In 2008, our very own Jonathan Wilson – Guardian journalist, author, and Mackem ambassador to world football – published his fascinatingly forensic Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics.
Recently revised and updated for a fifteenth anniversary edition, it’s ultimately as much a social and ethnographic history of football as a technical and tactical one, tending to emphasise how national characteristics are reflected in attitudes towards the game.
Not least among these is an English insularity that remains a little suspicious of effete foreign fantasistas, registas, and enganches.
In the book’s prologue, Wilson tells a revealing story about an argument in a bar in Lisbon in 2004.
A multinational group of football journalists are discussing formations when another Englishman says, dismissively, “Oh, what’s the difference? They’re the same players. Formation isn’t important. It’s not worth writing about.”
An Argentinian colleague counters that “the formation is the only thing worth writing about. It’s not worth writing about anything else.”
The truth is clearly somewhere in between.
“Football is not [just] about players,” writes Wilson, “It is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players and their movement within that deployment.”
But as well as formation, he admits, there’s also some indefinable quality called ‘style’ and there are other factors: “Heart, soul, effort, desire, strength, power, speed, passion and skill.”
Added to that, of course, there’s also luck, and we seem to have had more than our fair share of the bad kind so far this season!
As Wilson demonstrates, there are as many potentially bewildering ways of describing a team’s formation as a theoretical construct as there are ways of dividing a set of ten outfield players into subsets of anywhere between one and five.
These discussions are as fascinating as they’re futile, and as pointless as they’re profound.
As with that night in Portugal, however, it’s a version of fantasy football that many of us enjoy over a pint in a Sunderland pub of a winter’s evening, or even here in the Roker Report comments sections.
Formations matter, and how a head coach sets his or her team up on the pitch can be the difference between getting the best out of them or leaving them chasing the proverbial shadows, confused and frustrated.
It’s at this point English pundits, historically, tended to cite a lack of effort and a failure to ‘roll the sleeves up and get stuck in’, rather than a failure of conception.
The best example of the galvanising effect a simple tweak in formation can have might be that of Chelsea’s 2016/2017 title winning season under Antonio Conte.
Jose Mourinho had won his second Premier League title in 2015 by utilising what had become his trademark 4-2-3-1, primarily with Willian, Oscar, and Eden Hazard operating just behind Diego Costa.
After a disastrous start to the following season, however, Mourinho was beginning to look like a busted flush and he didn’t even make it to Christmas. Guus Hiddink was brought in as an interim appointment, tasked with damage limitation.
New permanent boss Conte began the 2016/2017 season with three workmanlike wins, using the same 4-2-3-1 formation, when a rotten run of results in September culminated in the Blues finding themselves 3-0 down by half time against Arsenal at the Emirates.
With the game as good as gone, the Italian hit upon the idea of introducing Marcos Alonso for Cesc Fabregas and switching to an innovative 3-4-3 formation, and Chelsea never looked back.
Victor Moses and former Sunderland defender Alonso were to prove revelatory as overlapping wingbacks, surprising many, myself included. With Hazard and Pedro flanking Costa up front, Chelsea were suddenly dynamic and unstoppable, romping to the title with a record number of wins and seven points clear of second-placed Spurs.
“I’ve always said a coach has to be like a good tailor,” Conte would say.
“Depending on the players you have available, and depending on their qualities, you have to put together a nice suit. You try to bring out the characteristics and qualities of your different players. Then I add my idea of play and my tactics.”
Moving closer to home, Tony Mowbray began his Sunderland tenure on Wednesday 31st August 2022 with a 3-0 home win against Rotherham United.
Having had hardly any time to work with his squad, he sensibly stuck with the 3-4-1-2 formation that Alex Neil had settled on in the five league games before he jumped ship.
Since the arrival of Ellis Simms on loan from Everton, Neil had chosen to deploy Simms and Ross Stewart as a front two whenever possible, usually with Alex Pritchard ‘in the hole’ behind them.
After missing the best chance of a fairly even first half that evening, Stewart scored two second half goals before Jack Clarke rounded things off with a trademark weaving run and crisp finish. It was an auspicious beginning.
That day, Sunderland also announced the signings of three young guns: Abdoulah Ba, Edouard Michut and Amad Diallo, who were introduced to the crowd during half time looking for all the world like three sixth formers on a school trip.
At that point, who knew whether any of the three would make a difference, or that Amad – floating in a position somewhere between inside-right and number ten- would eventually become the most significant figure of the second half of our season?
His impact wouldn’t be felt for several months, however, and not long after the Rotherham game, injuries robbed Mowbray of Stewart, then Simms, and then Stewart again, this time for good.
Once Simms was recalled by Everton, primarily because there was a space on the Goodison Park bench that had to be kept warm at all costs, we were left without a striker for the final five months of the season.
When he had either Stewart or Simms – although they were rarely both fit at the same time – Mowbray had settled, for the most part, on a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Stewart’s attributes of work-rate, strength, an ability to come short and hold the ball up, an ability to either run in the behind or break into the box to get on the end of crosses, and clinical finishing, made him perfect for the role of spearhead.
He had many of the qualities, in fact, of the quintessential lone striker Mourinho had originally utilised: Didier Drogba, hence the awkward if amusing ‘Loch Ness Drogba’ moniker.
Simms, too, made some kind of sense in that shape, though he needed and still needs to work on many of the elements listed above.
He certainly had the physical attributes, but his movement was nowhere near as intelligent as Stewart’s, and the ball often tended to bounce off him. 4-2-3-1 still made some kind of sense nevertheless, given the plethora of fast, skilful attacking midfielders we had for the ‘three’ position.
From January onwards, however, we had neither Stewart nor Simms, and Joe Gelhardt, who joined us on loan from Leeds United, was a very different type of player.
Mowbray largely persisted with 4-2-3-1, however, only now with Gelhardt as the attacking focal point, but to my mind, this made far less sense.
Given that we managed to finish the season unbeaten in our final nine league games (four wins and five draws) following a horrible blip in late February and early March, it may seem churlish to criticise, especially given our lack of forwards and central defenders.
Then again, seventeen points from a possible twenty seven is far from perfect, so there’s surely at least room for discussion.
There were some suggestions at the time that Gelhardt was being deployed as a ‘false nine,’ but that was never really the case. A false nine has no place in 4-2-3-1, a formation that emphatically requires the truest of true number nines.
The classic ‘false nine’, on the other hand, usually entails a front three, something like the way Lionel Messi was first used at Barcelona, when Guardiola invented the position, and again in the diminutive genius’s final seasons there after the departure of Luis Suarez.
Another example might be post-Sergio Aguero and pre-Erling Haaland Manchester City, where any one of their small army of skilful little attacking midfielders could be asked to do it- once again, as part of a nominal front three.
The key to the role is the ability to drop into the spaces where defenders fear to go and pull strings, as Messi has done so beautifully throughout his stellar career.
Gelhardt, on the other hand, playing in front of Clarke, Diallo and Roberts, was more akin to a faulty nine, and it didn’t really work at all.
His willingness to harry defenders and close down space carried some secondary value, and he worked hard, but he still spent most of his time looking like a fish out of water.
This is all entirely moot, of course.
Might things have gone even better had we ditched the Gelhardt experiment and reverted to a 4-3-3, or even an audacious Conte-esque 3-4-3, with Amad as a false nine and an extra man or two in midfield?
I really think it could’ve been worth a shot, and I wasn’t alone in that view amongst the armchair pundits, but who really knows?
Turning to the beginning of 2023/2024, we’ll also never know whether Hemir might’ve been helped in adjusting to Championship football had he not been asked to plough a lone furrow in the manner of the Stewart in his pomp: an impossible task, surely.
At this stage, I’d like to add a few caveats, hoping to avoid misinterpretation and head off howls of disgust after the brilliant, effervescent performance against Southampton on Saturday lunchtime.
First and foremost, I was among those who felt a really good performance was coming, although not quite that good!
We’ve looked decent this season, albeit just a little undercooked and a little unlucky, plus we’ve only lost to the current top two, and looked better than both in the process.
I’ve been telling people since pre-season that I wouldn’t be surprised if we improved on last season’s finish (I’m not going to say what I actually think, because I don’t want to jinx it) and we now have potentially the most balanced and the deepest squad we’ve had for as long as I can remember.
I also haven’t said that we can’t perform from a 4-2-3-1 shape (although we’re currently playing more of a 4-2-4 anyway, in truth).
We did finish last season unbeaten in nine games when playing that way, so that’s clearly not the case. I thought our second half performance against Preston in May was just about as good as Saturday’s, as it happens.
We won’t, however come up against too many opponents as bizarrely obliging as the Saints were.
As well as we played, they were terrible, and for all their possession it looked like they only had eight players on the pitch when we had the ball. You’re really asking for trouble if you give Clarke and Ba that kind of space to run into.
Not everyone’s going to roll over and ask us to tickle their tummies like they did. Most teams will get into a low block and challenge us to break them down, and scoring so early obviously helped too.
With that in mind, I stand by my main argument that we’ll need to find new and more varied ways to play in order to get the best out of the host of players we now have.
Let’s face it, it’s the best kind of problem for the boss to have, and far better than the diametrically opposite problems he had at the end of last season.
I also stand by the suggestion that last season’s success might’ve been in spite of, rather than because of the Gelhardt experiment, and it’s actually to Joffy’s credit that he worked so hard, stuck at it, and made something out of it.
I’m sure Mowbray saw that in him and stuck with it because he knew he could trust the lad to put a shift in, so I can’t really argue with the outcome.
I’ll finish with my three favourite moments (among many) from the Southampton game.
The first was Trai Hume’s stunning, Kevin De Bruyne-esque ball for the first goal, followed by Jewison Bennette’s triple Marseille and perfect cross for the fifth and then Dan Neil’s nutmeg and beautiful through-ball to Hemir after Pierre Ekwah’s perfectly-timed timed tackle…if only the boy could’ve finished it off!