look to change things that were clearly working. Then came Stewart’s pre-match injury at ‘Boro and the news that he would be sidelined for a couple of months at least.

This was our worst nightmare come true. How are we going to cope without the big Scot up top? As we witnessed at the Riverside, there is no direct like-for-like replacement sitting on the bench waiting for their chance, and to be honest, the prospect of finding anyone who could provide satisfactory cover for him was always going to be a challenge.

Now, with the window shut and only a few journeymen available on the free agent list, Mowbray is left with no choice but to switch system, alter the way the Lads have been playing so far this season, and use the other attacking talents that have been recruited over the last 12 months.

Middlesbrough v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The answer, I believe, lies in the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Over the last twenty years, this shape - with a flat back four and two holding midfielders behind three who may be described as attacking midfielders or a number ten flanked by two narrow wingers (often playing on the ‘wrong’ side so they can cut in and shoot from distance) - has become the go-to setup for many modern coaches.

4-4-2 may be what those of us over the age of 35 grew up with, but there’s a good reason why it is rarely seen in the top tiers of the game today - it’s too easy to play through, lacks dynamism, it’s suited to the slugfest of the lower divisions but isn't a viable option as the players become faster, more technical, and better drilled further up the pyramid.

Although variants of the system have been seen for many years, 4-2-3-1 became prominent in Spain in the early 2000s and was the basis upon which their national team dominated world football in the early part of this century as well as being a system employed to great effect in Spanish domestic football.

This was a Spanish national team that has set the standard, the side whose style of play still shapes modern football - particularly in the Premier League.

For supporters of my vintage, they represented a progression from the great Arsenal team of the turn of the century, demonstrating the ‘total football’ philosophy that Johann Cruyff brought from Ajax to Barcelona, the football that Pep Guardiola is steeped in, the best brand of football the world has ever seen.

It has since migrated across Europe via coaches like Rafa Benitez and Guardiola, and is now almost ubiquitous amongst the elite clubs. It is what Johnson tried - with some early success - to implement here too, moving the men's side away from Parkinson’s regressive 5-4-1 and freeing up that extra midfielder to be a true number ten.

Its virtue is in its flexibility, and the way that it can be utilised for both attacking and defensive purposes. It can be molded and reshaped to adapt to particular situations and the availability of particular players but, as Benitez makes clear in his Coaches Voice video, it is at its most effective when a coach has the ability to bring in the kinds of players who fit the basic 4-2-3-1 system.

Netherlands v Spain: 2010 FIFA World Cup Final
Spain with Fabregas as a 10 and Xavi as an 8
Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

On the women’s side of Sunderland, Mel Reay has played the 4-2-3-1 in the Championship since last January and the recruitment over the summer has added players who will fit neatly into this way of playing, Tyler Dodds and Danielle Brown being perfect examples.

The Lasses’ head coach is in it for the long-term, and the implementation of a consistent playing philosophy and system is less likely to be buffeted by the short-term demands that have befallen her counterparts on the men’s side.

If our ambition as a club overall is, in the short to medium term, to become a breeding ground for elite talent before graduating to those levels ourselves, then playing the system that elite players are most likely to encounter before and after their time on Wearside will be important.

It suits the players we have available in the first team squad. We understand Aji Alese to be a technically gifted ball playing centre back who, alongside the more traditional Danny Batth or Bailey Wright, would be the one progressing the ball up the pitch when fed by the ‘keeper. If, rather than Alese, it’s Luke O’Nien who takes the space temporarily vacated by the classy Denis Cirkin, then his “natural” midfield talents should suffice in the short term.

In the fullback roles, the ability to cover the whole of one wing, get crosses into the box and support the midfield - as well as actually defend - is key. O’Nien, Gooch, Clarke, and possibly Hume and Alese are our options here. In this league, where wide players are full of pace and skill, we seem a little light on the defensive side of the equation. But if Mowbray can find the right mix it would truly unlock the potential of this system.

Bradford City v Sunderland: Pre-Season Friendly
Aji Alese could be an important part of a successful back four
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I strongly believe that the left fullback or wingback position is the one where we really needed to strengthen in the summer, and it will surely be close to the top of the list when it comes to recruitment in January. But this squad is, and always was going to be one window into our Championship return, a work in progress.

The two holding midfield roles in the 4-2-3-1 need to be subtly different and we have perfectly suitable options at the moment. Captain Corry Evans is the first name on the team sheet and it is a natural workhorse of a player, selfless in doing the dirty work, especially when partnered with a technically gifted ball player like Dan Neil or perhaps Edouard Michut. Evans’ young understudies are clearly the combative Jay Matete and potentially young Abdoullah Ba, although we’re yet to see just what kind of player the Frenchman really is.

Ellis Simms will, no doubt, continue as a lone forward but it’s the options that we have available across the three in support of him that holds the largest amount of promise for the 4-2-3-1.

Alex Pritchard is arguably the best player at the club and Patrick Roberts is, of course, a player with great potential as a number ten. Jack Clarke is probably better suited to be on the left of a supporting three and Leon Dajaku is a natural in this system too. When you add into this mix Amad Diallo and Jewison Bennette, the potential gains from going back to this system - particularly in the absence of the all-action Stewart - become clear.

Middlesbrough v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Amad Diallo of Sunderland
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

If this is the way that Mowbray chooses to go, then the challenge for him may be in finding the right combinations of the attacking midfield and wide forward players. Who will start and who will finish games? Which players need to be on the field together to maximise their combined impact?

Stewart may return just before the World Cup break, and it would be great if the Head Coach could be left with two centre forwards vying for one place in the starting line-up, as well as retaining the ability to go two-up-top when needs must.

The 4-2-3-1 will, I believe, solve the immediate problem of scoring goals without our primary goalscoring threat but, as a formation, I really do think that it also matches what we generally want to see in the “Sunderland way”.

It demands versatility and energy. It demands a high press (or if you like, the forwards getting stuck in). It demands direct attacking play that is exciting and entertaining to watch (or good football).

More than that, it is a formation that recognises that the era of players having one “natural position” that they are molded into as a teenager and only break away from as a last resort is gone. Good all-round footballers, fit and physically capable, tactically astute and emotionally intelligent, can be fitted together in a multitude of combinations if they know the system.

It’s not just a trendy football hipster obsession - it works. It’s how Manchester City won the league and how the Lionesses won the Euros. It is, for me, the way that the beautiful game is played most beautifully.

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