By Gary Paul
So here we are again: the media have built it up only to knock it down when the mood and the need to sell newspapers or gain ratings dictates it should be so. Only this time the "it" is not a person. Yes, the same newspaper columnists and "expert" pundits that lauded Fabio Capello's appointment as the arrival of the saviour two and a half years ago are now decrying the iron-fisted dictator they have decided he has become. Yes, John Terry has been cast (perhaps correctly) as the villain of the peace where once he was a talisman, a brave leader amongst mere men. But this time, the victim of the media's hypocrisy and vitriol is not any individual but a system.
4-4-2 is dead, should certain news outlets be believed. "Chelsea no longer play 4-4-2," they cite as evidence. "Nor do Barcelona." "Why do England still persist?" "Even Manchester United have given it up." Maybe they have, but then again none of their strikers managed to effectively act as a foil for Wayne Rooney in his blue riband year to date, and let's not forget they didn't win any grander prize than the Carling Cup. Why hypocrisy? Because it is not so long ago that the same pundits were unilaterally stating that "almost every team that has had genuine and prolonged success played 4-4-2." This may or may not be true, but the facts are that those now claiming that this "outdated" system should be abandoned were not so long ago its chief cheerleaders.
They are also wrong to both proclaim its death and to suggest England should drop it. Rather, England should start playing it. To claim that the shambles we saw against Algeria was a 4-4-2 was like saying that X-Factor is a quality music programme. What we were playing was some kind of mutant 4-3-(1)-2, with the (1) being a roaming Steven Gerrard. This in theory is no bad thing, except that we were supposed to be playing 4-4-2, with the England captain on the left. Whether the fact that Gerrard treated the left touchline like it was a pub jukebox and gave it a wide berth was due to instructions from the manager or down to his own refusal to hold position we will never (probably) know. But the facts are that it left us completely devoid of shape and easy to defend.
It is this point that is also largely to blame for Aaron Lennon's poor showing so far. Normally, against a genuine 4-4-2, full backs will tuck in so as to avoid being beaten on the inside. I was a full back for the vast majority of my playing days, until experience (okay, age) dictated that i move into the middle of the defence. As a left back if I was faced with a winger that wanted to hug the touchline I would be loathe to get too tight for fear of leaving a big gap between myself and my centre half. This meant that if the opposition moved the ball quickly to the winger he would have chance to "open his legs" and get a good run at me. This would cause me problems if he was particularly quick.
However, Algeria's defence had a different set-up facing them. With no-one occupying the left of England's midfield, the Algerian right back effectively became spare, allowing him to tuck right in. The entire back line could then move over, meaning that the left sided of the two centre halves was much closer than normal to the left back. In turn, said left back could then stand right on Lennon's toes knowing that his inside was secure, meaning that Lennon had nowhere to go. He is being stifled by the way we are setting the team up. Every time he received the ball be was immediately faced with two defenders.
Yes, Lennon's decision making is sometimes poor. Agreed, his final ball, whilst much improved under Harry Redknapp, still too often misses its mark. But on other occasions he has almost single handedly destroyed teams this season (remember Croatia at home? - the game was won inside twenty minutes by Lennon almost alone.)
Is he as good a right-sided midfielder as David Beckham in his prime? Clearly not. Is he better than any other contender? Undoubtedly. Messrs Walcott and Wright-Phillips do not come close. Others may debate that, but what is clear is that Lennon, like the formerly celebrated 4-4-2, is not being given a fair chance.