We keep saying we need width: If we can just get another left-sided winger to complete our 4-4-2 then we'd be doing well. But to say we must have width from midfield is not absolutely necessary. History has shown us that asymmetric formations can and do work. Moreover, we don't even need to rigidly stick to one formation. What we need is balance.
Formations are a crude, albeit useful, tool for visualising a teams general shape. We all know how a team will generally play in any given formation, whether it's a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2 or 4-3-3. But to insist that certain formations must have certain types of players is wrong: a 4-4-2 doesn't necessarily need to have a winger on each side.
While we've been debating the benefits of any given formation and what formation would work best for our side, we've perhaps been caught up in these narrow designations, which has perhaps made us overlook exciting solutions that Pedro Caixinha has introduced: asymmetry and fluidity in formations. History can show us some interesting examples.
The great AC Milan side of the early 2000s shows us that you don't need midfield width at all. Milan lined-up in a 4-4-2 (diamond) or 4-3-1-2. There is no natural width from midfield, and they didn't even have rampaging full-backs on both sides; at right-back they did, in Cafu, but at left-back they had Maldini - not known for his attacking play. But there was balance as they had Seedorf playing LCM, who was able to drift wide, and then Kaka playing off a striker, again making space.
Of course it's easy to play through the middle when you have Seedorf, Pirlo, Gattuso, Kaka and Rui Costa to set up Shevchenko and Inzaghi, but the principle remains.
Even though Caixinha has tinkered with a diamond before, it didn't quite work. It may be that we didn't have the players to make it work, but that it may be tried again in the future. We now have more dynamic central midfield players to build upon those rampaging full-backs; and most importantly, we have a more disciplined midfield to cover them.
Fabio Capello's England side, although not generally thought of as 'successful', did highlight some interesting asymmetry in their formation. England lined up in a 4-2-3-1, but like us, lacked any natural left-winger. Capello's solution was to play Gerrard in Left-Midfield.
Gerard is no Left-midfielder, but it allowed for some interesting combinations. Rooney would play off the striker (No.10) but had a natural tendency to drift left, opening up space for Gerrard to cut inside onto his lethal right-foot. The width came from Cole at LWB. Add to that Lampard from LCM and there are some interesting, and potent, combinations on the left side; all without a natural left-winger. The balance comes from Cole and Rooney drifting wide, to allow Gerrard to arrive late into the middle of the park.
But of course, it doesn't just need to be standard formations utilising unorthodox players. Argentina's journey to the final of the last World Cup in 2014 provides a fascinating example of a team switching formations in-match to better help defend or attack.
Argentina's run was built upon a pragmatic 4-4-2 in defence, but would transition into a 4-3-3 in attack. Their defensive set-up featured two players in unorthodox positions: Perez, a central-midfielder, playing RM; and Lavezzi, a forward, playing LM. On the attacking transition, Lavezzi would push forward to make a three-man forward line with Higuain and Messi, and Perez would tuck in to make a three-man midfield.
Thus far in pre-season, Caixinha has experimented with asymmetry and fluidity in his formations. We've seen a standard 4-4-2, but with unorthodox flavours. We've employed a standard right-winger in Candeias, who hugs the touchline, but then on the left, Kranjcar has been used. Kranjcar is not a natural left-midfielder, but he's not being used as such: his role is to tuck inside to make a three-man midfield, to create overloads in the centre of the pitch. The balance comes from Miller's leftward movement and Wallace's width.
Although we don't have a natural left-winger as such, we've still been able to create some interesting combinations. In theory, the combinations and inter-play between Kranjcar, Miller and Wallace will create problems for any defence; add to that Dorrans playing deeper in LCM, and we've got good attacking options without needing a natural left-winger.
There are two main benefits to implementing an asymmetric flavour to a standard formation: (a) asymmetry presents sides with unfamiliar and unpredictable problems. Who marks who? If a RM is marking Kranjcar at LM, he then drags him out of position for Dorrans, Wallace and Miller to exploit.
And (b) it allows teams to pack in as many of their best players as possible. AC Milan seems to be the most extreme example, discarding width altogether to allow all those creative players to fit into the middle of the team. In Rangers' case, it allows us to play Kranjcar, Dorrans, Miller and perhaps even Pena, when a standard 4-4-2 would demand that we drop one or two.
Asymmetry also takes into account a player's individual characteristics. Where does Ronaldo or Ronaldinho play? On the wing? No.10? Striker? It's none of the above. In a standard formation they'd be wingers, but neither stayed there for long. It works firstly because of their natural ability, but also because their teams found the right balance -- mainly by playing three in midfield and deploying rampaging full-backs to compensate and exploit the space created.
We've now got workmanlike midfielders and strong defenders in Jack, Dorrans and Alves, so we can get away with players playing in unorthodox positions; we have the balance. In our most recent friendly against Sheffield Wednesday, Windass stood out in a LM spot. Again, Windass is not a natural wide player, but his running ability and inside position will create some unique problems for defenders this season; if he has Miller and Wallace's movement to support him. The key is balance.
Whether it works or not for us this season, we can only wait and see. However, Caixinha seems to have found a formation that the players feel comfortable with, while also bringing in some interesting asymmetrical adaptations. Kranjcar's (or Windass') unorthodox role should allow for some exciting combinations on the left side of midfield. At the very least it gets our best players into the same team. The key is balance.
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