A growing trend during the most recent SPL campaign was for sides to pack the centre of their midfield. This is not to say that teams are now dropping one of their strikers in favour of another midfielder – this has been evident for many years now – rather, sides appear to be starting matches with a narrow midfield four or five.
To put the same point a different way, when 4-4-2 was the default formation, some sides would diverge and set up more defensively by dropping a striker for an extra midfielder, thus moving to a 4-5-1 which still contained two wide players. What is increasingly common now, however, is that teams are setting up in such a way that their line up contains four, sometimes five, central midfielders across two bands.
Liberalisation of the offside law
Since the liberalisation of the offside law in 2005, most teams have reverted to holding a deeper defensive line in order to avoid being caught out by the pace of opposing strikers – this is evidenced by the fact that the number of offsides per match has actually fallen significantly in recent years. Consequently, the effective playing area has been stretched, leading teams to split their midfield into two bands – one attacking and one defensive – hence the re-emergence of four-band formations. Thus, it is no longer adequate to describe the majority of formations as 4-4-2, 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. 4-4-2 formations are more likely 4-4-1-1 or 4-1-3-2 or something similar; 4-5-1 is more accurately described as, say, 4-2-3-1 (the most popular formation at last year’s World Cup); whereas a more precise notation of 4-3-3 could be either 4-3-1-2 (the default formation in Serie A at the moment) or 4-1-2-3 (the formation used by Barcelona to great effect in recent years).
In each of these formations, there is at least three central midfielders – the 4-4-1-1 contains two holding and one central attacking midfielder, as does the 4-2-3-1, whereas the 4-1-3-2 contains four central midfielders, one deeper-lying than the other three, and the 4-3-2-1 has three holding midfielders and two attacking central midfielders. Although these formations, many of which are lone-striker systems, may appear prima facie more defensive, there is no reason why any should be considered as such. Formations are neutral, it is their implementation that gives them positive and negative characteristics.
Therefore, the title Packing the Midfield is intended to convey that some teams are now squeezing four or five central midfielders across two bands, rather than the more traditional use of the phrase which implied a defensive approach, i.e. when a manager decided to drop a striker in favour of another central midfielder with the intention of stifling the midfield area, thus restricting the opportunities of their opponents.
Before we proceed to the SPL, it is worth pointing out a few examples of formations with four or five central midfielders elsewhere in Europe. The default 4-3-1-2 in Serie A has already been mentioned but even the sides in Italy that do not adopt this formation, most notably Napoli, still make sure there are plenty bodies in central areas. Walter Mazzarri’s favoured formation this season has been 3-4-2-1. Broken down, this formation contains three central defenders; two holding midfielders flanked by two wing-backs; two central attacking midfielders and one striker. This gives the side four central midfielders.
Evidence can also be found in Spain’s La Liga. Villarreal have lined up 4-2-2-2 for the majority of the previous season under Juan Carlos Garrido, a formation that contains two holding midfielders, two central attacking midfielders and two strikers – an upside-down T-shape – whereas recently-crowned champions Barcelona’s fluid 4-1-2-3 contains one holder, two central attacking midfielders and then Lionel Messi in the false 9 role which involves him dropping into the central attacking midfield area, giving his side, in effect, four central midfielders.
The first example, and perhaps the inspiration for this article, was the formations Celtic manager Neil Lennon deployed during the 2-2 draw at Ibrox in February. Celtic began the match in a lopsided 4-5-1 with Kris Commons wide left and Scott Brown in his, now familiar, tucked-in right sided role. The formation, therefore, contained four central midfielders, with one natural winger further forward.
Rangers dominated the early stages and opened the scoring early on, forcing Lennon to switch things around. He subsequently moved Commons into a central position just off Gary Hooper in attack, giving Celtic, in effect, five central midfielders. The four deeper-lying midfielders – now fluid and interchanging – all held central positions and now relied on the full-backs to provide width. The switch saw Celtic dominate the midfield area.
Similar examples of the above include Rangers’ 5-4-1, which also contained a narrow midfield four, first seen in the 2-2 draw away to Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League - the key difference being that Rangers’ midfield tended to be more rigid. As well as this, Derek McInnes has been known to line up St. Johnstone with a fluid central midfield four, usually in the form of three out-and-out central midfielders and Liam Craig in a tucked-in left-sided role.
Colin Calderwood has favoured a 4-1-3-2 formation for the most part since taking over as Hibernian manager towards the end of last year. The 4-1-3-2 involves Victor Palsson sitting just ahead of the defence as a deep-lying playmaker and is usually accompanied by three central midfielders just ahead of him, although there have been one or two occasions where one of the three is naturally a winger and thus has a tendency to drift wide.
In all of the above examples, the sides rely on their full-backs or wing-backs to advance and provide width. One example that does not necessarily involve pushing the full-backs on can be found with St. Mirren. Danny Lennon set his side up in a 4-3-2-1, or Christmas tree formation, during a recent trip to Ibrox which contained two attacking midfielders – Paul McGowan and Aaron Mooy- just ahead of three more industrious central midfielders – Paddy Cregg, Jim Goodwin and Steven Thomson – giving them five players in central midfield positions. The tactic worked for the most part as St. Mirren reduced the home side to few clear-cut chances and in the end narrowly lost the match to a second half Steven Whittaker penalty.
Evidence of sides packing the midfield area can also be found with a few clubs who tend to field players as a drifting winger or winger-cum-second-striker, that is, a player who starts in a wide position but who has a tendency, sometimes a compulsion, to drift into central areas. Perhaps the player in the SPL to play this role to the greatest effect is Steven Naismith of Rangers, although he usually executes this as part of a 4-4-2, giving Rangers a third central midfielder.
We would have to look to Scotland’s recent victory over Wales to find an example of three central midfielders being given extra help in that area by Naismith as a drifting winger. It is notable that Naismith, and Scotland as a whole, were not nearly as effective when Naismith was deployed as a second striker behind Kenny Miller in the following match against the Republic of Ireland.
Where the drifting wingers have caused sides to have, in effect, more than three central midfield players can be found in the following examples. Even though we have already discussed Celtic above, the formation mentioned was pretty much a one off as Lennon seemed to favour a two-striker formation most of the time. This did not detract from his desire to pack the midfield, however. For the second half of the season, Lennon’s most used formation was a lopsided 4-4-2. The starting positions included two holders – for example, Joe Ledley and Beram Kayal – with Scott Brown again in a tucked-in, right-sided role and Kris Commons on the left wing and more advanced. Commons, however, would often drift inside to central areas to collect the ball and link play between the Celtic midfield and attack. The movement of Commons meant that at many points during matches, Celtic had four players in central midfield positions.
At one point later in the season it appeared that Celtic were moving towards more of a 4-2-2-2, bearing some similarities to that of Villarreal mentioned earlier, with Brown slightly more advanced than usual and Commons pretty much as a central attacking midfielder. However, this formation didn’t last long and Lennon soon reverted back to the lopsided 4-4-2
Once Danny Swanson and Craig Conway returned from injury, Peter Houston was able to revert his Dundee United side back to his favoured 4-5-1-cum-4-3-3 formation with a V-shaped midfield. In this set up, Swanson is pretty much given free reign to drift all over the park. He will occasionally pop up on the opposite wing but spends a lot of time coming inside to occupy the area behind David Goodwillie and sometimes even drops as deep as the centre circle to collect the ball and start off attacks. It is also worth noting that Houston has also been willing to switch to a Christmas tree formation during matches, in effect, giving his side five central midfielders.
David Obua did something similar in Hearts’ 4-0 defeat to Rangers last month, albeit from a deeper starting position. It seems from the above that even though the starting positions of most sides suggests X amount of midfielders, a growing number of managers are instructing one of their wide players to either play a tucked in role, in other words a halfway house between wide and a central midfielder, or else as a drifting winger in order to give their side more bodies in the centre of the pitch while retaining some sort of width from midfield.
One reason for the loading of central midfield areas has already been alluded to. This area of the pitch is often of paramount importance as winning the midfield battle is frequently the difference between victory and defeat. Having an extra man in the centre of midfield gives a side more chance of dominating possession and this is one of the reasons why 4-4-2, in its traditional form, has largely disappeared. The move away from 4-4-2 to two band formations has ultimately been aided by the liberalisation of the offside law which creates more space in central midfield areas and this, naturally, leads to more players being positioned where there is more space.
Furthermore, squeezing more players into central midfield positions has a positive effect on both the defensive and attacking capabilities of the side. Not only do the two or three holding midfielders offer their defence more protection, meaning that it is easier to win the ball, but when the ball is eventually won there are more passing options around the player in possession.
One further reason, related to the point in the previous paragraph, regards the apparent rise of strikerless formations in recent years. Craig Levein was, perhaps justifiably, lambasted for experimenting with a 4-6-0 in a Euro 2012 qualifier last year although a number of top teams have effectively employed such a tactic, most notably Barcelona, Manchester United and Roma. One of the thoughts behind this, which is related to our more general point that sides are deploying more central midfielders, is that once the ball is won it is more effective – or from the perspective of the opposition, more difficult – to have midfielders running at and beyond defenders rather than having strikers pushed high up the pitch with their back to goal.
So even though there seems to be little or no examples of a side in the SPL that doesn’t line up in four bands, it seems now that there are many examples of the two midfield bands becoming increasingly populated, be it from fielding more actual central midfielders or else by deploying wingers or wide midfielders who drift inside. Overall it seems that packing the midfield, more specifically the centre of midfield, is on the rise although not in the traditional sense and not necessarily with the aim of moving towards more negative football.