Andres Iniesta is probably the greatest midfielder of his generation, one of the best central midfielders of all time and possibly the Spain’s greatest ever footballer. His natural ability surpasses pretty much everyone whom he comes in competition with – there aren’t many footballers who true fans of the game would rather see. He’s been blessed with so much natural talent, his rise to the top was almost inevitable. Yet as remarkably good as the little Catalunyan is, his career hasn’t unfolded without a little bit of luck – the fortunate circumstances which led Iniesta on the path to footballing stardom began in 1988 – the day Johan Cruyff was appointed Barcelona manager.
Since that appointment, Barcelona’s identity changed: they had always been a massive club, but they then had a clear way of playing. Passing in triangles, interchanging positions and a freedom of movement were drilled into the academy players from a very young age. Barca became synonymous with fluid football, culminating in 4 straight league titles and a Champions League win during Cruyff’s stewardship. The total football introduced by the outspoken Dutchman, was paramount in their journey to the status they achieved in the Guardiola era; becoming arguably the greatest club team football has ever seen. Fluid football aside, the main tactical adjustment by Cruyff, however, was the implementing of the 4-3-3 formation – this is where Iniesta comes into it.
I know this is very hard to imagine, but let’s imagine Barcelona have always played a standard 4-4-2 formation (I know, I know) – would Iniesta be the player he is now? There’s no doubting his ability, but in a flat midfield four, it’s hard to see where Iniesta would have slotted in. Xavi and Busquets would have likely filled the two central positions; maybe Iniesta would have fitted in left midfield but would he be the player he is now playing there? It’s unlikely. The only position that perfectly suits Iniesta and his wonderful array of talents, is the position that’s been afforded to him throughout his career – the left of a midfield three. If he grew up in a team that played any other formation, his career could have gone very differently.
This theory got me thinking about English players who are the same age as Iniesta; my primary thought being – why is there no-one like him? There are several contributing factors: the insistence on physicality in the English game, fewer coaches who are willing, or capable, to coach technique to a high level; but what about the rarity of the 4-3-3 formation? Up until the late noughties, clubs in England would rarely adopt a 4-3-3; the vast majority of teams, even the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, would line up in a 4-4-2. If the first teams aren’t playing with a central midfield three, what are the chances that youth teams are? The obsession with the 4-4-2 up until relatively recently, has potentially discarded several players of Iniesta’s ilk to the footballing scrapheap.
Football is a very results based business, which is admittedly compulsory for an entertaining league, but also a little detrimental to the development of our home grown talent. Tony Pulis is a widely respected manager across English football; his spells with Stoke, Crystal Palace and more recently West Brom, have all been viewed with a certain amount of admiration. Now, I don’t mean to undermime Pulis in any way, but everyone who knows football is familiar with the type of tactics Pulis likes to employ – not that there’s any shame in the long ball. I just wonder, if a young, English clone of Iniesta turned up at West Brom now – would they get a chance in the team? For all the talent they may possess, a ball playing centre mid is going to struggle to break into a rigid 4-4-2 for a team that’s scrapping relegation.
It’s a sad but realistic possibility, that if Iniesta had been a youth team player at Bolton during the Allardyce era, he would have been dropped in favour of Kevin Nolan.
The mindset that engulfs English football isn’t really Allardyce or Pulis’ fault, they’re just adapting to the environment they learnt their trade in. For decades English clubs have played 4-4-2; even at the 2010 World Cup, albeit with a foreign manager, we still played that formation. I’m not saying 4-4-2 is dead, (although most of the top sides no longer use it) but if we wish to develop as a nation, their needs to be an allowance for the inside forward, the number 10 or third centre mid to fully fulfil their potential.
Matt Le Tissier was one of the Premier league’s greatest ever players, but he famously couldn’t find a position in the England team. But was that his fault, or was the problem a lot greater than ‘Le Tiss’? Stuck in a team that couldn’t, or maybe just didn’t know how to accommodate a number 10, Le Tissier and ultimately England, missed out greatly. Thankfully, coinciding with Guardiola’s successful Barca team, the 4-3-3 system is growing in popularity in England. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it would be a shame for a talented youth player to end up in non-league in five years, because they were never given the chance ahead of Lee Cattermole.