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Aug 16, 2011

You can't beat the system

Somehow I doubt he thinks about this day very often, but I once played football against Nuri Sahin - and won. It's not like we were playing in opposing teams in some scribes- versus-soccer-stars charity extravaganza. No, it was a proper one-on-one: just him and me and a ball and one of those "Torwand" contraptions. (A target wall with two holes.)

I guess this contest proved that the mental aspect of football is indeed crucial, for I came out on top mainly because I was calm and assured while Sahin was shy and a bit nervous. Which is perfectly understandable, given he was just 17-years-old and had been playing in the comparative anonymity of Borussia Dortmund's Under-16 side only a handful of months earlier.

At that time, people hoped Sahin would become another Andreas Moller or Tomas Rosicky, a set-up man with goal-scoring abilities in offensive midfield. But over the next couple of years, his development couldn't keep pace with people's expectations. In a quite literal sense, too: more than just a few observers kept complaining that Sahin was too slow to ever become the pivot man in the hole, the trequartista the club was looking for.

All this changed on a December day in 2008, when Dortmund were playing against Gladbach at home. At half-time, coach Jurgen Klopp did an unusual thing. Even though Dortmund were having problems breaking down a very defensive opponent, he brought on Sahin for one of his two strikers and played him alongside the Brazilian Tinga in front of the back four, which effectively changed the system from a 4-4-2 with the diamond formation in midfield to a 4-2-3-1. (Or 4-2-2-1-1, as it is sometimes given because the central offensive midfielder usually pushes forward.)

For many months, this game was an isolated experiment, as Dortmund didn't really switch to the new system with Sahin as one of two holding midfielders - a "No. 6", as we refer to this position in Germany - until the autumn of 2009, but it was an important moment in retrospect, and not just for this club and this particular player.

In the winter of 2008, there were quite a few formations and systems to be found in the Bundesliga. Wolfsburg already used the system Klopp tried, but with two strictly defensive No. 6s; Hoffenheim also had two holding midfielders and three forwards; Stuttgart played two No. 6s and two strikers upfront; Leverkusen, Hamburg and Bremen had only one man in front of the back four and two forwards; at Bayern, Jurgen Klinsmann fielded two strikers but, for all the changes he'd set out to make, stuck to an inspired decision of his predecessor Ottmar Hitzfeld and used the former winger Ze Roberto as a holding midfielder.

It's no accident that it was Hitzfeld who hit upon the idea of pairing a ball-winner like Mark van Bommel with a man who had the positional sense of a defender but also the playmaking qualities of an attacker. A decade earlier, at Dortmund, he had first pulled the midfielder Matthias Sammer back into the sweeper position behind two man-to-man markers and had then pushed him forward again, so that Sammer roamed in front of the centre-backs and was basically a playmaker in disguise. (At about the same time, people like Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps or Fernando Redondo also re-defined the position in front of the backline, though in different formations.)

Things were still quite colourful and varied when the next season kicked off, in the summer of 2009. Bremen used a diamond formation in midfield (moving Mesut Ozil from the wing into the trequartista role behind two strikers) that was very much in vogue. Bayern, under Louis van Gaal, first played 4-4-2 before switching to 4-3-3. Mainz and Nuremberg took a fancy to 4-1-4-1.

But then there was a seismic shift that happened astonishingly abruptly. In September/October, as mentioned, Klopp settled on the system with two holding midfielders (one of them basically a ball winner, the other a creative player), three offensive midfielders with the central one often playing in the hole and one striker up front.

At the same time, Joachim Low made the same change to the national team's formation. In September, in a friendly match with South Africa, he fielded Michael Ballack and Simon Rolfes as the holding midfielders and told Ozil to pull the strings behind a lone striker upfront. Low felt so confident with this new set-up that he also used it, to great effect, in a crucial World Cup qualifier in Moscow in October.

Two months later, Van Gaal pulled Bastian Schweinsteiger from the wing into the position in front of the back four and paired him with Van Bommel. Like Sahin, Schweinsteiger had always been an offensive midfielder (and had always been accused of lacking pace) but blossomed in this new role so much that he was visibly unhappy when the idiosyncratic Van Gaal tried to use him as an attacker again one winter on.

Now, less than two years later, it's safe to say this system has won. This past weekend, ten Bundesliga teams used it outright and most others played a variation. It has become quite rare to encounter a lone holding midfielder like Bremen's Clemens Fritz, let alone that nearly extinct beast - the classic midfield flat-four in a traditional 4-4-2.

Which, I think, is what Cologne's new coach Stale Solbakken is trying to teach his team. I can't be entirely sure about this, because I have yet to attend a Cologne game in person. So far, I have to base my judgement on what I see on television, hear from the players and read in magazines. The Monday edition of kicker, for instance, headlined "System Crash" and carried a harrowing Solbakken quote, who explained his side's 5-1 drubbing away at Schalke by saying: "Five players have done what they played in the last years, five have tried to play my system - that is not good."

The system of "the last years" Solbakken was speaking about is, of course, the now ubiquitous 4-2-3-1. Cologne often used it last season, with various duos in the space between the back four and midfield and Lukas Podolski playing behind the lone striker Milivoje Novakovic.

In a way, the 4-2-3-1 is symptomatic of a general trend towards more offensive and risky football, because it lends itself to a pressing game deep in the opponent's half that is physically and mentally demanding but highly effective.

A weakness, however, is that it's sometimes difficult to help your full-backs when they come under pressure, because everybody who is supposed to help them - the wide forwards and the holding midfielders - have a lot of ground to cover before they can get there. It sounds paradoxical, but that might explain why Cologne are now having such problems on the wings despite having gone back to 4-4-2: the wide men in midfield keep leaving gaps because they are used to one of the holding midfielders closing them. When this midfielder instead keeps his position ... well, then that is "not good".

Isn't it strange that a formation which was once only rarely seen in the league has spread like wildfire and become the de facto norm, regardless of the personnel the coaches have at their disposal, in less than two seasons? So much so that some players now have grave problems adapting to a different system?

And it's not just the case in Germany. While only few teams, such as Portugal and France, played 4-2-3-1 at the 2006 World Cup, it was the undisputed star of the tournament four years later in South Africa. And countless clubs now play it.

Like Real Madrid, for instance, where Jose Mourinho has used Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso as the holding midfielders. If Mourinho maintains this system, Sahin should feel right at home.

Five years ago, when I scored more from the spot with a little plastic ball than he did, I'd never thought he'd one day run out for Real. Then again, I would've never envisioned him as a defensive midfielder in those days, back before the 4-2-3-1.

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