Roberto Di Matteo has modernised West Brom with a 4-2-3-1 formation.By: Ethan Dean-Richards | August 2nd, 2010
Roberto Di Matteo has already proven that he is as astute a manager as he is likeable. Promotion from the Championship in his first season with West Brom demonstrated a useful mix of pragmatism and ideology – attempts to secure defensive solidarity moved at least higher up the agenda, if not above the creation of chances. Beyond a simple shift in mindset – taking the decision that keeping clean-sheets was important was, in itself, meaningful – the switch to a 4-1-4-1 formation has facilitated the new, more pragmatic approach to gaining results.
Tony Mowbray, Di Matteo’s predecessor, regularly laid out his team in a thoroughly attacking 4-4-2 system, with Jonathan Greening creating from slightly deeper than his central-midfield partner, Robert Koren, but certainly not charged with breaking up opposition attacks. Against Championship teams, often operating with similar four-man midfields, this proved successful because West Brom were almost always individually superior and able to dominate possession.
Against Premier League opposition and their predilection for five-man midfields, it failed. With no player primarily focused on picking up midfield runners an already questionable defence was left consistently exposed to the ‘fifth’ midfielder – a combination which led to the concession of 67 league goals in a dismal 2008/09 campaign. Di Matteo would not have found it difficult to identify an area for improvement.
Youssouf Mulumbu’s signing and subsequent occupation of the holding midfield role signalled the start of a new tactical dawn, yet was actually the work of Mowbray – who signed him four months before the end of his tenure – rather than Di Matteo.
Undoubtedly though, the current West Brom team is Di Matteo’s own. His upgrade on the previous policy has been slight but significant: Mulumbu, and the concept of a midfielder with a brief limited to the picking up of opposition runners and winning back possession, has become The Option and not another option.
Hardly a revolutionary move – Mowbray was described as tactically naive for not having introduced that type of player earlier – the introduction of a holding midfielder into the West Brom setup yielded statistical success immediately. The Baggies conceded just 48 goals last league season, compared to the 55 goals in their last promotion campaign under Mowbray in 2007/08. Major personnel changes across the back four have also contributed to this happy decline, but as Martin Keown explained in a recent interview I had with him “defenders look poor when they are exposed one-on-one”: Mulumbu’s role as a holding midfielder prevents this from happening and thus he, and his manager, must be given most credit.
And yet still the transformation is not complete. In pre-season games Di Matteo has explored a further adaptation of the five-man midfield in the form of a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Mulumbu now seen anchoring midfield alongside Steven Reid or James Morrison. The versatile Gonzalo Jara – seen playing in a back three for Chile at this year’s World Cup – is also a candidate to fill one of those positions.
Whichever partner for Mulumbu is chosen, the new formation is a good fit. Mulumbu lacks the experience or the talent to dominate a top-class midfield battle alone – particularly given the likelihood that more established Premier League teams could employ two (mainly) creative midfielders against – what would be – his one in an attempt to dispatch with West Brom most efficiently. He needs support, and Di Matteo knows it.
In separating attacking and defensive roles clearly, 4-2-3-1 could also allow an exciting level of freedom to those allocated the three creative births. Potentially, the star individuals, Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans, are at their most effective when spared the burden of a serious obligation to track back.
It remains to be seen if a striker who can revel in a lone role up-front can be found – neither Ishmael Miller, nor Roman Bednar has convinced as a Premier League striker until now. Yet happily, a 4-2-3-1 formation, with its emphasis on the role of the midfielder and West Brom’s possession-based interpretation of it, seems to partially negate that blemish.
Roberto Di Matteo continues to develop ideas about how West Brom should play, but his establishment of two holding midfielders already looks likely to be one of his most crucial as he searches for the balance between pragmatism and ideology.
If you read yesterday’s post you’ll know that a) The Blog promised 31 posts in 31 days and b) promised a running total of who hates themselves more after each post: The Blog or the reader. Today those two promises have tied together…like a noose: to keep up with the promise, The Blog has stayed up writing until 2:13 AM, this has led to more self-loathing than you, humble reader, can imagine. Thus:
TWBB hates itself 2 – 0 Readers hate themselves.
So this is what victory feels like? It’s surprisingly similar to exhaustion…
Anyone remember when Di Matteo played for Bolton? No? That’s because he didn’t. Don’t question why I’ve put this in, embrace it.