x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Playing a 4-4-2 is so last decade as Capello has finally realised

The England manager has finally come round to the 4-3-3 formation, about three years after everyone else. It appears to signal the end to the traditional one of 4-4-2.

Amid the familiar laments about ankles, hamstrings and metatarsals, there was another ailment among England's many injuries at last summer's World Cup. Fabio Capello, it appears, was suffering from Stockhausen syndrome.

Admittedly, given the Italian manager's remuneration, in the region of £6 million (Dh35.2m) a year, it is hard to regard him as the victim of a kidnapping, but he appeared to sympathise with his captors. After a couple of years in London, Capello became more English than the English in his adherence to a rigid 4-4-2 formation.

This was the tried-and-tested system. Yet that presents an outdated image of England: it may remain the default shape, particularly at lower-league levels, but there has been more variety over the last couple of decades.

Arsenal won the title in 1989 and England reached the World Cup semi-finals the following year, both playing a back five.

Yet 20 years on, Capello's tactics appeared plucked from the past as England laboured to underachievement in South Africa.

Given the British media's tradition of overreaction where the national team is concerned, it is premature to hail Saturday's 2-0 win over Wales as a turning point, but it should show the way forward.

To general surprise, Capello introduced Scott Parker, the West Ham United captain, as a genuine holding midfielder, fielded three men in the middle and opted for a system that has been described as 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1. That, in itself, is a sign that it was more fluid and flexible than England often prove.

That they swept Wales aside might simply be the product of superior players, but it was aided by their configuration.

Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney were raiding wingers, not pinned to the touchline and granted licence to veer infield; Frank Lampard and Jack Wilshere were able to play their natural games, benefiting from the insurance policy that a holding midfielder offers; as attacking full-backs, Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole are able to advance more freely with the knowledge that Parker was primed to offer cover.

If the rationale was that Wales generally field a trio in the centre of midfield, it is a belated recognition of the realities of international football: one way or another, most teams do.

England have spent years being outnumbered in a crucial department, a reason why an inability to retain possession has been a habitual failing.

It is why the Premier League sides who have prospered in Europe have done so with more suitable and subtle formations.

Yet the debate tends to be framed in simplistic terms: fielding two strikers is automatically equated with attacking and choosing a solitary centre-forward is deemed defensive.

Over the weekend, however, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, two of the more experienced and intelligent voices, spoke persuasively.

The former Manchester United captain was typically blunter, effectively declaring 4-4-2 dead and arguing that even when Sir Alex Ferguson has seemed an adherent, he actually isn't: by splitting his strikers, there is a bridge between midfield and attack.

In any case, since United were outmanoeuvred by Real Madrid and Fernando Redondo in 2000, Ferguson has tended to field three central midfielders in continental competition.

So, too, did Rafa Benitez, who managed Carragher for six seasons. The Liverpool defender said that 4-3-3 suits the players at Capello's disposal, though it is a conclusion the Italian has taken three years to reach.

For much of his reign, he appeared to harbour a distrust of both Parker and Tom Huddlestone, very different players but the closest England have to natural anchormen.

Now Capello's task is to ensure he does not revert to his, and England's past, and go back to 4-4-2.