I'd venture a guess that to many supporters and an alarming number of folks who make their living in and around the game, formations and the meaning contained therein remain an essentially unplumbed symbology. That is to say, 4-4-2 means little more than four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards and that we're going for it in a really traditional way. 4-5-1 means four defenders, five midfielders, and a lone target man and we must be playing away. 4-3-3...4-2-3-1...and so on and so forth. Formations are a system, represent an approach to the game, and therefore are greater than the sum of their individual parts.
Fulham played a 4-2-3-1 against Sunderland at the weekend and earned a trip back to the exhausting slog of the relegation scrap after a stodgy, static, uninspired performance saw the Cottagers finish on the wrong end of an uninspiring 4-1 loss.
Fulham played a 4-2-3-1 against Norwich in the 3rd round of the FA Cup and cruised into the 4th round having vanquished the Canaries 3-0 in an organized, energetic, committed ensemble performance that deserved more applause than the half empty Craven Cottage stands were able to muster.
So how does the same system, deployed twice in under a week, achieve such disparate outcomes? How did a Sunderland side rooted to the bottom of the table eviscerate one incarnation of the system while a Norwich side that has played Fulham three times in just over a fortnight has no answer to a collection of players they may as well have been training with for the past three weeks?
Obviously, the formation and tactical direction the opposition manager decides to employ has a massive effect on the viability of a particular system, but certain principles remain true regardless the opposition. In possession, the attacking team seeks to be expansive; without the ball, defenders need to restrict space and movement.
Against Sunderland, seeking to deprive the Black Cats of the ball, starve Steven Fletcher of service, and take the game to the suspect Sunderland back line while achieving the joint goal of moving said ball as far as possible away from Fulham's own ravenous goal mouth, Rene Meulensteen opted to deploy a 4-2-3-1 predicated on measured build-up play and sustained interplay between Clint Dempsey, Damien Duff, Dimitar Berbatov, and Adel Taarabt.
The right-footed Dempsey, deployed on the left, was given free reign to make outside/in runs and overlap with Taarabt and Berbatov. Ditto the left-footed Duff. Width was to be provided by John Arne Riise and Sascha Riether over-lapping the bubbling cauldron of interplay that Dempsey, Duff, Berbatov, and Taarabt were hoped to provide.
Speed of play and ball movement were key to this version of a 4-2-3-1. Imagine a poor man's Arsenal in the final third and you'll have some sense of how this was all supposed to work. Ideally, Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson would have had to attend to the forward runs of Riise and Riether or, even better, would have followed the outside/in runs of Duff and/or Dempsey and left space in behind for Riise and Riether to run rampant.
As we now know, things didn't turn out quite that way. After a few early runs, Riise was grounded by Adam Johnson's insistence on providing a high and wide outlet for the not-so-besieged Sunderland defense. Dempsey continued to run infield every time he received the ball, but without an effective overlapping threat in Riise, Sunderland was able to stay compact and funnel play into the center of the field and a bramble of Lee Cattermole shaped legs.
Berbatov compounded this unproductive pattern of play by not making runs to the outside in an effort to drag a defender wide. Play became more and more narrow and with no threat running down the Black Cat's right flank and an effectively grid-locked center, Sunderland could further direct cover to their left and limit the chances of Riether getting that ball at the end of one of his more and more futile forays forward. To compensate, Steve Sidwell and Scott Parker, in an effort to create width and an outlet for the stagnating attack, found themselves in wider positions than they would have liked.
This, in turn, led to more space on the right flank for Johnson - who wisely held his width - and the rest is history. Fulham were in no position to defend, having displaced the 2 in the 4-2-3-1, and resorted to fouling and desperation tackling to buy the time to drop back into something resembling defensive shape.
The two things that killed Fulham Saturday were a lack of pace and a lack of width. Against Norwich too they were deadly, but this time the Canaries were the victims. Fulham played the same 4-2-3-1, but rather than the right-footed Dempsey and the left-footed Duff making outside/in runs from the left and right flanks respectively, the left-footed Alexander Kacaniklic and the right-footed Ashkan Dejagah were deployed on their natural flanks and were tasked with staying wide and running at defenders into the space behind the Norwich right and left backs.
This stretched the Norwich defense horizontally and allowed Pajtim Kasami and Darren Bent room to operate. More importantly, it gave Giorgos Karagounis and/or Steve Sidwell the opportunity to get into the attack while still allowing them to occupy the center of the pitch and maintain their defensive shape once Norwich regained possession of the ball.
When Dejagah or Kacaniklic did on occasion make an outside/in run, both Darren Bent and Kasami were tireless in their movement toward the vacated flank, dragging a central defender with them and creating space in the center of the pitch.
Sascha Riether and Kieran Richardson were still given license to attack, but they weren't hung out to dry as both Riise and Riether had been against Sunderland. Both Dejagah and Kacaniklic showed the pace and the desire needed to sink back into defensive shape, and when they were caught behind the play, Pajtim Kasami was absolutely tireless in his willingness to support the back four.
Whereas Adel Taarabt, for all of his superlative control and creativity, seems to lack the tactical awareness and/or desire to provide defensive cover, Kasami, at least on Tuesday, showed sharp dedication to the responsibility. His willingness to cover allowed Sidwell and Karagounis to make timely runs forward knowing the team's defensive shape would not suffer.
This is not to say that Tuesday's win versus Norwich was not without mistakes. Kieran Richardson was generally poor in his 1-v-1 defending. Brede Hangeland looked the nervy youth to Dan Burn's commanding, veteran performance - Who would have thought this was only Burn's second first team appearance? - and one can only hope the Norwegian will shake off the rust of his lengthy injury absence sooner rather than later.
Additionally, Fulham looked harried and sloppy for long periods in the second half once Chris Hughton opted to bring on a second striker in the person of Ricky Van Wolfswinkel and instructed his Canaries to press the Fulham back four deep into the Cottagers' defensive third.
But that brings us full circle. Pace and width.
It may not have looked pretty, but Fulham just about passed the defensive test Norwich administered. A la Adam Johnson, Alexander Kacaniklic, having maintained a wide position and with pace to burn, forced a Norwich mistake that created a Fulham counterattack, eventually resulting in Steve Sidwell's match-clinching goal.
Fulham's first goal: Width.
Fulham's second goal: Pace on a counterattack.
Fulham's third goal: Pace and width on a counterattack.
As I said in my analysis of the Sunderland match, Fulham generally lack the sort of big name, multifaceted talents who can adjust their tactical approach in the throes of a contest. What Fulham do have is a number of raw, hungry, physically gifted young players who seem to sense that the brighter lights of the team sheet are simply not getting it done.
A third round midweek FA Cup win against Norwich does not a revival make, but with the addition of one or two savvy buys in this transfer window, perhaps it's time to commit to the likes of Kasami, Kacaniklic, and Dejagah and let the chips fall where they may. Either way, not all 4-2-3-1s are created equally.