On Wingbacks and 4-3-3 / 4-3-1-2 formation changes [2012]

“Dude, I think he’s doing the dice thing too much.” “That’s really all he’s got.”   Think of Seth Rogen as Max Allegri. Allegri’s dice move is his over-reliance on his 4-3-1-2 formation.  There are two important components to this formation: a trequartista and the wing backs.

The trequartista is important because this player has traditionally been responsible for linking play between the defense/midfield and the attack. The trequartista is the channel through which most of the distribution to the strikers occurs. Allegri changed this, and he played Kevin-Prince Boateng behind the strikers, a player with average distribution skills, and more of a physical presence than the traditional trequartista. Boateng also does different tasks in this position, such as being a target on goal kicks, pressing the opposing deep-lying playmaker, being the first defender behind the ball, and also falling back, to provide a numerical advantage against many midfields. In his worst games, Boateng at least provides a force to charge down and be physical (read: foul).

This year, Milan’s combative midfield consistently manages to boss around the smaller teams in the league, but not the bigger teams in the league this year or even the clubs in the Champions League over the last two years under Allegri. The “Milan default” was successful against these top domestic teams last year with two wins against a very similar Napoli squad, two wins against Inter, and two draws against Udinese. This season, however, Milan struggles against the top in the league. In fact, for teams realistically competing for Europe in Serie A, Milan this season has one win, three losses, and two draws. Why are they struggling and how did opposing teams exploit them?

Teams have been beating Milan this season one of two ways. The first way is the way Napoli defeated Milan in September, and that is to attack quickly and play on the counterattack: running directly past Van Bommel and having more men flying into the box than Milan could defend. This remains an issue, but has not been exploited very often by opposing teams yet.

The quick counterattack is always going to be the way to beat possession based sides. It is the tactic most often employed by teams that garner the occasional success from Barcelona. Milan have the highest ball possession in the Serie A, and with the aged Mark Van Bommel and Massimo Ambrosini usually occupying the holding midfield role, the back four can be attacked with direct dribbling past Van Bommel, who normally enjoys great success when he is afforded time to get in position but struggles when he has to chase the game.

The second way to break down Milan is to attack them down the wings, using overlapping runs, and using wide midfielders / wingers to press the Milan fullbacks back further on the pitch. The wingers in the 4-3-1-2 formation provide a few things for the team. The wing-backs are supposed to:


1. Provide width

2. Cross from wide

3. Defend from a back 4

4. Push up to give an alternative passing option going forward

5. Track players streaking down the flanks


In fact, the fullback area remains the key to Milan’s success with the 4-3-1-2 formation. Milan has been successful in the past with mediocre full backs before; take the Champions League winning squad in 2007 with Jankulovski and Oddo as the fullbacks. The aforementioned weren’t great fullbacks, but I believe they were successful for two reasons. First, that they were excellent crossers of the ball. Second, that the era of Champions League football was dramatically different than it is today. In the mid 2000s, the 4-3-1-2 was still a great formation to use, as it provided a lot of midfield battling, and many teams did not play with the emphasis of wingers that you find in today’s modern formations.

Wingers are the best way to beat the 4-3-1-2 because when teams attack with wingers, the wingers location on the pitch forces the fullbacks to be in a defensive position behind them or risk them running through to goal. When the fullbacks are forced to defend and are stuck in the back of the midfield, they are not able to provide options, or anything but long crosses and as a result, the squad is very narrow and compact with the only width being when an attacking player drifts out into the channel.

For me, the chronic lack of width in the Milan setup brings a very important point about Milan’s setup: the fact that if the formation doesn’t work against certain sides, why continue to use it over and over again? Allegri needs to have another option when it comes to the setup of the team. The most experimental thing he has done all year is put Emanuelson at LWB and have him play so far up the pitch against Inter.

I think Allegri needs to develop a second formation to play against the bigger squads in European competition in particular. The 4-3-1-2 is too predictable against the better tacticians of the world, and more complete squads who can adapt to play, unlike struggling clubs in Italy like Novara. Milan were excellent against the bottom 13 teams in the league this year, so the formation has great utility indeed. It shouldn’t be scrapped, but supplemented.

One possible idea Allegri might try is a more modern formation, a 4-2-3-1.  Rather than using traditional wingers (as we have none), he could use hardworking players who will track back and forth up and down the channel instead.  Here’s a possible setup: [this11.com/boards/abB07Roahg.jpg] In this situation, El-Shaarawy and Robinho both have the option of pressing in certain situations, and still resting in other situations, with Boateng (in a simlar position to the trequartista position he loves) in the middle of two tracking wingers, creating an midfield three with the two holding midfielders (Aquilani in the present can also play in this holding role as an extra source of creativity, although I hope Montolivo is here to play this role next year).  Obviously this formation shouldn’t be used in every situation (no need for two holding midfielders against a team putting 10 players behind the ball), but I believe Allegri needs to have more than one move.

In the above formation, the wide players can fall back to gather possession in a 5-man midfield, and then break forward. The formation isn’t entirely dependent on the wingers tracking back. If the wingers stay up front forming a 4-3-3, then Boateng simply drops back to deflect runs to the outside of the formation.

It is known that Silvio Berlusconi doesn’t like playing with anything less than two strikers, but the last time Milan played with one striker was back with Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan with Kaka and Seedorf playing behind a lone striker Pippo Inzaghi in the famed Christmas Tree formation. I don’t think going back to the tree is a good idea, but when Ancelotti first introduced it as a change of page from his previous two striker sets with Shevchenko and Inzaghi, it was remarkably successful and allowed him to have some flexibility in big games.

Great coaches show the ability to adapt to different games. Sir Alex Ferguson is one coach who stands out for his tactical flexibility. The same can be said for Guardiola and Mourinho, who have squared off in some of the most interesting tactical battles of the last year. Allegri was a good coach domestically last year, but failed to break out on the European stage. Injuries aside, he had his setup all wrong in the first leg against Tottenham. If he wants to make the leap from a good coach who won the league once (think Zaccheroni) to one who wins the big trophies and competes against the big boys, he needs to be able to adapt his game plan more than he does.

Allegri needs a new approach to games against teams that are setup to beat the 4-3-1-2, a supplemental formation.  As James Hornecastle points out, “There are coaches like Gasperini, who appear to be wedded to a tactic and are dogmatic rather than pragmatic about using it even if it doesn’t fit the team… [http://fourfourtwo.com/blogs/serieaaaaargh/archive/2012/01/23/three-once-again-the-magic-number-for-serie-a-defences.aspx]”  Allegri is using a formation that doesn’t fit the team;  Milan haven’t found the solution at left fullback, suffer creatively in midfield, don’t have a true trequartista, and don’t have a true #9 (Good Luck Maxi, hope you succeed). The 4-2-3-1 may not be the solution, but some variation is needed.


Follow me on Twitter @MilanPete <– 2012 shootout

About Pete Acquaviva

Pete writes about Milan on this blog. Occasionally other things. You would know which of them it is if you've gotten this far.

One Thought on “On Wingbacks and 4-3-3 / 4-3-1-2 formation changes [2012]

  1. RossoneriFido on September 25, 2014 at 11:21 PM said:

    I do remember this piece tbh.
    Are you suggesting we should try the 4-2-3-1 formation? We do have Honda and Abate is now much better delivering crosses. We have Torres and hopefully De Sciglio can recover from his slump. Although I think we have a problem with the other holding midfielder besides De Jong cause Poli is our best bet since Muntari is well Muntari while Montolivo and Van Ginkel are injured.
    Thanks Pete and as always Forza Milan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post Navigation