Michael Cox is a writer and the man behind Zonal Marking, the tactics nerd utopia of soccer content. For years, ZM’s straight-to-the-point style has illuminated the tactical sub-matter of important matches and identified the trends dictating soccer set-ups around the world.
We went back and forth on the 4-1-4-1 formation, national trends, and MLS’s best tactical role model.
Ben Schuman-Stoler: The Fire have experimented this year with a 4-1-4-1 formation, which has morphed in certain times into the more familiar 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 4-5-1, and 4-2-3-1 set ups. Can you say a little bit about the 4-1-4-1 in general? What are its weaknesses and strengths? Are there any teams in recent memory you can recall employing it consistently?
Michael Cox: The 4-1-4-1 isn't particularly fashionable, but part of this is because managers will always call it a 4-3-3 - a 4-3-3 is basically a 4-1-4-1 when it's without the ball. But 4-3-3 sounds much more exciting, so you'll rarely get a 4-1-4-1 hailed as a brilliant system.
The major problem is the fact the lone striker can become isolated, although the opportunity to get midfield runners forward means this shouldn't be too much of a problem if he can drop deep, link play and hold up the ball. That said, the importance of the midfield runners getting forward means the holding player has a huge responsibility without the ball, and can often become overrun at defensive transitions, particularly if the opposition get two players either side of him - he doesn't have the comfort of a partner.
BSS: Is there also anything different a back four (in particular the outside backs) have to keep in mind in a 4-1-4-1 compared to a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1?
MC: I think the major difference is that the full-backs have to be able to track the opposition’s winger inside. If you're in a 4-2-3-1 and you're dealing with an opposition 4-2-3-1, your two holding midfielders can deal with (a) the opposition number ten and (b) a David Silva-like character drifting inside. With the 4-1-4-1 he'll become overloaded, so your full-backs have more responsibility to move inside and stop him.
BSS: What are your thoughts regarding national-specific or league-specific tactics? Do they ever develop naturally and therefore uniquely for that country/league? Could the ideas developing in the MLS affect the U.S. National Team, and ever add to their chances of international success? In what way has MLS changed or not changed your understanding or appreciation of American soccer and tactics therein?
MC: This is an interesting question. I think it's generally top-down, to be honest - the national side gets success and influences lots of the domestic sides. The best example is Chile - Bielsa went there before the last World Cup, brought in 3-3-1-3 and heavy pressing, and that trickled down to the domestic sides, particularly Universidad de Chile. Now they all play that way, Chile have an identity, and Uni's old coach Sampoali is now the Chile manager, picking lots of his old players for the national side while simultaneously continuing with the Bielsa approach. I gather something similar has happened in Ghana with 4-2-3-1 and counter-attacking play. Really, I think the best way for the USA to arrive at something similar is for Jurgen Klinsmann to come up with something interesting, which then trickles down. It would be tough for him to accommodate MLS-specific tactics on the world stage against more 'advanced' European approaches.
BSS: I'm curious about the ways in which tactical ideas travel across countries. Recently Manchester City's American project nabbed Jason Kreis from Salt Lake City. He's currently doing 6 months at the Etihad to learn and bring their ideas to the States. What do you think MLS's opportunity is with regards to "market research"? How are tactical ideas developed on their own in certain leagues vs. affected by worldwide trends or coaching lineage?
MC: Hmm, that's such a tough question, you could probably write a whole book about it, to be honest. I think the main thing to consider here is that ideas now travel faster than ever before because of the internet etc, and also because coaches and players travel to different countries more than ever before. The globalization of football in the past 15 years or so means theoretically, there should be less boundaries in this respect.
To me it seems logical for an MLS club to look to the Premier League. American soccer seems quite physical and in a certain sense quite basic tactically, and of the major European leagues the Premier League is probably quite a good fit.