The Pivot Problem

29th October 2016

Slavisa Jokanović’s preferred formation is the modern man’s 4-2-3-1. This has been made exceedingly clear from his time at Fulham, especially this season.

In itself, this is no bad thing – it’s a formation that has been shown to succeed time and time again with the right players in place – and it’s a system that suits a team who control possession, because done correctly, it allows for incisive interplay between the front four, who are all supposed to be players that can score goals.

The issue I have with Fulham’s current system is not with that front four, although there are clearly improvements that need to be made there as well. Instead, it’s the pivot, the two link-up players, where I feel that changes need to be made in order for the lack of dynamism in the side to be addressed – the lack of dynamism which was exposed at Villa in Fulham’s dominance in possession and inability to carve out any sort of chances.

Scott Parker and Kevin McDonald are both very good players in their own right. They are no-nonsense, tough tackling, short passing midfielders who shield their own back four. Whilst Parker might once have spent a whole game coupling that with surging runs to assist the men in front of him, his years mean that this is no longer possible for the whole 90 minutes, although the man’s engine still continues to astound me.

If he does want to play two sitting players however, it might be wiser to add the passing ability of Jozabed or Johansen in the deeper role

As good as they are, however, I don’t believe that the two can play together in a successful midfield pivot. The limitations of the system are perhaps most exposed when there’s no link-up play between the defence and the attack, leaving the front four stranded and meaning that the opposition are allowed to attack the defensive unit again and again.

As Ben pointed out on the Fulhamish podcast some weeks ago, in an effective 4-2-3-1 there needs to be a blocker and a runner in the pivot for it to be at its incisive best. With someone coming from deep, there’s not only a dynamic option for a runner to drive into the opposition half, but it also provides an alternative for the centre backs who otherwise often end up passing the ball back to the goalkeeper – something that, as we’ve seen in a number of games, has the potential to put the team in dangerous situations in their own half.

For the majority of games, Parker and McDonald are both blocking players. In fact, if you study their play, you’ll see that the majority of their passes are played either backwards or sideways, meaning that Fulham’s play through the middle is ponderous and slow. There’s no link man, which is where perhaps Jokanović’s system is falling down at the moment, because this ponderous nature means that teams are able to get back in and set up their defensive lines before we get the ball to our front four, by which time they’re crowded out.

It also means that the team sit a lot deeper, meaning there is a long gap between the front and back of the side. If you look at successful possession heavy teams – Barcelona, for example – the distance between the defensive line and the front man is rarely that big. This enables them to play the kind of quick, penetrating football that opens teams up – the kind of short game that we know that Fulham are capable of, because they’ve demonstrated it on numerous occasions already this season.

Against Aston Villa, there was no link up whatsoever, meaning that for the ball to get to Chris Martin and his supporting cast, one of the pivot was going to have to play an exceptional pass that would bypass the Villa midfield and reach a Fulham shirt. It didn’t come, and displayed the full extent of the limitations that come with having two ‘sitting’ players in that role.

There’s numerous options available to Jokanović. Personally, I’d like to see either the energy and power of Ryan Tunnicliffe or the forward-thinking running of Lasse Vigen Christensen alongside Parker, both of which I feel would add an incisive element to our midfield and additionally, would let Parker conserve his energy for those bursts he adds late in the game to give Fulham an extra dimension.

If he does want to play two sitting players however, it might be wiser to add the passing ability of Jozabed or Johansen in the deeper role, both of whom would, I would suggest, be more likely to thread a penetrating pass than Kevin McDonald; and whose quick thinking might be a different solution to speeding up the play through the midfield thoroughfare.

Whilst experimenting in League games is always risky, you feel that something has to change for Fulham if they are to make Jokanović’s system into a success. With many fans calling for the reinstatement of Christensen, who hasn’t got much of a look-in, and Tunnicliffe’s assured performances when he has been called upon; if results remain negative, then it is surely only a matter of time before their chance comes.