By Jason McKeown
We’re all creatures of habit. With opinions formed many years ago that we stubbornly hold onto. Amongst us Bradford City fans, there’s an often hidden, but nevertheless unshakeable love for the 4-4-2 formation. It’s what we grew up knowing. The source of the most enjoyable football we’ve seen. The foundations to past periods of success. And it’s hard to embrace moving away from it, especially if another approach isn’t really working.
Amongst the faint mutterings of discontent that can be heard following Bradford City’s up and down start to the season, a desire to see something more closely resembling a 4-4-2 formation underpins many a frustrated conversation and unhappy tweet. Mark Hughes stands accused of only playing one up front. And yet teams are turning up to Valley Parade with little ambition beyond defending resolutely for a point. Why are we so cautious? Why not remove the shackles?
In many ways the accusations are simplistic and unfair on Hughes, but they are not without some truth. I’m not sure the intention is to play only one up front in the conventional form of players sticking steadfastly to a rigid position on the pitch. And when you tune into Match of the Day or watch Sky Sports Super Sunday, you find plenty of the country’s top sides lining up with a similar 4-2-3-1 to Hughes. His former club, Man City, are one such team to play 4-2-3-1 on a regular basis in recent years. Pep Guardiola can be criticised for some things – not least his self-destructive tendencies in big Champions League games – but no one would ever accuse him of being cautious.
Yet at Valley Parade right now, playing 4-2-3-1 feels too conservative to many supporters. We’re seeing some low risk football, delivering modest returns. The ball is passed around in a nice manner, but in the final third City too often look toothless. They’re predictable and easy to defend against. A lone striker looking, well, lonely. Get two up front Hughes! Go 4-4-2! He did just that a half time on Saturday against Crewe. And it failed. Still, the 4-2-3-1 of the first half wasn’t much better.
So what should we do?
It’s easy to see why a 4-4-2 type of formation remains popular not just amongst City supporters but football fans in general. It’s simple. Straightforward. Easy to understand. For decades it was the formation of choice for every football club it seemed. If someone who didn’t know anything about football asked you to explain the different elements that make up a team, you’d use the 4-4-2 as your framework to talk through every position. If ever challenged to name your all-time Bradford City XI, you’ll rattle off your favoured names in a 4-4-2 formation.
4-4-2 is great to watch when it works. Two central midfielders patrolling the space between each penalty area, winning the ball and setting up attacks. Tricky wingers skinning their full back markers to whip over dangerous crosses. A strike partnership – often little and large – who link up to fashion chances and score goals.
4-4-2 is Bradford City 1998/99. Probably the best season in the modern history of the club. Gareth Whalley and Stuart McCall running midfield, Peter Beagrie and Jamie Lawrence outwide. Lee Mills and Robbie Blake, netting more than 40 goals. Stunning football, the like of which we may never see again. 4-4-2 then was the key to promotion to the Premier League. And it was the cornerstone of all those promotions in the eighties, as well as the nearly season team.
Alas, the simplicity of 4-4-2 is what also makes it so easy to counteract. The thing that makes football such a glorious sport is the fact games are rarely played between teams of equal ability, and yet the lesser side can overturn the odds so regularly. And that’s where football tactics come in. Where one team’s clearly greater ability can be defeated by opposition with a cleverer plan.
4-4-2 was already on its way out even in 1999 – and its chances of ever making a successful comeback across football appear as likely as Robbie Williams making another great record (No Regrets was even released midway through that 1998/99 season). To neuter it, you just need to deploy another midfielder in the centre of the park. Outnumber the middle two in the 4-4-2 midfield, and control of the game is yours. Stop your opponents getting on the ball and they can’t launch attacks, and you leave the wingers too isolated and the strikers starved of service. As soon as the players in a 4-4-2 become too fragmented, it falls apart.
Paul Jewell himself knew this in 1998/99. And in some ways our halycon memories of that season mean we’ve forgotten the intricacies that enabled City to still succeed despite opposition teams getting wise to stopping the 4-4-2. Jamie Lawrence, for example, was less a conventional winger and someone who at times would tuck inside to support McCall and Whalley. Blake would drop back too on occasions. Mills an important part of defending corners. Beagrie ordered to help out Wayne Jacobs. (You might even say that City lined up 4-2-3-1 that year, we just didn’t know such a formation was a thing back then.)
City were able to succeed that year in 4-4-2 through having brilliant players and an incredibly high level of organisation. Since then, it has certainly been a case of mixed success for 4-4-2 at Valley Parade. Colin Todd famously would not be moved from playing 4-4-2, save for two half games midway through his second season where he tried a 5-3-2 and dropped it as quickly as possible, like a toddler being forced to eat a vegetable as part of their tea, getting through one bite unscathed, but hurling the plate to the floor to avoid the danger of further mouthfuls. At times Todd’s 4-4-2 worked well, at others it failed dismally. All in all, his tenure was the dictionary definition of the word average.
Fast forward a few more years and Peter Jackson in August 2011. He’s endured a slow start to the season and Dagenham & Redbridge are the next opponents. Everyone knows John Still will deploy spoiling tactics, kill the game from an entertainment perspective, and rely on taking a half chance to nick it 1-0. Jackson went 4-4-2, in the not unreasonable expectation that asking players to play football better than their opponents will result in three points. Dagenham would win 1-0. And less than a week later Jackson left the club.
That paved the way for Phil Parkinson, who certainly brought 4-4-2 back into vogue at Valley Parade. But crucially it was a different type of 4-4-2 to Jewell’s of 14 years before. In an early season 2012/13 game at Rotherham, Parkinson played two out and out wingers in a 4-4-2. City were hammered 4-0 and he never made that mistake again. Instead, his 4-4-2 featured at least one wide player – Garry Thompson or Will Atkinson – instructed to tuck inside next to Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones. Make sure City’s 4-4-2 wasn’t outgunned, at the sacrifice of some attacking flair.
Parkinson wasn’t always a 4-4-2 man – there was the 2014/15 dalliance with the diamond (a different type of 4-4-2 that sees no room for pure wingers), plus a 4-4-1-1 – but in his final year (2015/16) 4-4-2 was certainly the formation. Yet the right side of midfield was occupied by a defender in Tony McMahon, there to help win the ball, stay positionally disciplined and set up the winner from a set piece. And as successful as the season proved – City reaching the play offs – it was all, in truth, pretty dull to watch. A functional team grinding out 1-0 wins. One that would only get you so far. The 4-4-2 of 1998/99 this most certainly wasn’t. This was defensive football, hidden inside a system we look upon as bold and attack-minded. But in many ways, this had become the only way to deploy 4-4-2 successfully. To use it as a way to stop your opponents.
Since Parkinson’s exit in 2016, 4-4-2 has become very rare in these parts. Stuart McCall’s second spell saw impressive levels of tactical acumen where different formations would be used each week and sometimes mid-game. We then had the likes of Michael Collins’ 4-5-1, David Hopkin’s 4-2-3-1/4-1-3-2, Gary Bowyer’s 4-3-3, McCall’s doomed attempts to replicate Chris Wilder’s 3-5-2. No one was playing 4-4-2 anymore – both inside and outside of Valley Parade. One up front the norm in the Premier League. Some even going without any strikers at all (hi again, Pep).
Since McCall’s third managerial spell came to an end, at City we’ve become used to the 4-2-3-1 that Hughes is currently playing. Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars did it. So too did Derek Adams. Yet the lack of success 4-2-3-1 has delivered over these tenures means large parts of the Valley Parade crowd retain a healthy level of skepticism over its effectiveness.
So why do Hughes, his Valley Parade predecessors, and many of the game’s top managers, like 4-2-3-1? Well, first and foremost it does provide a good defensive platform. In these modern times when teams like to press their opponents when out of possession, the deployment of two deep-lying midfielders gives the back four a greater level of protection should the opposition get through the first wave of the press. Those two midfielders are also really important in reducing the likelihood of being outgunned in the middle of the park.
When in possession, the 2 and the 3 in the 4-2-3-1 play a crucial role. The fact they’re bunched closely together gives options when picking out a pass. You can set up triangles that mean the player on the ball should have at least two good nearby options to choose from. The two wide forwards in the 3 need to get forward quickly and support the striker in the box.
At times that lone striker can look isolated, but if his team are on the attack that shouldn’t be the case (on Saturday it seemed clear Hughes had told Lee Angol to get into the box when City went forward to support Cook, but the City player clearly didn’t carry this out right and vacated his position too early, leaving Liam Ridehalgh short of support when an attack was building). Finally, the middle player in the 3 – the number 10 – has a huge role in dictating attacks. They operate in a space that’s hard for opposition players to pick up. So if they’re on their game, they can run it.
That’s the theory anyway. But as weary Valley Parade attendees can vouch for, in practice 4-2-3-1 has had limited success in these parts. Firstly, under Trueman and Sellars, the formation was deployed too conservatively. The wide players of the 3 had little freedom to carry the ball forward and weren’t encouraged to get in the box. Instead, they played supporting roles to the number 10 – Callum Cooke – who everything went through. Cooke did this role really well and flourished in a team built around him. The problem was the overall goal threat of City was lacking. They weren’t dominating games. They started off well but the underlying stats – expected goals – suggested it would level off. Which is what happened.
When Cooke got injured, the whole set-up struggled. And even if Cooke had no injury problems, there remained a clear limit to what this approach could achieve.
Adams used 4-2-3-1 in a different manner. He was more attack-minded than Trueman and Sellars, but not in a way that showed any interest in controlling the game. The ball was worked forward directly and quickly. Often without much quality. It created chances and City’s expected goal performance was significantly better, but the team’s in game management was completely lacking. This was especially shown when they went a goal up. The team would sit back and grimly try to hang on. The failure to control the game even before going in front meant it was difficult to starve the opposition of the ball when they’re pushing to come back. (None of this was Adams fault of course, as he liked to tell everyone.)
This was something Hughes sought to rectify when he came in as manager at the end of last season. Same formation, different emphasis. Keep possession. Play through Elliot Watt and Alex Gilliead, who became the middle 2. Deploy a proper number 10 in Jamie Walker, and give the wide players of the 3 the freedom to run between the lines and go, in fact, anywhere they pleased. The end of season 4-2-3-1 with Walker flanked by Dion Pereira and Charles Vernam looked mightily effective. The balance was there.
So what’s happened that means it’s not working now? Well, you can’t help but worry that we’re missing some of the summer departures more than we’d like to admit. Maybe Vernam’s 18 months at Valley Parade didn’t deliver full value, but on top form he was someone who really suited the 4-2-3-1. Watt’s 78 appearances for the Bantams featured more than its fair share of bad days, but my goodness he looked good when Hughes took the reins and restructured the team to benefit from his strengths. As for Pereira, Hughes could do worse than spend every waking hour between now and the closing of the transfer window pestering Nathan Jones into letting him rejoin the Bantams.
Is this part of the current City squad weaker? It’s hard to know yet. Emmanuel Osadebe only got to enjoy six minutes of action before enduring a horrific injury that leaves him sidelined for months. Walker is also out for some time. Abo Eisa, who might be able to play a wide forward role effectively, is also yet to figure due to a reoccurrence of last season’s injury issues.
Harry Chapman might be capable of bettering what Vernam achieved, but has been used as a number 10 due to Walker’s absence – a role that he seems less suited for compared to operating in a wide position. Scott Banks looks like an impressive loan signing. Jake Young, Lee Angol and Kian Harratt have been used in the wide forward positions. But they’re meant to be strikers.
It’s painfully clear that, right now, Hughes does not have the forward players available to make the 4-2-3-1 work to the level it had reached at the end of last season. He doesn’t have a genuine number 10 fit for selection. And there are questions of whether Richie Smallwood can do the role Watt performed under Hughes. Or if Ryan East can match Watt’s ability to pick a pass. Or if Gilliead is a long-term solution to a vital part of the team. Or if Yann Songo’o and Levi Sutton have a part to play in a team that tries to dominate possession. Or if Vadaine Oliver can successfully operate as a lone striker in a team that actively tries to limit high crosses into the box.
All of which leaves the 4-2-3-1 looking limited. City are strong at the back and you sometimes feel the defenders have more protection than they need. But going forward it has been sporadic bursts of joy at best. At times it feels like the whole team just needs to position itself a few yards up the pitch. The defenders drop deep to receive the ball, causing a chain reaction that sees the midfield and attack do the same.
Which begs the question, at least for the short-term, of why not go two up top? If you don’t have an adequate number 10 to play, why use a system that relies on one? Perhaps this is something Hughes realised himself at half time on Saturday.
In some ways Hughes gave his Bradford public what they wanted in the second half against Crewe. He went 4-4-2. He deployed Harratt – a player who fans have been calling to get more game time – up top with Cook. But it failed and failed badly. The usual counter tactics to 4-4-2 worked. Crewe kept that extra man in midfield, and City went from an almost cohesive team to a collection of 11 individuals.
East and Smallwood were outnumbered and their influence faded. Banks – that most conventional looking of wingers – became isolated. Cook and Harratt got no service. Young was crowded out every time he tried to go forward. With Young and Banks trying to play as out and out wingers, there was no extra body tucked in to help East and Smallwood. And though City did not fold they could make no attacking impression.
It just didn’t work. And that’s the modern day story of 4-4-2.
The more you look at it, the more you realise this is a tough conundrum for Hughes to crack. It’s clear that he wants City to play good football, to attack and to entertain. He is honest enough to admit that going forwards it’s not happening in the way he wants it too. Yet there is no escaping the fact he is cautious too. His appetite for risk is lower than perhaps we expected. Maybe that’s a consequence of losing in such dismal circumstances late on at Barrow, or at Colchester, maybe it’s a temporary outlook fuelled by the realisation City can’t be the same attacking force with the current injury problems, or maybe this is just who he is.
Maybe we should all remember that as frustrating as Doncaster and Crewe’s tactics were, they’re at the top end – ability wise – in League Two this season. Others may come to spoil, but lack the capability to shut the door on Hughes’ men. Maybe we should keep in mind City are unbeaten at home, and have won three matches this season playing these tactics. Maybe we just need to be patient.
More than anything Hughes seems to be a manager who wants possession. He recognises that if the opposition don’t have the ball, they’re less likely to score. So even keeping hold of the ball at the back is better than letting the opposition have it. He wants City to be patient going forward, to work the opportunity rather than rush it and risk losing possession. Hughes is the opposite to Adams, reasoning that if you dominate the ball, you’re more likely to be successful overall.
But whether it’s two up front, one, or even zero (or do we wait and hope that Pep has ideals of following Hughes managerial career path from the Etihad to Valley Parade in order to see that?) – part of the frustration over City’s mixed start to the campaign is that feeling that the shackles could be taken off that little bit more. And that playing one up front at home, whist drawing blanks and only having two shots on target, is never going to be a good look to a fanbase that has seen too little success over the years, and so are left with long memories of what worked on the rare occasions it actually did.