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Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Puzzles: Formations, and Tactics

Watching Fulham play Manchester United once again made me question the system that Jol is running. Does he have one? What exactly is the strategy?

Dean Mouhtaropoulos

Fulham have a lot of individual talent, especially in the attack. There's no doubt that players like Bryan Ruiz, Dimitar Berbatov, Adel Taarabt, and Darren Bent are very talented. And that doesn't even factor in Pajtim Kasami, Alex Kacaniklic, and many of the other players who have seen time this year. The problem seems to be fitting them into a coherent side. And even when the attack does look good and dangerous (like it did during much of the United game), the defense seems to slip up and allow goals like a sieve.

Through it all Jol has stuck with his same formation. The 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 (depending on your preferred nomenclature). The problem is that some of the holes in that formation are round, but Jol keeps putting a square peg into them. It's like he has too many of one type of piece, but rather than find one that fits he just shoves it in. This is what gives us things like Ruiz and Kasami on the wings. With the crazy set of players Jol has assembled, it might be better to look at the pieces as a puzzle that can be solved in different ways. Shifting the formation and tactics to suit the personnel rather than shoehorning the players into a system.

Here comes the caveat though. I have no qualifications to talk about tactics in any great detail. I've never played at any level besides low youth squads. I've never coached. My knowledge of the game comes only from hours of watching, reading books, and playing FIFA. Of course, this is the internet; and when has lack of knowledge ever stopped anyone from writing about something?

Diamonds: Not Just a Girl's Best Friend

The first problem I see is strategy, what kind of team does Jol want Fulham to be? During the United game, he seemed to set them up to try to keep possession and attack. The back line appeared to want to stay fairly high and play an offside trap. In theory, this is a good way to play. Southampton has done this well. Swansea has had success with it. The problem is that to do this, you need to press high with both wide players and your forwards. With Berbatov and Ruiz both on the pitch; you just don't have the kind of players out there to implement that strategy. To make matters worse, when the fullbacks and midfielders press forward, the back line either needs to play super high or there is a giant gap between them and the midfield. Both of these were evident in the United game. The question is, how do you solve it?

One solution might be to swap the formation. Especially against higher quality opponents, it might be better to set up more defensively than to try to do things that can only lead to failure. It's one thing to play expansive against Crystal Palace away, it's quite another to do it against Manchester United or Arsenal. Keep in mind that giving up zero goals is worth more than scoring one (a clean sheet is worth 2.5 points, scoring one goal is only worth 1), so setting up to not concede is going to be a better long term strategy. To illustrate this look at Tottenham. Through ten games, Fulham have scored one more goal; but Tottenham have ten more points. That's because they've only conceded five times (three of which came in one match, they've also not conceded in the Europa League). They're proving the point that if the other team doesn't score you can't be beaten. What kind of formation might help with this? Here's one idea:

football formations

This is the old 4-4-2 Diamond. Not a ton of teams in England still use it, but it does have its proponents around the world. I see it as having a couple of advantages for Fulham. First, there is always a deep lying defensive midfielder. Perhaps United's attacks aren't as successful if Senderos isn't left on an island. Could Derek Boateng have helped break them up? We'll never know, but it couldn't have been worse than the actual result. The second advantage is that Parker and Sidwell don't need to cover as much ground to link up the defense and the attack, they have Boateng behind them and another midfielder in front of them, allowing them to move the ball forward and backwards easily. I like Kasami playing at the top of the diamond. Ruiz could also do it, but I prefer Kasami for one reason: he's more effective at pressing. If you keep Berbatov up top with Bent, you'll need someone else to press the ball. I see Kasami as being better at that than Ruiz. If Rodallega were healthy, you could swap him for Berbatov, play Ruiz behind, and let Bent and Rodallega split the pressing duties. However, I feel that with the current squad Kasami gives you the best option. Finally, the biggest flaw of the diamond is width. Thankfully the two fullbacks Fulham play are better at going forward than in defense, so they can provide the width needed. This will require Parker and Sidwell to be aware enough to fill the ground behind them when the fullbacks get forward, but they both should be able to handle that task.

You Don't Need to be Dour All the Time: Pace and Width

As good as I think the team could be playing that way, it could make from some dour football. The most creative of your midfielders is probably Kasami and you're playing basically three defensive midfielders at once. That's hardly a recipe for beauty. It's good to be pragmatic away from home and against sides that are simply more talented. However, when playing sides of equal or lesser quality at home, it's ok to open things up a bit. The key is making sure that the tactical plan fits the personnel. Here's how I would set things up.

football formations

This doesn't appear that much different than the 4-4-1-1 Jol rolled out against United. However, I'm envisioning it playing much different. First, I want the wide attackers playing more like forwards, staying higher and pressing. That means Ruiz absolutely can not be used there. It also means Kasami should not be out wide as he's going to cut into the middle quite often. We want players with pace and who also are willing to work getting back on defense and pressing the ball. If Taarabt is willing to do the work, he's a good option there. Mesca might be able to give you some good minutes late in games against tiring players. Damian Duff, while not as pacey as he once was could give you 50-60 minutes there. Even Rodallega, when healthy, could play there a bit. Berbatov and Bent are pretty interchangeable here. I prefer Berbatov because I feel he's better at creating chances by playing the balls to the wide forwards. With Berbatov upfront though, Ruiz simply can't play behind him. Too many times Ruiz receives the ball, looks for a place to play it, and realizes Berbatov is right next to him. The CAM in the formation has to recognize when he and Berbatov are in the same space and be willing to move up higher. I don't think Ruiz has the desire or strength to do that effectively. With Bent on the pitch, Ruiz could easily slide in behind as the roles are much more defined. In central midfield, I prefer the Boateng/Parker midfield to any other. Mainly because Boateng is much more willing to stay back. It's ok to have one of the CM's get forward and help with the attack, but when they both are doing it; they create a chasm between them and the back line. If Jol can tweak his strategy so that one of Sidwell and Parker is always back, they can play together; but if he's instructing one to stay back now, it's simply not working and a change needs to be made. While this formation isn't quite as stout as the diamond, it can still drop into a pretty good shell when needed. Dejagah, Kacaniklic, and Kasami are all willing to work on defense and all have enough pace to get back quickly to help break up counters. What it does provide is pace going forward. Both wide players and Kasami can run, and pace is something that has been sorely lacking in the Fulham attacks this year.

But Will We See Any Change?

Now these aren't the only options Fulham have. They might not even be the best ones. But something has to be done. Jol can't just keep running the same players out there in the same system and expect the results to be that much different. Even just changing players at the margins isn't going to be enough. The only question remaining is Jol going to change, or is it going to take someone else coming in to do that?