Football Manager Tactics | The 4-2-3-1
Oliver Jensen has gone from an unknown coach to a household name with his novel take on the 4-2-3-1 which is driving Parma to new heights, and taking Italian football by storm along the way. This week, we review Jensen, his squad and his tactics.
Oliver Jensen | Manager profile
THE FAIRYTALE OF AN UNKNOWN NORWEGIAN IN ITALY
Few took notice in July 2017 when an inexperienced coach from Kristiansund took the reigns from outgoing Parma Calcio manager Roberto D’Aversa. Having only played at a national level, Parma took a risk on a manager who up until that point had only managed one other, much smaller, club. However, it is Jensen’s style of play that first attracted Lizhang Jiang to the Norwegian.
In his first season in charge, he took his Serie B side to the first knockout round of the Coppa Italia, where he came unstuck against Gasperini’s Atalanta in a match few expected him to emerge victorious from. Later that season he would take Parma to within one match of the Serie B title, having led the division for most of the season, however, his side would crumble under the pressure of the occasion, losing the final match of the season against the team who would overtake them and pip them to the title.
With promotion achieved it was Jensen’s management in Serie A that really began to make people sit up and take notice. Many expected Jensen to take Parma back down to Serie B, however, they avoided relegation with games to spare.
Jensen’s third season in charge saw his Parma side narrowly miss out on Europa League football, finishing just five points outside of the required. A feat, however, that would be achieved in his fourth season where parma bettered their 9th place finish the previous season to finish 7th and qualify virtue of Inter Milan winning the Coppa Italia.
Last season, Jensen not only went one step further, by qualifying for the Champions League in second place, he also dragged his Parma side to a Coppa Italia Final win, defeating AS Roma 2-1 in a result that solidified his position as manager of the year for a second time in a row.
Few expect Parma to follow up last season with a repeat in the coming year, having Champions League football to contend with, but if you speak to Jensen he will tell you that anything is possible.
Parma Calcio | Player profiles
CHOOSE THE BEST PLAYER FOR EVERY POSITION, AND YOU’LL END UP NOT WITH A STRONG XI, BUT WITH 11 STRONG 1’S
Jensen doesn’t like to rotate his squad if he can help it. Which shows in his lack of star quality to come off the bench when his sides need that extra spark. However, what he does have is 11 great options, each with a specific set of skills assigned a specific task within the system.
Jensen signed Italian goalkeeper Simone Scuffet in the summer from Udinese in a deal worth €3.9m which is a lot, considering Jensen hasn’t spent much in his five seasons at Parma. In Scuffet, Jensen has signed a strong keeper with the determination and concentration to equal any top goalkeeper in the division. He is a brave shot-stopper who can outfox most strikers in a one-on-one scenario.
How Scuffet fits into the system will be up for close scrutiny, considering the fact that Jensen likes to play with a sweeper keeper who can pick out a counter-attacking pass. Something Scuffet will have to work on if he is to carry that side of the game plan out since he isn’t known for having great vision. However, given that in most ordinary scenarios Jensen likes his keeper to roll it out to his wing-backs, this weakness to Scuffet’s game might not be too much of a hindrance.
In front of Scuffet stands the dominating Serbian Nikola Maksimovic and his partner, academy product Mirco Minozzi. This pairing is very much the Defoe and Crouch of the backline, given the differences in height between the two. At Parma, the central defenders are given a simple job by Jensen when in possession, offer a passing option and play it simple. Out of possession, they like to get stuck into a challenge with their hard tackling and make their presence felt.
Minozzi, at just 5″9′ prefers to push ahead of the defensive line in his stopper role and use his decision making and determination to cut out the danger early, whereas the more powerful Maksimovic is more of a traditional Centre Back, who prefers to use his physicality and ability to leap off the ground to cut out any balls into the box or take out any players who may have escaped the press from the midfield.
Flanking the two centrebacks, are Portuguese wonderkid Carlos Marques at right Wing-back and Hungarian Ádám Hegedüs. You will often see the Wing-Backs tuck into midfield when Parma are in possession. Although not deployed as Inverted Wing-Backs, the nature of the narrow system and the instruction given to the wide men will see them drift infield and sit narrower from time-to-time. This causes confusion for many opposition teams as when the ball is on their respective sides, they will drift further towards the flanks to pull the opposition out of position.
Marques is the more technical of the two, and it remains to be seen how much longer Jensen can hang onto his young prodigy, who he has developed since he joined Parma as a young 16-year-old from Guimaraes. His pace and acceleration are enough to take on any player in the division, and his role in the team is a key one of adding an outlet for the more advanced players.
Hegedüs on the other hand still has much development to do if he is to stake a regular claim in the first team, and you feel if he can make this position his own in the coming season and improve on those key attributes, such as his pace and crossing, then it could be his position for years to come. Both players will be seen playing more risky passes, and this trust Jensen instils in his players creates another dynamic to their quick forward play.
Moving ahead to the midfield, Jensen has another Serbian in Deep Lying Playmaker Marko Mijailovic. The Serb joined from Vojvodina on a free transfer and is viewed by many as the metronome in the side, keeping the pace of the game flowing as the situation demands. Known for his tremendous vision and passing ability, Jensen gives him free reign to make those risky passes to unlock defences. He uses Mijailovic as the option to come deep for the ball from the defenders before deciding on the plan of attack moving forward. At a recent press conference, Jensen mentioned that Marko had been working on his ability to dictate the tempo of games, which should see his importance in the team increase should he take on this key trait.
Beside Mijailovic is the Brazilian midfielder Wendel, who joined Parma on a free transfer from Real Madrid. Wendel is a key player in the side, offering both defensive stability, press resistance in the middle of the park and another good passing outlet when Parma look to play their possession game.
Although Wendel sometimes chooses the wrong option when it comes to shooting from distance, his flair, passing and teamwork will make him a key cog in the system. You will often see him getting further forward from his position beside Mijailovic if pre-season is anything to go by.
Jensen’s 4-2-3-1 has become known for its use of narrow Wingers. Both Jordi Mboula (or Uriel Antuna when fit) and academy graduate Pasquale Messina can be seen exploring the halfspaces, looking for that searching through-ball by one of the deeper Central Midfielders or the enigmatic number 10 beside them. Both players are very direct in their running when in possession of the ball, making runs to the byline before pulling back a cross.
In Jensen’s system, there is less emphasis on ball retention and safe play in the final third as it is less dangerous to lose the ball here. Often relying on a piece of brilliance or skill to open up the defence is what gets the fans at Ennio Tardini off their feet on a regular basis.
The number 10. When Parma play badly it is often because their number 10 has played badly. This is the key position in Jensen’s system; and fortunately, Jensen is blessed with two of the best number 10s in the division. Dalibor Komes and Emmanuel Escandar. Their vision, their passing, their agility, their pace, their first touch. We could go on and on. It is only a shame that Jensen does not play with two number 10s, as these two in tandem would put on quite a spectacle.
From a tactical perspective, they play as Attacking Midfielders, and as with his Wingers, Jensen gives his number 10 the freedom and licence to take risks, to play risky passes and to make something happen. They can often be found drifting into the channels which makes it so hard for the opposition to pick them up, as our analysis later will show. It will be interesting to see how much longer Jensen can hang onto them, as Europe’s superclubs circle in.
The main goal threat for Parma is in the form of Poacher, Pietro Iemmello. With over 80 goals in four seasons at Parma, where one of those he only made 9 appearances due to injury, you can see how important he is to the side for his ability to be in the right place in the right time. What Iemmello lacks in pace and acceleration he makes up for in his off the ball movement and ability to finish when it matters. It remains to be seen whether Pietro can keep this up into his 30s, but one thing is for sure, you put the ball at his feet in front of goal and you’d put your house on him finishing it.
Parma Calcio | Defensive organisation
THERE IS ONLY ONE BALL, SO YOU NEED TO HAVE IT
The Parma defence is more drilled than perhaps their goal difference would suggest. Often talking about organisation, Oliver Jensen gives each of his players a specific instruction for the defensive phase, to ensure they win the ball back at the earliest opportunity. Having the ball is key to their style.
The low block deployed by Jensen forces the opposition to play in front of their goal, with minimal space in behind his defenders to exploit, they are less susceptible to through-balls. It also means that his defenders are more often than not facing the opposition rather than chasing back towards their own goal; which, if you’ve been a defender, you’ll know is always preferable.
There is one drawback to this, with a deep defensive line, it does mean that it is easier for the opposition to get crosses into the box from deep for their strikers, as there is little in the way of movement required if their attackers press his defence.
Mijailovic and Wendel, the two Central Midfielders, will often be seen offering cover on the flanks, to help the wingers stop these crosses, with one closing down the ball carrier and the other covering the space vacated. The number 10 will usually drop in deep offering cover in front of them when required. The wingers tend to stay out wide and cover the flanks unless the opposition is playing with Inside Forwards, in which case they are often tracked back inside.
When the opposition is on the attack, the Parma Wing-backs tuck in with the central defence to make a flat back four, with the Wingers and Central midfielders creating the second bank, shifting laterally to cover the wide areas due to their specific opposition instructions. Parma will usually be seen defending in a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-2-2 shape, depending on the situation.
Given their propensity to press so intensively, it does sometimes pull them out of shape, which can put their defenders under pressure.
However, the plan is simple. The midfielders will press quite heavily through the central areas of the pitch, forcing the opposition to make their passes out wide, where they can usually create a 2v1 or 3v2 overload to attempt to win the ball back.
The main job of the Central Midfielders in the defensive phase is to put pressure on the ball carriers to make it hard for them to progress the ball through the central areas. With Parma players given the instruction to tightly mark all central players, this usually means a pass finds its way out wide to the less dangerous areas on the wings. Given that, ~10% of crosses are completed compared with ~80%+ passes, this is a lower risk strategy of defence for them to take.
The Parma defence has retreated into the box, with Lombardi able to whip in a deep cross for this striker to pounce on and with less distance to the goal for his shot, it does make it easier for the opposition. However, with these deep crosses, there are usually more defenders back there to clear the ball.
This weakness, however, has only cost parma 19 goals in their last 50 matches. While it is the largest source of assists against them, because it is a low percentage chance of conceding it is a risk Jensen seems willing for his side to take.
EVERY DISADVANTAGE HAS ITS ADVANTAGE
If there is one area where Parma can improve it is their pressing high up the pitch. Playing with a lone striker, he is often found chasing shadows closing down the opposition defence, with their wingers caught in limbo between cutting out the passing lanes and joining in to win the ball back. Teams who deploy a wide shape will often be able to escape this press and bypass the first line of defence if they’re quick, resulting in easier access to progress into the middle third.
When up against more technically gifted defenders, if they are able to escape this press, then they have a simple route to the middle third which is often vacated by the Parma players.
This desire from the Parma players to work as a unit to win the ball back is a risky strategy, but one which can result in some interesting game situations when they do win the ball back high up the pitch and attack the opposition while they’re unorganised. Every system has its flaws, and it will be interesting to see if Jensen persists with pressing this high up the pitch or opts to sit in deeper and press in his own half, where the gaps between the lines are reduced.
Parma Calcio | Defending set pieces
Jensen sets his team up to defend corners with counter attacks very much in mind.
His Attacking Midfielders have great acceleration and pace. This underpins their ability to quickly bring the ball out of defence after the defenders have cleared it. Rather than aimlessly hoofing the ball up the field, they will often dribble at pace until such a time that a suitable pass it on.
Across the six-yard box are his five zonal markers. Their job is to shield the goal and prevent any headers towards goal. Their tall striker is being marked in the middle of the goal.
As the cross comes in it is easily dealt with by Hegedüs, and Escandar, the Attacking Midfielder picks up the pass. All part of the Jensen plan. From here, Escandar is looking for the run of Iemmello ahead of him to work the ball forwards quickly as the other players sense the counter and break at pace.
As Iemmello picks up the ball the counter is on. The Parma players rush forwards on the opposite flank to create problems for the Inter defence.
Sometimes, however, the routine doesn’t go to plan, but this isn’t always a bad thing.
Jensen leaves his Poacher as far up the field as possible, should his defence deem it necessary to clear the ball long. As the example below shows. You can see his five-man zonal marking system again at play here, with his two central defenders marking the tall opposition players. On the penalty area is a central midfielder who is told to stay back and so hovers around the box. The Attacking Midfielder and Poacher are waiting.
When the ball is whipped in, it is dealt with by the zonal marker and Minozzi is able to clear the ball from the danger area.
Iemmello, the Poacher, is waiting and able to get onto a great pass.
Jensen uses these defensive set plays as a great tool to kick-off counter-attacking moves where the opposition over commit on corners and it has won them vital points over the years from their quick front line having an advantage over slower defenders trying to get back into position.
A similar routine is adopted for defending free-kicks, however, Jensen will push two players up while his defence takes care of the rest.
Jensen uses a two-man wall in most scenarios, with his Attacking Midfielder and Striker left further afield to start any counter attacks, should the ball be cleared to them.
Parma Calcio | Offensive organisation
WITHOUT THE BALL, YOU CANNOT WIN
Jensen’s possession-based approach to the game has seen his Parma side top the average possession and pass completion tables for the last couple of seasons. It is this approach that serves as both a defensive and offensive strategy. After all, if the opposition doesn’t have the ball, they cannot score.
Parma are neither overly attacking or defensive. Playing with a standard mentality they have the best of both worlds. Defensively strong, with minimal risks taken, but offensively dangerous as they throw players forwards quickly when they win the ball back.
This is in contrast to their early days in Serie A where they had a much more defensive game plan. This shift in mentality sees them increase their risk-taking which has offered them more rewards, as the results are showing, but not to a point where it is costing them goals. Of course, the better players Jensen has managed to bring in helps to achieve this.
Jensen used to deploy attacking Full-Backs early in his tenure, however, his two wide defenders are now playing more as Wing-Backs, giving them more of a supporting role in the attacks. Their base position on the pitch has increased as a result and it will demand more from them creatively, but when Parma build-up they are slightly further forward than the early days without the risk of them being caught too far forward in attacks.
Parma build out from the back at any opportunity. Scuffet will play the ball into the Wing-Backs who have the option to come back inside or progress the ball further down the line.
With most Italian teams playing just a solitary striker, the Central Defenders occupy him, leaving the Wing-Backs free to progress.
Scuffet will have the option of either Wing-back to pass to, with the Central Defenders occupying the opposition striker(s).
On the training field, Jensen drills his Wing-backs to bring the ball out of defence, and this movement forces the opposition to either engage them, which creates space or back off and man mark passing options which allows the Wing-Back to progress further up the field. it is a strategy that allows clean progression into the middle third and makes this playing out from the back a minimal risk strategy.
When in possession, the Wing-Backs sit narrower, which enables them to drop into their defensive position easily should possession turnover to the opposition. Here, Marques has three options, with the opposition showing little effort to close him down.
If the opposition press the Wing-Back, and the ball lands at the feet of his Central Defenders, their job is simple. Recycle possession safely, lay the ball off to someone close (often Mijailovic) who is expected to do something with it.
The double pivot
In the midfield, Jensen deploys a double pivot in front of his defence. A defensive playmaker and a utility midfielder who can do a bit of everything. Their job is simple. Protect the defence out of possession, support the attacks in possession. When you watch Parma play, you get a sense that that are the level heads in the team who are disciplined enough so that they are overcommitted when in an attack.
In the early days at Parma, Jensen deployed two deeper midfielders in a defensive system. They wouldn’t normally push up as much as the current system allows. However, as he has improved the players he has available to him, they are given more freedom to support further up the field.
Wendel, the utility midfielder, will often make these late surges into the box. This trait allows him to pinch a yard on his marker and arrive relatively unopposed to pick up any second balls. Rarely will he take risks, rather he tends to play less risky passes and rarely dribbles with the ball. he is the secondary conduit into the attack, after the playmaker of course.
This disciplined play will see Wendel routinely reach ~90% pass completion and a similar number of tackles won. He is a key player in the transitions for Parma.
Onto his partner, the Deep Lying Playmaker. He has a similar role, but he sits just in front of the defence, collecting the ball from deep, and dictating the tempo as Parma transition into the attack. He rarely ventures into the final third as a result.
He is there to keep the ball turning over, offering an outlet to recycle possession as needed. With Parma’s new expansive style of play, he is usually seen pinging risky passes into the flanks and players ahead of him to push them up the field quickly.
Mijailovic will often be seen making these play switching passes, which invariably leads to a 1v1 situations, which is not something most opposition full-backs want to find themselves in, considering Jensen’s preference for rapid wingers.
Parma are relatively wide in their shape giving the initial structure they set up in, with the three across the attacking midfield strata all pushing forwards in the final third, however, the dynamic movement of them, means you will often find them quite narrow in their attacking approach.
When Parma enter the final third, it is usually via the wings, with one winger 1v1 against his opposition full-back and the other tucked in to join the attack. However, the real MVP is the attacking midfielder. As a second striker, this is where Parma get most of their goals. Komes and Escandar scored 32 and assisted 21 between them. And it is not hard to see why.
When Parma play through the middle, their quick passing can split open the meanest of defences. Here, Sassoulo are undone by a quick switch of play, and with Mboula cutting in from the wing, he is able to get ahead of his marker and slot the ball home for a simple goal.
The Attacking Midfielder in this system is given a free role. He moves into the channels and is a nightmare for the opposition to pick up. He will be seen trying to play killer balls into that final third to get the advantage against an unorganised defence.
Jensen’s wingers also have a key role to play. They offer both width in the build-up and then attacking options in the final third. They are instructed to tuck in and support the attacks (as seen above) and are often found at the back post to finish off attacking moves (as seen below).
With Jensen asking his Wingers to come in and support attacks like this, it makes it difficult for the opposition to pick them up. Jensen has pace in abundance in the attack, including the wings which is a key area for him to dominate. With his central players switching the play, to create 1v1 situations, it’s important to have wingers who can take advantage and knock the ball past his opponent and beat him for pace.
The start of the attack, however, is 31-year-old Pietro Iemmello. The experienced Poacher is the figurehead for most of the attacks. Dropping deep to influence play, sitting on the shoulder of the last defender to get onto through-balls, or chasing down the opposition goalkeeper, he does it all.
Iemmello continues to score the majority of the goals for Parma, and if Jensen can get another couple of seasons of our him with this good form, then they should be able to continue to fight for the Champions League positions.
Parma Calcio | Attacking set pieces
When it comes to attacking set-pieces, Jensen tends to overload the far pos, and use his rushing striker outside the box to sweep up any loose balls. However, in most scenarios where Parma have scored from corners, it is usually a flick to the far post that has done it.
From the example below, you can see that Parma have a lot of players free at the back post [this might be an exploit, who knows], where Escandar or Komes will usually try to get the ball.
It is an effective corner strategy which yields a goal in 16% of games, which is a fantastic return.
As for free kicks, Jensen keeps it simple. When a shot is on, he leaves it to his specialist to have a go at goal with the striker disrupting the wall. He will send his midfielders forward, along with his two Central Defenders [there’s a bug here which isn’t showing one of the defenders].
When the chances of a good shot are reduced, Jensen will have a winger stand with him, to give a short passing option if required.
This strategy gives Parma the option to work the ball into the box rather than chucking a low percentage cross into the box.
Parma Calcio | Team instructions
SOCCER IS SIMPLE, BUT IT IS DIFFICULT TO PLAY SIMPLE
When you look at the overall team, the instructions Jensen uses, can be broken down into three sections, the defence, the build-up and the attack.
Mentality and Team Shape
Jensen has changed from his earlier days of using a more defensive mentality. As the quality of his players has increase, so has the atppetite for risk. Parma are not the best team in the league, but they’re certainly not the worse, either. A standard mentality allows him to better balance risk and reward.
In terms of their shape, they’re now moving towards a more fluid shape, compared with structured before. This gives their Wing-Backs the same attacking mentality as their Wingers, where they would be quite different had he kept to a Structured shape. Overall their team will be more compact and play as a unit rather than distributing responsibility for different phases of play.
Tempo and width
Parma are playing with a higher tempo now, which looks for quicker transitions from defence into attack without bumping up the mentality. This should allow them to get in behind the opposition more often. However, this could also cause more turnovers of possession as the team take more risks. It’s a fine balance, but I think with the roles and duties of the players and their specific instructions this somewhat mitigates that risk quite well.
When playing narrow the team will look to concentrate the play infield when attacking. This serves two purposes. Firstly, if Parma lose possession, they are in a better position to get into their defensive shape, which should be fairly narrow. Secondly, when attacking, they look to bring the wingers in with the striker to create narrow central overloads and options through the half-spaces, as shown in the examples above.
Parma’s defence is slightly deeper then before. Jensen has often taken critisism for his low block that he continues to use today. The players also stay on their feet when making a challenge. This helps with quickly getting the ball up field as it’s easier for a player to make a pass if he’s still on his feet after making a tackle.
When the ball is at the other end of the pitch, You will see Parma pushing up to the opposition defenders to try to prevent teams building up from the back.
Parma’s central defenders are the ones responsible for short and safe passes. The last thing Jensen wants them doing is kicking it upfield hoping to find a man. They’re instructed to give it to the wide men or the midfielders ahead and let them play with the ball.
Jensen’s insistence for his team to try to retain possession of the ball serves as a reminder to the players that sometimes they need to be calm and collected and not force the play. With Parma playing with a higher tempo, the team will move the ball around quickly. While also retaining possession the team will look to prioritise keeping hold of the ball. But it’s all situational. If an attack is on the team will attack. If it isn’t, the team will play around and keep the ball before an opening is spotted.
Football is simple. Asking the team to retain possession dials back the teams’ rashness that can sometimes come with a higher tempo. It can also help with their decision making. Rather than making quick decisions, slowing the pace down when necessary gives more time to decide what to do with the ball, however, this does have its downsides. If Parma find themselves up against a team who like to press heavily, they can sometimes get caught napping.
The result is some quick build-up play and considered attacking movement in terms of their runs and passing.
In attack, Parma keep the instructions relatively simple. Their wide players will hit crosses early into the box from deep, which makes sense playing with an attack-minded striker leading the line and wingers who get into the box at any opportunity. What this generally means is Parma can get the ball into the box quickly before the opposition defence is organised enough to deal with the ball. This often causes panic for the defence and allow’s Parma to capitalise on the opposition disorganisation.
QUALITY WITHOUT RESULTS IS POINTLESS. RESULTS WITHOUT QUALITY IS BORING
The opposition instructions.
Show onto weaker foot
Players are generally less dangerous out wide. You have the touchline as a barrier for movement, so they can generally only move in three directions, forwards, backwards or come back inside. By showing players on their outside Parma focus the opposition possession to the flanks, where they should in most instances being at a numerical advantage with 2v1 or 3v2 overloads. If the pass does come into the middle, this is where their tight marking instructions come into play.
When the wide players have been shuffled towards the side of the pitch where their options should be limited. Parma mark tightly any passing options back inside, meaning they now should only have two real options, forwards or backwards. If the pass goes backwards, this is where their closing down instructions come into play.
When the ball is recirculated to the back line, Parma have the goal of chasing down the player in possession to win the ball back at all costs. If the ball evades the front players then the plans starts again: push them wide, force a mistake and win the ball back.
It’s better to go down with your own vision than with someone else’s
The approach Jensen has brought with him to Italy has seen his side rise from Serie B to fighting it out for Champions League positions. It’s a simple recipe, however, it remains to be seen whether Parma can really push on from this and challenge for the title, when they’re at such a financial disadvantage to the Milan clubs and Juventus.
The season ahead, with Champions League football coming to Ennio Tardini promises to be a good one.
Until next time, arrivederci.
This is no means a world beater of a tactic. It requires in-game adjustments as the situations progress, however, if you would like to download and use, you can grab it from this link: http://www.mediafire.com/?uv7b77im279h9 — use responsibly