The dying formation: 4-1-2-1-2 diamond
You must have used the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond in FIFA or FM manager. What’s not to like with four central midfielders (CMs)? Carlo Ancelotti and Allegri used it to win a lot too. Not anymore. Few contenders use it. Only some mid-table teams do, like U.C. Sampdoria and A.C. Chievo Verona this year. How have we got here?
The 4-1-2-1-2 diamond
The diamond derived from 4-4-2. Two wingers move inside to create a midfield diamond. This simple modification transforms how you attack; you have better ball’s control in the center with four CMs as opposed to only two in 4-4-2. There are better passing angles. The four CMs now have specialized roles because they all operate in a closed area; the wingers create most chances in the 4-4-2, and the two CMs share the box-to-box duties. In the diamond, the two most central midfielders share the creative responsibility, so they become Regista and Trequartista. The two wide midfielders do the box-to-box things. In the 4-4-2 you want two forwards with good headers because you attack with crosses. You attack through the center in the diamond and you don’t cross as much, so you don’t need all your forwards to be good headers and can now have a more technical forward.
Because you focus on the center in the traditional diamond, your ball progression becomes narrow. Many think you don’t need to operate on the flanks. You still do – no one can just attack solely in one area – but you approach them differently. The fullbacks (FBs) now do this job, but only in the last phase of the attack when the center is congested. Some teams, like Real Madrid last year, advance the ball through the wide area. Their diamond is flatter, and the wide-midfielders sit deeper in the build-up. Their formation is a further variant of the diamond.
Sampdoria are retro
Marco Giampaolo has been a diamond’s devotee since his Empoli’s days. Sampdoria’s tactics adhere to its original principles. They have been a surprise; Sampdoria are 6th in the league and have beaten Milan, Juventus, and Roma.
Uruguayan duo Lucas Torreira and Gaston Ramirez are the key players. Fabio Quagliarella captains the team and has enjoyed a renaissance with 15 goals. Ramirez is their Trequartista, their sole source of creativity: he has eight assists this season, leading the league along with Antonio Candreva, Ciro Immobile, and Simone Verdi. He and Quagliarella is the most lethal duo in the league. Ramirez assists the Italian six times.
Sampdoria want to find Ramirez between the lines and let him work his magic. Positional exchanges are minimal. Torreira will pick up the balls from the defenders. He has great techniques and excels in short passes. He links the defenders and the attackers. When his passes find Ramirez, Sampdoria transition into the attack mode. Ramirez will dribble or pass to create for the strikers. The two wide midfielders, especially Edgar Barreto, provide the second wave of attack by surging forward in the center. The opponent will congest this area, leaving the flanks empty. Then the FBs carry the last wave of the attack by bombing down the flanks and sending crosses.
Sampdoria can’t always find Torreira in the initial build-up, especially when the opponent man-marks him. Karol Linetty or Dennis Praet, usually only one of them starts, will drop on the same line as Torreira to create an overload, or they will use positional exchanges to free themselves from their markers.
Sampdoria need Linetty or Praet to help Torreira. Excellent in short passes, but he can’t play long ball. Only 53% of Torreira’s passes are successful, 18th lowest among 90 central midfielders in Serie A, according to whoscored.com. He must position close to Ramirez, otherwise, they can’t connect.
Sampdoria also use long balls to bypass the opponent’s midfield when they can’t find Torreira. Duvan Zapata is the default target. He is probably the most physical and athletic striker in Italy. The Columbian won 2.7 headers per game, 13th highest among Serie A strikers, according to whoscored.com. Not a bad number, but it is not elite neither. Sampdoria don’t care though. Even if they don’t win those long balls, their midfielders often regain the possession:
When they send a long ball, the opponent’s defenders almost always head it back. Because Sampdoria’s midfielders position in multiple lines in the center, they often win the possession back and immediately re-enter the offensive phase. They create high pressure in the middle also because of their narrow formation:
How narrow? They can attack the center 30% of the time, the highest in Serie A, according to whoscored.com.
This tactic is the closest thing to Gegenpressing you will find in Serie A. Italian teams like control and avoid disorder. This type of chaos is the most they can tolerate.
Or you have this kind of ping-pong passes:
The two forwards give you multiple pass targets. When one striker returns the pass to the midfield, his teammates can always find the other striker or Ramirez making a forward run. Better if they are running into the space created by him. The fast changes of the trajectory of the ball also create confusion to the defenders.
Sampdoria are retro, like the teams in the 90s. You won’t find any other team in the top flight playing this type of rudimentary tactics. But maybe that’s why it works in Italy when everyone else devises complicated schemes. Sometimes simplicity just works, sometimes.
The magical Chievo
You should watch Chievo. They play high-level stuff. Rolando Maran has imbued his diamond with modern ideas.
No star player here. Roberto Inglese is the closest (Napoli bought him but have left him in Chievo loan). You may remember Sergio Pellissier, he seems to be around forever, but he is not starting anymore. The key players though, are Lucas Castro and Valter Birsa. Both are wingers-turned CMs.
Like a traditional diamond, Chievo always try to find Birsa, their Trequartista, between the lines. They even play a 4-3-3 in the defensive phase so that Birsa can lead the counter-attacks.
And you have all those ping-pong passes or the midfield’s support by the box-to-box players that Sampdoria do. But Chievo don’t always play narrow. Only 27% of their attacks come from the center, 9th in the league, according to whoscored.com.
Chievo don’t play the traditional diamond. Ivan Radovanovic first picks up the ball from the center backs (CBs). The fullbacks (FBs) move up to flank the midfield diamond and Chievo enters the transition phase. Castro and Perparim Hetemaj then surge forward as the wingers and the formation becomes a 2-1-2-1-4. The FBs replace them to maintain the diamond with Radovanovic and Birsa. The FBs can also switch the positions with the wingers.
You usually only see the 2-1-2-1-4 when the opponent sits deep and lets Radovanovic control the ball in the midfield. But Chievo, like every single team in Serie A, usually advance the ball on the flanks. And you won’t see the 2-1-2-1-4 in the final offensive phase. The shape looks like a 2-1-2-2-3. When you advance the ball so deep on one side, you don’t need another winger on the opposite side. He would have been utterly useless. So he will drop in the middle and ready to run into to box to catch the crosses. You have Birsa to support the wingers. The FBs will stay behind the wingers because they need to cross or help recycle the ball if the wingers are closed down.
Chievo’s diamond is asymmetric. Hetemaj stays closer to Radovanoic. He can create the overload or the positional exchanges to help advance the ball as they enter the transition phase.
Castro stays further forward. He is their second most creative player. He, Hetemaj, Birsa and the forwards use a lot of positional exchanges and movements to create space:
Look at those positional exchanges. They know exactly when and where to go. You don’t see these movements in the traditional diamond because Trequartista will hold the ball and everyone plays off him. But the traditional diamond can’t fully utilize both Castro and Birsa. Giving the ball’s control to only Birsa wastes Castro’s versatility. But playing a traditional 4-4-2, with them as wingers, is not effective and outdated. So Maran puts them close together. Let them exchange duties as they see fit. And we have this modern diamond with tons of shape transitions and positional exchanges. How can you not like Chievo?
You can argue that Castro is their most important player. He has recently been injured for 75 days and Chievo only won one game out of 13. Maran loves Castro. They have been together since Catania.
Too bad Maran isn’t coaching bigger teams like Juventus or Milan. Imagine what he can do there. But he also won’t do all those imaginary things because they take time to be optimized and the big boys in Serie A don’t have that much patience. Too bad.
Diamond does not last forever
The Italian diamond needs new tweaks if it is to survive. You just don’t have the types of players to excel. Target man is a dying breed. And you don’t find Regista anymore. All those dominant Italian teams with the diamond had Andrea Pirlo at their times. The rise of Regista is an exception rather than the rule. Italy has seen Pirlo once (or Xabi Alonso for Spain). You can’t find players that can create so much from deep. Pirlo is a once-in-a-generation talent that we may never see again.
Same as Trequartista. But you won’t find him again because the modern tactics don’t favor such a role. Football nowadays demands speed, movement, and positional play to create space. They are the most efficient ways to attack. Using Trequartista, by default, means having him to create almost everything, and you play with fewer of those things that the modern tactics require. It is not efficient.
And having Trequartista is not economical. We now have ball-playing center backs, FBs, invert-wingers…etc. Giving the control of ball to Trequartista means taking that away from these players, so he has to be REALLY GOOD if you were to do that. Even Lionel Messi does not warrant taking the ball away from Dani Alves, Andrés Iniesta, or Neymar. The formula just doesn’t add up for any contender.
The diamond works for the mid-table teams. They don’t have the resources to buy the best player at every position. If you are Sampdoria you do want Ramirez to have the ball all the time. He is clearly their most creative and technical guy.
But just like Real Madrid last year, even Chievo use a modified diamond. Diamond is not the problem, the function of Trequartista is. His role doesn’t work for most teams. You will probably only find him in FIFA or FM manager in the future.