This article is not for the relevancy of how Atlético Madrid were able to take down Liverpool at Anfield, this was planned long before that (I just have more time now thanks to COVID). This is about perfecting a defensive principal that became the standard in the 1990’s, being perfected in many spectators eyes by Arrigo Sacchi with AC Milan. At its heart the 1-4-4-2 system is a staple in the sport, even though some see it as pragmatic or “parking the bus.” In reality it is a basic defending system that is used in moments of games and seasons by all teams due to its simplicity and compact shape. However the teams that do it the best, are the ones that can seem impossible to break down, that is what Diego Simeone does so well.
The 1-4-4-2 defensive block is very simple to see in a game, you have your back line of four with a midfield line of four in between. Your two wingers are responsible for helping to cover the spaces on either side of the fullbacks. When one steps the responsibility is to cover for the other, this is in part what makes it so successful. The other aspect is being able to keep your central midfielders and center backs accountable and protecting the center of the field near your own 18 yard box.
Defending as a unit can sometimes be over simplified, “keeping numbers up” is something you will hear at youth fields. This is what the 1-4-4-2 block is used for, keeping numbers behind the ball while having enough forward to threaten a counter attack. Every team uses it in some form, and Minnesota United is no different, Heath has used it since day one. What makes it so different now then before? The individuals in that system react quicker then previous versions of MNUFC, whether its organizing the shape or being able to make a crucial tackle or interception. The system hasn’t changed but the quality in it has, and that reasoning is obvious to everyone who has seen both teams.
So how does a 1-4-4-2 react to an opponent, soccer is all well in good when thinking about one team in isolation, but the sport is played in a fluid environment where both teams are reacting to each other. It is not possible to cover or attack every part of the field, so you have to try and disorganize the opponent as the attacking team. The counter to that is to stay organized as one defensive unit. For instance, are you covering the passing angles the team in possession is trying to create? Can you not overcommit numbers to one area leaving a dangerous space vulnerable? Are you applying enough pressure on the ball to force errors? These are things everyone is looking for on both teams, these moments are what lead to goal scoring opportunities.
One of the common tactics to break up a deep 1-4-4-2 block is to take your central striker and drop them into the midfield and use the wingers to try and stretch behind the backline. This creates a numerical superiority in the center of the midfield to try and disorganize the center backs and central midfielders and create space in a dangerous area. If the defending team is organized, the team in possession tries to pull them out of the defensive shape. Usually this involves attacking the “half spaces”, the space between the center of the field and the wide areas. If you can create numerical superiority here you can usually pull a defender over and create space in a more dangerous area. This is done by making the winger step aggressively to the outside back and leaving the half space open for a central midfielder.
Finding your central midfielder in space is one of the most complex things to do as the level of play increases. The speed of play gets faster, the decisions need to be faster, and there is no room for mistakes. This process takes time, it involves moving a player out of position through many passes attempting to play around and through the opposition. The above diagram over simplifies the process undoubtably, but this is what the team in possession is trying to do to break down a defensive block.
When the central midfielder is able to find the ball in this space the first thing this player does is to analyze is if they have the time and space to turn upfield. If they can’t, they continue to try and find a way to get in behind the back line or find a central player who can turn upfield.
When a player is pulled out of the block (in this case the 11), in a well trained block this player retreats back into the space vacated to try and win the ball while the rest of the midfield line slides over to cover for the player being beaten. Other attacking players make off the ball runs to try and pull other defenders away from the area being attacked. This is the moment where your defensive block gets tested, are you able to provide enough cover for the player who was beaten to stop a promising attacking action.
The space the defending team chooses not to cover is the attacking teams outside back on the far side of the field (also referred to as the “weak side”).
This is why so many teams in the world spend so much money on outside backs. The quality of the decision making here is at a premium and can tear apart defensive blocks and shape. This player has so much space to attack and make a decision, the possibilities are endless for what this player can do before the block shifts over, if the ball gets there quick enough.
This is why every MLS team has a “Diego Simeone Tactic”, in general the quality isn’t at the level to pick apart a similar level team who can play this style effectively. Either the ball doesn’t get to the weak side fullback fast enough where the defensive shape doesn’t have the time to recover, or the quality of the decision making isn’t good enough in these areas.
MNUFC has made it a priority to get these types of fullbacks to attack this type of system, while also acquiring the players who are able to organize this type of system defensively. While all the praise may go to the players on how they have changed the way everyone looks at the club (deservedly so), the successes we are starting to see now could not happen without how spot on the roster construction has been over the past season.
Stay safe everyone.