Tactics board: Same shape, different approaches equal shared St. Mary's spoils

Posted by Richard Jolly


Ian Walton/Getty ImagesWest Ham's Gary O'Neil, right, was an effective defensive midfielder Saturday againt Southampton and Nathaniel Clyne.

For a long time, 4-4-2 was the default formation for English teams. Now, it seems, 4-2-3-1 has replaced it. But there are different ways to play 4-2-3-1, as Southampton and West Ham illustrated.

Saints’ game is based on pressing and possession. They prefer to play high up the pitch. They also like to be on the ball and had it 62 percent of the time.

In contrast, West Ham's is essentially a defensive blueprint, based on organisation that allows them to defend in different shapes: either 4-1-4-1, which gives them a holding player to patrol the space between the lines, or 4-4-1-1, putting Kevin Nolan between the midfield and attack.

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Against Southampton, who started with Adam Lallana in the hole, it was particularly significant that Gary O'Neil was a disciplined presence in front of the back four. He led the way for West Ham with interceptions and tackles, while only the back four made more clearances. They were figures to show he did the defensive midfielder's job well.

Another indication was that Lallana, who was substituted, was the most muted of Southampton's attacking talents.

Saints' nominal defensive midfielders, Jack Cork and Morgan Schneiderlin, can operate farther forward; they look to create the first defensive block in the opposition’s half and then, if that fails, retreat to create another in front of the defence.

West Ham looked to bypass them by using Andy Carroll as the target man -- Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino said afterward that perhaps the visitors "abused" the long ball -- but it also led to them bypassing their own midfield and squandering possession. West Ham centre-back James Collins only had a 47 percent pass-completion rate, low for any player, let alone a defender, while winger Matt Jarvis, on the pitch almost an hour before being replaced by Jack Collison, only had 17 touches.

The major difference between the sides came in the attacking midfielders. Generally West Ham's stayed in the same zone -- indeed, a large part of Jarvis and Ricardo Vaz Te's jobs involved shielding their full-back -- but Southampton played with greater fluidity and their trio interchanged. At times they were able to combine because they were closer together.

It was significant that neither wide man is really a winger. It meant there was a greater onus on full-backs Nathaniel Clyne and Danny Fox to provide the width; both put in more crosses than usual. In front of them, Steven Davis is a central midfielder by trade while Gaston Ramirez prefers to operate as a No. 10. It explained why the Uruguayan tended to veer infield; he was more likely to underlap than overlap, and gravitating towards the centre brought him his goal.

What was uncharacteristic was that it came from a second ball after Artur Boruc’s goal kick; Southampton had scored a West Ham-type goal, the sort more associated with Nolan.

Davis, deputising for the ill Jay Rodriguez, brought a midfielder's sensibilities to the left flank; he was on the ball almost as much as Cork and Schneiderlin -- indeed, Davis was happy to come deep, take it from the central defenders and run forward -- whereas the former Burnley man, a striker at Turf Moor, looks to get in the box to become the second striker.

One sign of Davis' influence was that West Ham brought on Collison, another central player, to operate ostensibly on the right of the midfield, but safe in the knowledge he could tuck in because the Northern Irishman was not hugging the touchline.

Pochettino responded by bringing on a genuine winger, in Jason Puncheon, and Rodriguez, to get in the box in their search for a winner.

However, as West Ham picked up a point on the road for the second time in seven days, it was another occasion when manager Sam Allardyce had shored his side up with astute defensive changes among the supposedly attacking midfielders.

As that suggests, he was the reactive manager and Pochettino the proactive one who had set the tone with his initial approach. But though Southampton dominated most statistics, very different versions of 4-2-3-1 produced a point apiece.


Everton’s previous game, six days earlier at White Hart Lane, had been notable for a battle between attack-minded full-backs. In a different way, so was this.

Against Tottenham, and with both wide midfielders tucking in, Leighton Baines and Kyle Walker had a high-speed, keenly contested duel the Spurs man won by a shade. Against QPR, it was a rather more one-sided battle. With Kevin Mirallas again looking infield -- despite, at times, David Moyes trying to get him to stay wide -- and Junior Hoilett offering little protection, Jose Bosingwa was left exposed against the marauding Seamus Coleman.

The Portuguese was booked for a tug on the Irishman while, on occasions, the right-back got beyond him and left-sided centre-back Clint Hill was called on to stop him, once nearly bringing a penalty. It also highlighted the other dimension Coleman has given Everton and indicated the defensive job both wingers have to do against them.

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