One formation that has at least partially come into fashion of late has been the 4-4-2 diamond. Employed by Roy Hodgson's England on a regular basis nowadays, it's a pretty modern twist on the traditional 4-4-2 we're all familiar with.
Rather than the standard four players across the middle of the park (two central players, two wingers), the wingers are folded inwards to create... well, a diamond shape. Illustrated by England's use of the formation, the base of the diamond is filled by a quarterback - the technically gifted passing midfielder who maintains possession. Ahead of him are two more regular central midfielders, with a creative spark at the point. In relation to the traditional version of the 4-4-2, there are no major changes to the defence or attack, although the onus is on the full backs to provide width for the team.
England vs Slovenia, November 2014
The way England lined up against Slovenia on Saturday night was a pretty standard use of the diamond, with Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling keeping their places in the midfield. As the technically gifted quarterback, Wilshere's position at the bottom of the diamond gives him room to dictate the tempo of the game, being able to pick the ball up from the defence before distributing it to more advanced players.
Starting in the middle of the park, Henderson and Lallana have license to add numbers to either aspect of England's play, be it attack or defence, as the situation dictates. The linchpin of the England attack in this system is arguably Raheem Sterling, playing at the top of the midfield. Although initially looking like a straight-forward mirror of Wilshere's role, Sterling's conversion to this position from his original deployment as a winger for club and country is crucial to his importance in this formation. Having freedom to roam across the final third (and indeed across the entire pitch), Sterling's pace and creative spark is a key weapon in England's arsenal.
With that in mind, how could Reading potentially emulate that with the full squad available?
Reading's possible use of the diamond
Here, I've largely tried to emulate England's use of the diamond by swapping in some Reading equivalents. Oliver Norwood is a 'like for like' replacement for Jack Wilshere, Danny Williams and Jem Karacan replace Jordan Henderson, with Garath McCleary coming in for Raheem Sterling. Although not part of the midfield, Jordan Obita's role is affected by his move to left back to mirror Kieran Gibbs.
The key selling point for Reading adopting this formation is that it manages to fit all our key players into a starting XI without shunting anyone into a completely different position. One of our best players this season has been Oliver Norwood, with the former Huddersfield Town midfielder finding a good use for his range of passing in this side. Similarly, Danny Guthrie and Aaron Kuhl could both play here without much difficulty. With anyone of them sitting in front of the back four, Reading's retention and use of the ball could markedly improve.
The deployment of the duo of Williams and Karacan ahead of Norwood would not only give Reading energy and numbers in the middle of the park, but would also take the pressure off Norwood, giving him more room to operate in. Having two athletic players in the middle of the park would give Reading more influence over the midfield, and allow Nigel Adkins to put them further or further back according to how a game develops.
Looking higher up the pitch, Garath McCleary is Reading's stand-out attacking midfielder. Although he thrived last season when playing down the right wing, he was often so influential when drifting into central positions - examples being his three assists and a goal at home to Doncaster, and this wonder strike. In the same way that Sterling's license to roam for England has allowed him to wreak havoc on the international stage, the same could be said for Garath McCleary who largely has similar strengths to Sterling.
Elsewhere, this system maintains some important aspects of Reading's play. Despite not having had the best of seasons so far, Chris Gunter and Jordan Obita could both relish the chance to bomb forward on either flank. Up front, the impressive partnership of Simon Cox and Glenn Murray is retained. Moreover, this attacking set-up could improve the supply for Messrs Cox and Murray - Karacan and William's license to make attacking runs feeds into one of Murray's strengths - his hold-up play. If Reading are to successfully use Nigel Adkins' philosophy of ball retention, link ups between Karacan, Williams and Murray are crucial, and are facilitated by this system.
It goes without saying that every system has its downsides, and this one is no exception. The most obvious is the lack of width, with the main threat in this regard relying on Gunter and Obita to provide it from the full back position. As such, a marked improvement on their performances this season is a must if Reading were to make the diamond work on the pitch. Although McCleary has the license to drift out wide, a constant threat would be needed if Reading were to avoid attacking too narrowly.
Another potential shortfall comes up front - on examining the side that England regularly put out, there's no obvious equivalent for a Danny Welbeck or Daniel Sturridge. Glenn Murray and Simon Cox have certainly had good seasons, but neither of them are going to win a 100m spring any time soon. Especially with the lack of pace coming from out wide, Reading could find it hard to stretch the opposition and to get in behind the defence.
Some players who would be crucial if Reading were to use this formation either aren't fit yet, or have barely played this season, so using the diamond simply couldn't be a short term fix. That being said, it has its benefits and would be an interesting alternative to the systems we've used so far this season. It's hard to advocate a sudden switch to the 4-4-2 diamond before taking it up as the default formation, but I think it's certainly worth looking into as an option.
What do you make of the diamond formation? Would it give Reading a much-needed lift or would it make things even worse?