The bootroom: is Trap right to stick with his famous 4-4-2?

The Ireland manager has faced criticism for his perceived inflexibility in setting out his side. But are we better off trusting the familiar formation?

Image: INPHO/Donall Farmer

EAMON DUNPHY THINKS it’s finished. Liam Lawrence questioned it. Giovanni Trapattoni, if we are to believe what we’re told, is a slave to its use.

There’s been so much wailing about systems and formations here over the last couple of years, one would think the Irish had a history of forming great tactical thinking in football, that we were a nation of Arrigo Sacchis or Jose Mourinhos. But what’s behind the Irish use of 4-4-2, and is it really getting the most from us?

Why 4-4-2?

First off, let’s knock something on the head. This ain’t a Trapattoni obsession (it’s not even really his default formation), nor is he as rigid in his unwillingness to shuffle formations as some would have you believe.

When he was in charge of the Azzurri from 2000 to 2004, the Italian coach toyed with three at the back for spells, came up with a 4-3-1-2 to get the most from Francesco Totti in the 2002 World Cup and then played a 4-3-3 style in trying to fit Cassano, Del Piero and Vieri all into the side at the 2004 Euros.

It’s far more horses for courses. Watching DVDs of previous campaigns and in his early training camps with the players, Trapattoni would have come to a few conclusions from an attacking sense.

  • Uno -  Robbie Keane as top scorer needs to be on the field.
  • Due – to get the most from Robbie Keane requires another striker up top to hold up ball, act as a fulcrum, create chances and generally do the dog’s work Keane isn’t all that hot at doing (Keane has never worked up front on his own. He doesn’t have the tactical nous or skill set.) Kevin Doyle therefore must play.
  • Tre – We’ve a glut of decent wingers in Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady, Stephen Hunt and it’d be a shame not to use them.
  • Quattro –  two very handy strikers, a number of wingers. You do the maths on the optimum formation to make this thing work.
  • Cinque – we needed organising and quickly. We needed to be set up in a way where everyone knew their jobs, were comfortable with what they were being asked and we needed stability and confidence in the system. It didn’t take a genius to back the very system every single Irish player had spent 90% of their careers playing. You see where we’re going here?

There’s a school of thought that Trapattoni is blinded by adherance to a 4-4-2 formation and slots players in accordingly but that’s only true to a certain degree.

The man spotted the Irish squad had two strikers that needed each other to work properly, had a strong group of wingers and wanted to fit these key players into the side. A 4-2-3-1 for example, which is the current flavour around Europe, needs a real creative influence at the centre of the three, exactly the sort of player Ireland haven’t had for an awful long time – though Stephen Ireland could have been and James McCarthy might eventually be the trequartista we’ve craved.

A 4-3-2-1 doesn’t quite get the most from our wingers, needs searing pace on the counter and top notch attacking full-backs, again something in short supply right now.

Yep, we’re slaughtered at times in the middle of the park for possession, especially so against the Russias and Uruguays of this world, who tend to have both an extra man and extra technical ability. But throwing an extra body in there isn’t necessarily going to solve everything. Does it really make sense to pick another midfielder – from a group of players who’re quite weak – while sacrificing one of our better attacking options?

Strength in numbers?

As Jonathan Wilson argues in this piece in the Guardian recently, extra men in midfield is aligned with a certain type of football, a certain philosophy of playing that values dominating possession as priority. Trapattoni seems to figure this isn’t something we’re naturally good at (he’d be bang on) and our focus is better served elsewhere.

Because of the two wingers and two forwards, the central midfielders are required to sit more often than not and there is a necessity for athleticism in there rather than creativity. Hence the use of Glenn Whelan over say, Andy Reid. It’s not that Trapattoni is averse to midfielders getting on the ball; Andrea Pirlo was the hub of his midfield with Italy and if you rewatched the Georgia and Montenegro games from the last campaign, you’d see Stephen Reid operating as exactly that type of holding playmaker.

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It’s more the limitations of our central midfielders than some kind of embargo on creativity. But committing four men to attack means the central guys’ main duty is to put tackles in and stop breakaways (basically halt goals like Uruguay’s second and third this week, which is why Keith Fahey might not be number one choice in there).

It may be that the shift in formation for Tuesday night was a recognition that there’s a need for Plan B, and it may be that the Irish team can’t go on conceding numbers in midfield and possession as wanly as it has been.

The upcoming five games in May/ June give opportunity to experiment; and as Robbie Keane’s influence lessens, it could quicken a change in emphasis. Options might be the use of a non-traditional winger (it could be pointed out that the inclusion of Liam Lawrence, who tends to drift off the wing, has coincided with some of our strongest performances) like Keith Fahey on the right or left of midfield.

Or James McCarthy in an attacking midfield role, though perhaps in the centre of a 4-2-3-1 rather than the 4-4-1-1 of Tuesday night, a subtle difference where he could influence slightly deeper rather than have main responsibility for supporting the striker.

But if we are to mix things up a little, let’s do it for the right reasons and getting the most from the right players, rather than because 4-4-2 is seen as a relic of the past. It might well still be the best option we’ve got for now.

About the author:

Barry O'Donovan

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