Should AK go to Pellegrini’s DEF4-4-2?

Defensive 4-4-2 Tactics.

How the system sets up
This tactical system was the preferred approach used by Pellegrini’s Manchester City side in the 2013/14 season, but also has it’s roots in his earlier clubs like Malaga, Real Madrid and most notably Villarreal.

Pellegrini, who continued the tradition of entertaining South American football, first became famous after leading Villarreal, a club from a small town to domestic and European success – third place in 2004-05 behind Barcelona and Real Madrid. He also had the remarkable UEFA Champions League season of 2005/2006 going undefeated through the group stages.

In terms of tactics and shape, he prefers fluid systems with players heavily relying on their tactical awareness to drift in and out of each others positions. This encourages a varied approach in attacks, and helps unsettle the opposition as well as allowing the players to express themselves.

Pellegrini usually preferred having a deep line, not overly focused on winning the ball back as quickly as possible, rather waiting for the right opportunity to snatch it back. He rarely used set wide players, instead relying on reactive width, meaning the players should create it when necessary. While usually width would be provided by aggressive fullbacks, the midfielders and strikers were required to drift out wide if no overlapping runs were made.

While often setting up a 4-3-1-2 when Riquelme was at the club, to accommodate his skill, this often meant he could easily be taken out of the game by opposing defensive midfielders. This led to Pellegrini utilising his fluid defensive 4-4-2, a perfect combination of the European/English organised ‘two banks of four’ and the South American fluidity, flair and finesse with the use of ‘interiores’ (where Riquelme thrived because he had much more space) on the wings.

The transition phase from defence to attack
When the ball is won, the fullbacks push forward, in order to get more men to support the attack, as well as providing width. The two ‘interiores’ now drifting inside and behind the strikers, to flood the middle of the park.

While largely unused before in Europe, the player role ‘interiore’ was widely spread and in use in South American football. In basic terms, an ‘interiore’ was a wide player tucking inside while the team was in possession and dropping out wide again when without it, thus creating ‘two banks of four’ when defending and a system somewhat resembling the more famous Brazilian 4-2-2-2, when in possession of the ball.

The tactical idea of this was to create as many passing triangles as possible, most notably between the ‘interiore’, the striker and the fullback on either flank. The two central midfielders would usually just support the attacks, providing cover on the exposed flanks.

How the formation looks in its attacking form
In the attacking phase of play, The fullbacks act as wingers, with the central midfielders offering safety and support in case of losing the ball. The ‘interiores’ play behind the strikers. Loads of passing options are open, and natural triangles are created all over, not far from the opposing goal. This gives the players many options to find space, and open up the opposition.

This brought Pellegrini large success with Villarreal and Malaga in form of Champions League semi and quarter-finals, in both of them being knocked out in bizarre circumstances by Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund respectively. With both clubs, he never had large finances to back him up, or overly strong teams. Yet, through his tactical prowess and eye for the right player he managed to pull off some magnificent results, where arguably he should’ve reached the next round both times. Only a missed penalty in the final minute of the game against Arsenal, and an offside goal in the final minute of the game aganst Dortmund buried his chances of progressing.

Pellegrini’s idea is about players shifting in and out of positions while being willing to control the flow of the game.

He had a regular winger on one flank, and a player somewhat resembling an ‘interiore’ on the other. Both flanks had their width supplemented by aggressive fullbacks running up and down the line. A tucked in playmaker also provided another body in midfield, compensating for the lack of a 3rd CM. In addition, both strikers were happy to drop into space and help to maintain possession and create goals, thus negating the opposition overloading the midfield areas. There was a striker partnership complementing each other, with the ”small technical player (Aguero)”, and the more physical, yet technically accomplished Target Man (Negredo). This gave more flexibility in attack and gave more options when creating goals.

A Brief Analysis of Defensive and Attacking Situations.

A) One of the striker to drop deep, while the other creates depth by staying forward, it will often be one or the other striker doing this.

B) The ball winning midfielder to control the midfield zone, ready to close the opposing player if he receives a pass, thus trying to win the ball back

C) The advanced playmaker wide without the ball, closing off the support of the opposing fullback, and making interceptions of misplaced backpasses.

The mobility that a duo of a ball winning midfielder and a box-to-box midfielder provides is also enough to compensate for lack of a 3rd CM. In defence the team will not run around like crazy chasing the ball, instead waiting for the right opportunity to win it back, and catching the opposition offside.

Its necessary to play compact and deep, with ‘two banks of four’ close to each other, making it very tough for the opposition to play through. While generally you would want to keep hold of the ball and exchange short, possession passes, players should be happy to play it long when the right opportunities present themselves.

There should be several passing triangles available. The advanced playmaker should sit centrally, supporting the attack in the midfield zone, having space and time to pick his options. The striker making opposite movements to unsettle and stretch the defence.

The fullback should effectively make his run to stretch the play, because there are enough players in the central area of the pitch, he should have plenty of space and time to effectively cross the ball. Alternatively the advanced playmaker can continue inside, and look for through balls there.

In every tactical system, you will need the right kind of players to make the tactic work, otherwise you will only find frustration. Most tactics will fail completely if the wrong kind of players are used. So what would you look for from your players…

Goalkeeper – Nothing fancy, just as good as you can get. He can distribute the ball close, concentration and decision making are good attributes. 

Ball Playing Defenders – Pellegrini always liked his central defenders to be solid, tough tackling players. They orchestrate your defence, and are the wall opposition attacks crash against. One of them will also sweep up any balls played in behind the defence, so some pace for one might be beneficial. One centre-back could notch up goals from set pieces as well, so a dominant header would be handy.

Full Backs – They are set up respectively on support and attack duty. This gives better balance and encourages better movement between the lines. They should be able run a lot, as they are rquired to move up and down the line all game. The full backs are quite important to the tactic, as they are the ones who balance it. They offer support in every phase of the game, and are required to stretch the play, in order for central players to have space to create passing moves. You want your players to be good in defence, running up and down the line all day, while being able to cross and pass the ball as well.

Ball Winning Midfielder – An important player in the system, the terrier. He will run alot, winning the ball back and dominating the midfield with his presence. When he wins the ball back from a cowering opposition player he will quickly distribute it to other players, while himself offering support to the attacking move. He will often sit a little deeper when in possession of the ball, acting as an anchor point if forward passing options are unavailable. He’ll position himself, so that the ball can be quickly moved from flank to flank when around the opposition area. You want a typical tough tackling midfielder, who will benefit from good passing.

Box-to-Box Midfielder – The second of the midfield pairing, offering equal amounts of movement and dynamism, though in a different manner. He should be responsible for all the phases of the game, while organising and steering the teams game. In attack, he will spray passes aroud him, looking for opportunities for through balls and key passes, sometimes long shots given the right chance, also aggressive runs into the penalty area, running directly from deep. A player able to run a lot, create and defend.

Winger – A typical winger, to make direct runs with the ball, positioning himself high up the pitch. He needs to take on opposing fullbacks and cross the ball into the area. On occasion he can receive a long ball for a counter-attacking move. He should get his fair share of assists and goals. Pace/acceleration, stamina, work rate, teamwork and dribbling.

Advanced Playmaker – This is an important player, as he should do a lot in order to maintain possession and create chances. In defence, he should stay wide, protecting the flank, either from an aggressive fullback or an onrushing winger. He needs to be able to often intercept passes, and initiate counter-attacking passes. In attack he should usually stay central, looking to help maintain possession and looking for intelligent through balls, as well as finishing crosses or getting on the end of passing moves himself. Good passer, creativity, decision making but also stamina and teamwork (plus a good work rate in order to cover the flank).

Trequartista – One part of the striker pairing that complement each other. This one should be the more creative one, looking for space, dropping deep in order to maintain possession and receive the ball. He will be responsible for scoring and creating goals, while being a mobile threat with his technique. This is the ‘small, creative striker’ 

Complete Forward – The target man who can pass the ball. The second part of the striker duo. He should also drop deep into space, often creating assymetric/opposite movement with his strike partner. This is the more physical player, who can bully defenders, and hold up the ball with his strength, in order for his teammates to advance into more dangerous positions. He is responsible for both creating and scoring goals. He’s a big strong guy, but should have some pace/acceleration as well as skills to dribble a little bit. 

So, What Boro team would you play in this formation?

Who would you put in each position based on the requirements?

Do Middlesbrough have the players to use this system effectively?

Unless Aitor Karanka changes his attacking philosophy we may never know, but he needs to do something, and fast.


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