As Ireland’s quest for a place in the World Cup 2014 gets underway in Kazakhstan a philosophical concern about the tactical set-up of the midfield is putting a dent in supporter’s optimism about the side’s chances of making it to Brazil.
On one side is the manager Giovanni Trapattoni, and his assistant Marco Tardelli, who seem exasperated by suggestions that they move away from the 4-4-2 formation that saw Ireland qualify for Euro 2012. Tardelli aggressively defended the system only a month ago when he challenged journalists to explain the need for change when they had qualified for Poland and Ukraine when employing it, also claiming (wrongly) that Alex Ferguson had used this system for thirty years at Manchester United.
On the other side is everyone else.
Ireland’s woeful performance in the Euro Championships has heard the call for a move to a 4-2-3-1 formation reach a crescendo with even Glenn Whelan risking the wrath of his manager by complaining that he and Keith Andrews were “taking a hammering” when facing the five man midfield all other international teams employ.
So why is Trap so reluctant to change?
The 4-2-3-1 formation came to prominence in the 2010 World Cup when it was used by the vast majority of sides, but the system has long been of use within the club and international game.
Journalist Jonathan Wilson, who has written extensively on the evolution of football tactics, cites Real Sociedad’s coach, Juanma Lillo, as the first to consciously deploy the tactic in the Spanish league during the 1991/92 season.
The new formation was greeted with incredulity by his squad, who nonetheless, adapted and achieved promotion.
The system quickly became popular in La Liga and since throughout the world as 4-4-2 became a by-word for long ball and sneered at by the purists while its exponents, Trap among them, known as tactical Luddites who needed to be dragged, kicking and rushing, into the new century.
But is there any validity in Trap’s argument?
The advantage of the system is that it allows the team to press high or defend deep depending on the game, or period within a game, but as David Pleat concluded when analysing the method the disadvantage is that when not operated by suitable players the lone striker could find themselves isolated.
Even Lillo conceded that the makeup of the team was paramount for the 4-2-3-1 to flourish.
"My intention was to pressure and to try to steal the ball high up the pitch," he explained.
"It was the most symmetrical way I could find of playing with four forwards. One of the great advantages is that having the forwards high allows you to play the midfield high and the defence high, so everybody benefits. But you have to have the right players. They have to be very, very mobile and they have to be able to play when they get the ball. You have to remember that they're pressuring to play, not playing to pressure."
In the League of Ireland, Mick Kerley attempted the system in his time in charge of Athlone Town but whether it was because the players didn’t buy into - or fully understand – the formation, the lone striker was all too often ineffective as the midfield struggled to provide the necessary support.
The fans certainly didn’t buy into the new approach and the perception was that playing one up front, especially at home, was a re-active and negative approach that failed to utilise his team to the best of its ability.
As Wilson again points out they would not be the only ones to view the new system as a retro grade step as the great Arrigo Saachi, who managed the all conquering AC Milan team of the late eighties and early nineties employing a 4-4-2, concurs.
"Today's football is about managing the characteristics of individuals," he said. "And that's why you see the proliferation of specialists. The individual has trumped the collective. But it's a sign of weakness. It's reactive, not pro-active."
The role of the two defensive midfielders is vital within the system. They must be physically strong and have great positional sense but also have the ability to take the ball from the defence and hold it up until the attacking midfielders can move into their offensive positions.
Herein lays the problem for Trapattoni.
He simply does not trust Ireland’s midfielders to pass the ball between them for the required amount of time it takes the attackers to get to the other half.
Perhaps in James McCarthy he sees a player who could make the system work and his use of a five man midfield in the game against Serbia was an encouraging sign, but continuing with Robbie Keane as captain suggests that he is not ready to abandon his dearly held beliefs just yet.
Keane cannot operate the play-maker role in 4-2-3-1 formation, or the lone striker role, so his inclusion would always necessitate playing two up front and four in midfield.
The positioning of James McClean in a central midfield position against the Serbs was also an interesting, and innovative, development suggesting that the Ireland manager foresees a different role and perhaps formation for the side.
Could he have been influenced by Louis Van Gaal’s decision to pull Bastian Schweinsteiger from the wing to a defensive midfield role when switching to the 4-2-3-1 in 2009? A change in system will not be answer to Ireland’s problems but it is clear that against the better teams the side is getting overrun in the middle of the park and something needs to change.
An old football maxim is you never change a winning team, or sack a winning manager, but if Ireland don’t return to winning ways then it would seem inevitable that a change, of some description, is going to come.