E are lies, damned lies and statistics, so the saying goes. And while British sport is not as consumed by stats as our Stateside cousins, the numbers game is catching on fast.
Football formations are not stats in themselves, but are becoming an important part of the game’s currency. This season, more than ever, there is a fascination with how our top teams are set up by their managers.
The days of WM – two full-backs, three half-backs and five forwards – died when Roy of the Rovers was a lad. But the talk this season has been of three at the back – no, not an order for cinema tickets but the preferred tactics of new Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal.
He arrived at United from the World Cup, where his Holland side performed much better than expected utilising this system: three centre-backs instead of the usual four defenders, supplemented by two attacking wing-backs.
They were not alone using this system in Brazil last summer. Costa Rica, winners of England’s group, were at it. So were Mexico and Algeria. And in recent weeks Van Gaal’s United have been joined by Liverpool. Indeed, in one remarkable game when manager Brendan Rodgers set up his team this way, Liverpool restricted the usually possession-hogging Arsenal side to a mere 36 per cent share of the play.
Yet none of this is new, even if it seems that Van Gaal has reinvented the wheel. Remember France ‘98, five long World Cups ago? Anything strike you as familiar?
I give you three centre-backs in the guise of Gary Neville, Tony Adams and Sol Campbell. And I point you in the direction of attacking wing-backs Darren Anderton and Graeme Le Saux. These guys were at the heart of England manager Glenn Hoddle’s 3-5-2 system with a power-packed midfield featuring David Beckham, Paul Ince and Paul Scholes feeding a spearhead of Alan Shearer and young Michael Owen.
Last Saturday at Loftus Road, Hoddle – now first-team coach at QPR – got a close-up view of how Van Gaal’s version of his formation was faring. United won 2-0 having started the game with three at the back before reverting to a more orthodox system later in the game. So, is it a winner for United or not?
Hoddle gave his qualified approval. “I think United have a real chance with the system now their main defenders are back,” Hoddle told me. “Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are playing and that will help. But I think they have to sign someone else, bring in another quality central defender, before they really excel.”
He reckons United need a ball-playing centre-back, really comfortable in possession and capable of coming out of defence into midfield and beyond – the role he had in mind for a teenaged Rio Ferdinand, before Hoddle’s England tenure came unstuck.
Ferdinand, of course, is now winding down his career at QPR having left United last summer. Who said it’s a funny old game? And if you think you’ve spotted a radical new approach to the game, beware: there’s no such thing as an original idea in football.