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4-4-2 the Right Way

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Couldn't find any pictures of their goalie, maybe the luckiest man on earth today (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Couldn't find any pictures of their goalie, maybe the luckiest man on earth today (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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We didn't get any Liverpool today, thanks to the Ice Giants continuing their war on Valhalla and the approaching Ragnarok*, so I was forced to watch the highly entertaining Bolton take on the highly entertaining Sunderland in the Stadium of Light. I wasn't going to write anything, but felt I had to- both teams were great, and far, far better than the 1-0 scoreline suggested. They also both ran a 4-4-2 (which Bolton were forced to change as the match continued) and were far more flowing and effective than Liverpool's current formation, showing that the 4-4-2 can be both entertaining and effective.

*I have theatre tickets for Monday in London. If my train is canceled there will be blood. In Switzerland this is a light dusting, in England, the end of the bloody world. Every damn year. 

So, how do they make it work? Bolton is known as an attacking side- a complete turnaround from when they were managed by Sam Allardyce, when they tended to play, well, anti-football is too nice a term for it. Perhaps change-the-channel football, or rugby is a better name for it. No longer! Now they score away goals and attack pretty much constantly, which has resulted in a surprising number of away points and few home losses. They also feature an exciting young American midfielder in Stuart Holden and some interesting pieces- they haven't quite gotten away from the towering, lumbering players that Allardyce prefers but those players have proven surprisingly adept at the flowing and pressing game that their current manager, Coyle, employs.

Sunderland is a slightly different beast. They've played fantastically this season, in particular in their away thrashing of Chelsea. They feature a number of players with excellent pace, in particular Asamoah Gyan the Ghanaian striker. They always, always, pass and sprint forward into space. Obviously a drilled tactic, the passing player forces the defender to make a hard decision between two players, a situation that led to today's lone goal. They don't press quite as high up the pitch, but their midfielders and wing-backs excel in moving the ball forward and they stay up the pitch in the counter, even when it's really just their pacy strikers who are in on the move. The result is a high number of goals from open play, and a slight tendency towards exposure in the back. This is not helped by the presence of Lee Cattermole, the Slowest Player in the Premiership (as a result, one of the most booked). Despite Cattermole, the Black Cats have a stout defense, especially at home where they do not lose.

I think there are a couple of keys to the way Bolton plays. The first is their press:
 by Guardian Chalkboards

Note how high up the field they tackle, and how clearly they do it all across the field. They also had 14 interceptions this match, an awesome number for an away team. Contrast this with Liverpool's abysmal tackling performance against Newcastle, and you start to see how a press leads to the difference between 53% (Bolton's today, AWAY FROM HOME FOR PETE'S SAKE) and 46% (our seasonal average) possession numbers. If you give your opponent less time on the ball, they can't, say, twaddle around and then kick it to Andy Carroll. The only real mistake they made today on the press was when the midfielder failed to account for Welbeck coming from behind the play, something Sunderland does very well.

Another thing that Bolton does, which is a key for them, is create very well off of set pieces- something more open teams fail to do some times. With a player like Cattermole giving away free kicks in dangerous spots, Bolton's big men did a fantastic job of winning the ball and heading it on in the box, leading to a number of excellent opportunities, of which Knight's certainly should have been a goal. Elmander had an excellent match, though a switch to a 4-3-3 towards the end of the match sort of pushed him out of it a bit. Davies was also solid, contributing to a number of Bolton's 10 opportunities in the box.

Now for Sunderland. Another team that plays a 4-4-2, they rely on Gyan and Bent to hold and pass on to rushing midfielders and then assault the back line. They managed to receive the ball up and down the pitch, make an effective pass in a single touch, and continue to attack. This flowing play, coupled with onrushing wingers, led to the goal where Welbeck was left unaccounted for because Gyan and Bent were being doubled.
 by Guardian Chalkboards

Note the number of short, successful back passes to an attendant winger or midfield player.  They didn't press quite so high up the pitch, but their strikers' holding play allowed Sunderland to attack in numbers- something they didn't stop doing the whole match, to their credit. Sunderland's commitment to one-touch soccer and consistent attack really kept Bolton out of their end until the end of the match, and shows how attacking football reduces the burden on a defense. Bolton averages a lot of goals- keeping a clean sheet was a real achievement for which Sunderland's tactics deserve a lot of credit.

I think both these sides really highlight a lot of Liverpool's deficiencies. Yes, we've played poorly in defense, but Sunderland has managed to keep three straight clean sheets with Lee Cattermole featuring in defense. There's a tendency for Liverpool to shut up shop or not close in the middle third, and against a team like Bolton that's an incitement to score. Do what Sunderland did- build your possession up, hit your strikers high up the pitch, and then advance. Both these teams show that a 4-4-2 is not just a countering formation, and, like in Liverpool's win against Aston Villa, a press or good link-up play can ensure a solid attack. Bolton proves that you can play well when you press on the road (despite losing), and Sunderland proves that attacking with pace and support really keeps a possession oriented team on the back foot. I don't think either of these teams are more talented than Liverpool, but their coaching has them committed to somewhat different but highly effective attacking play styles. I'll always believe that a high press is the best form of defense and one touch play is the key to attacking flow. These teams not only show that keeping the ball out of your half is the best defense, but also that killing the ball is really killing yourself.