By Joe Davies
“They say diamonds aren’t forever, but they certainly are for this manager.”
So go the dulcet tones of Alan Smith on FIFA’s hugely popular football simulation game. Such is the rarity of the 4-3-1-2, 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-4-2 (diamond) formation that it has been gifted its very own Worcestershire cliché when deployed on games consoles across the land.
For those brought up on the classic 4-4-2 formation, or the more continental 4-3-3 variants used to great effect by various Dutch sides over the years, the narrow, seemingly imbalanced diamond offers little more than a convenient way of forcing all your favourite Ultimate Team players into a starting eleven. However, over the years this strange and enigmatic shape has been used to great success by the more open-mind coaches in global football, eventually finding its way to the British isles.
Indeed, managers in the English Premier League have now begun lining up their teams in the formation with increasing regularity, especially among the top six, despite its perceived weaknesses. Just why is the diamond midfield seeing a growth in popularity in British football?
Jewel in the crown
It is impossible to talk about the diamond midfield without first looking at Carlo Ancelotti’s overwhelmingly successful reign in the fashion capital of the world. The eyebrow-raising Italian’s side embodied the luxury his formation implied; from 2001 to 2009, AC Milan won the Champions League twice, the UEFA Super Cup twice, the FIFA Club World Cup, as well as all the major honours in domestic Italian football, and featured three Ballon d’Or winners in Andriy Shevchenko, Kaká and Ronaldinho.
However, what defined this team more than the titles and star names was its peculiar use of four central midfielders behind two strikers. Ancelotti would later go on to squeeze five in behind a solitary forward, but in the early days of his tenure, the Rossoneri took to the field with Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and the oft-overlooked Rui Costa in the centre of the park.
Milan were a well-oiled machine. Rather than relying on their full-backs to provide width, often using the centre-back Costacurta on the right of defence before Cafu joined from Roma in 2003, Ancelotti instructed Seedorf and Rui Costa to drift out to the left and right respectively while in possession of the ball in order to overcome the natural narrowness of the formation.
At the base of the diamond, Pirlo dictated play from deep, while Gattuso acted as the classy playmakers bodyguard, putting in enough miles to serve as two defensive midfielders on his own. As an interesting aside, one can have little doubt that it was this midfielder partnership that served as inspiration for Maurizio Sarri’s use of Jorginho and Allan at Napoli, and his ill-fated attempt to recreate it with the Kante at Chelsea.
Injuries to Inzaghi, and the arrivals of the aforementioned Brazilians Cafu and Kaká, as well as the attacking Jankulovski at left-back, saw Ancelotti switch to a Christmas tree formation in his later years at the club. Rather than relying on his midfielders to provide width, full-backs were instructed to push higher up the field, and defensive solidity was compensated by bringing the more defensive Ambrosini on the left side of Pirlo, and pushing Seedorf higher up the field next to Kaká. However, his commitment to the original diamond set-up endured.
“We want to maintain the same system,” said Ancelotti in 2009, having begun implementing his favoured shape at Chelsea.
“I said before that for this season, we follow this way at home and away. The last two matches away were not good for us, but we don’t want to change because of that. I think this system is very good away from home.”
This was one of the first times that the shape had been used consistently in the top flight of British football. Ancelotti won the league in 2009-10, alternating between a diamond, the Christmas tree and a wider 4-3-3. However, his most used system, seen above, largely failed to get the most out of its players. Initially Lampard was used at the top of the diamond, which prevented him from making his trademark late runs into the box from deep and left him playing with his back to goal. Ancelotti quickly clocked on to this, and moved Lampard a bit deeper, seeing the Englishman score 14 goals in his last 11 games, but had to use Florent Malouda in behind the strikers instead – a central role he was uncomfortable in.
In many ways, Chelsea won the league in spite of the formations Ancelotti used, though they did become the first team to score over a 100 goals in a season, and Ancelotti became the first Italian manager to become champion. The diamond was abandoned in the Italian’s second season at the club, seemingly never to be seen again in the Premier League.
Lucy in the sky
Over in Brazil, the value of the diamond was once again realised in what was undoubtedly the most exciting team at the 2014 World Cup: Chile. Taking over from Marcelo Bielsa, Jorge Sampaoli built on the foundations laid by the enigmatic Argentine, taking the high-pressing fundamentals Bielsa espoused but shifting the team from the unconventional 3-3-1-3 they had played in South Africa four year before to a sort-of modified diamond (alternating with a 3-4-1-2 as well, depending on the number of opposition forwards).
Unlike with Milan, Chile attacked with a surprising amount of width, in part down to the attacking instincts of Beausejour and Isla who both regularly performed as wing-backs both at club level and when deployed in a five-man back line for the national side. However, it was Sampaoli’s use of the two forwards, and particularly their interaction with the man at the top of the diamond that was most interesting. Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez both played as wide forwards for their clubs. Sanchez, specifically, had a frustrating time at Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, who gave him strict instruction to stay wide in possession despite the player thriving in a free-role at Udinese before signing for the Catalan giants.
For Chile, the pair were set free as winger-cum-strikers, starting very wide before drifting in to central goalscoring positions when higher up the pitch. They led the press, backed up by a peak Arturo Vidal, who thrived in a central attacking role, driving forward and making use of the goalscoring instincts he demonstrated at Juventus where he scored 18 times in the season leading up to the World Cup.
The dynamic between the front three was not altogether dissimilar to Barcelona’s use of a false nine, with Lionel Messi drifting deeper while Pedro and David Villa made diagonal runs from out wide. This is where numerical formations fall short; the lines between a winger and striker become blurred to the extent that it is foolhardy to try and define their positions with such a binary. However, the key difference was in Sampaoli’s use of Vidal who started deep and made late runs off the ball through the middle when the forwards ended up wider in attack. This tactic may have been influenced from an unlikely, Northern Irish source.
In the season leading up to the World Cup, Brendan Rodgers faced a selection head ache at Liverpool. Favouring a typical 4-3-3 at Swansea, Rodgers now had to fit in his two high-goalscoring forwards into the same line-up, with both preferring to play through the centre rather than being forced into unnatural wide berths. While Liverpool experimented with a number of different systems in 2013-14, the diamond became his favoured shape as a method of maintaining control in the centre while still keeping Suarez and Sturridge in nominally centre forward positions.
Much like Chile, at least one of Suarez or Sturridge would drift into wide positions when Liverpool advanced in possession. This opened up space in the centre for Sterling, who had previoudly played exclusively out wide, to exploit. The young Englishman now plays in extremely wide positions for Manchester City, and regularly picks up goals and assists for the sky blues, but this new role proved a tactical masterstroke back in 2013, seeing him score nine and assist seven in the league that season, compared to just two and six respectively in the previous campaign.
Deeper in midfield, Gerrard completely changed his game. Despite describing the end of the season as “the worst three months of [his] life”, the lifelong red picked up 13 goals and 13 assists that year, earning him a nomination for PFA Player of the Year. However, rather than the long-busting, game-winning performances he had consistently put in for his hometown club across the previous decade, Gerrard became a regista in the mould of Pirlo, operating as a sort of quarterback who would receive the ball from defence and utilise his long-range of passing to launch counter-attacks from deep. This was allowed for, in part, by the dynamic roles of Allen and Henderson on either side of him, who picked up most of the defensive duties, covering the wings and shielding the now less-mobile Gerrard from pressure.
Following Liverpool’s late capitulation that year, after a dreadful slip from their skipper, Rodgers would go on to abandon the system. With Suarez off to Barcelona in 2014, and Gerrard increasingly less important to how Rodgers wanted to set up his team, the 2013-14 side has seemingly been forgotten by most neutrals. However, the reds scored 101 goals that year, the record for a Premier League runner-up, and came the closest they had to a Premier League title since the 1980s, in no small part down to the unconventional formation deployed by their manager. Liverpool demonstrated that coaches did not have to stick to the tried and trusted formations of yesteryear in order to be successful in British football, but falling just short of a title win probably prevented more teams attempting to play the same way in the years to come.
Diamonds in the rough
The once seldom seen diamond has seen a rise in popularity this Premier League season, particularly at the turn of the new year. Tottenham began using the formation with injuries to Dembélé and Dier seeing them replaced with Winks and Sissoko at the heart of the midfield. While an excellent distributor of the ball, Winks lacks the defensive presence required to play in a two man midfield, and Mauricio Pochettino compensated for this by playing him at the heart of a midfield three, flanked by the powerful Sissoko and a Christian Eriksen tasked with greater defensive responsibilities than he was used to in Spurs’ traditional 4-2-3-1 formation.
The shape was a hit for them over November and December, seeing big wins against Chelsea and a 6-2 thrashing over Everton during the period. Alli thrived making late third-man runs through the middle, in the vein of Vidal or Sterling, and the Lilywhites made up for their lack of width with the attacking instincts of their full-backs. Sissoko’s old schooling as a right-sided midfielder and Eriksen’s adaptability and tendency to drift around the field meant both were well suited to the outside roles of the diamond.
On the 13th of January, Ole Gunnar Solkjaer came up against his biggest test as Manchester United boss. Most were surprised when his front three of Rashford, Martial and Lingard were set up in a 1-2 shape rather than the usual three spread across the pitch. United were able to pack the midfield, stifling Spurs’ strength through the centre of the pitch, and hit them on the counter, utilising the pace of their two forwards spreading wide and Lingard bursting through the centre. United dominated the first half with Pogba pulling the strings in midfield, and survived a barrage of Spurs efforts in the second, seeing them win 1-0.
Perhaps taking inspiration from United’s solid display and Spurs’ prior success with the formation, Unai Emery opted to use it for the first time against London rivals Chelsea the following weekend, seeing the Gunners win 2-0 with a mature defensive display. Much like Rodgers in 2013/14, Emery’s constant challenge this season has been to incorporate his two most potent attackers, Aubameyang and Lacazette, in the same team while preferring to use a lone striker tactically.
Most of the time Arsenal have either opted to start Lacazette on the bench or shift Aubameyang to the wing, despite the pair’s obvious chemistry both on and off the field. However, in this game the two were started together up top, thriving in a system suited to their strengths. Both forwards are comfortable in wider positions and have the pace to get in behind defences with diagonal runs made in between the oppositions full-back and centre-half.
Against Chelsea this worked perfectly, with space found most prominently between the oft-criticised David Luiz and predominantly attacking full-back Marcos Alonso. Ramsey was used in a more attacking role than he was used to under Arsène Wenger, and thrived in the space afforded to him by the forward’s wide positions. Crucially, his dynamic style was perfect in nullifying Jorginho‘s threat on the ball, leading the press from midfield.
Arsenal defended well, with the defensive-minded Torreira and Guendouzi flanking Xhaka, who played a distributive role in possession. The Gunners only had 35.7% of the ball, but managed to nullify Hazard, who performed poorly in a false-nine role he has publicly criticised. Emery demonstrated his tactical versatility, playing a containment style rarely seen under Wenger, and frustrated Maurizio Sarri to the extent he criticised his own players after the game.
While neither Tottenham, United or Arsenal have persisted with the diamond for extended periods over the season, all three have demonstrated its effectiveness in big games. Indeed, it would be surprising to see the formation used with more regularity by other teams, as managers constantly seek to emulate displays when analysing videos of others’ victories.
The diamond may never be the most popular formation used across England due to its obvious weaknesses out wide. However, it is worth baring in mind that the last time England won the World Cup, Alf Ramsey used it with aplomb. Much as Gareth Southgate borrowed the back-three system used by Chelsea, City and Tottenham at various points over the last few seasons at England’s last World Cup, it would not be surprising to see him trial a diamond in upcoming fixtures, with so many players having benefitted from playing it at club level. Perhaps the failures of England’s golden generation may be alleviated by a shift to the diamond age.