Why there can be Pompey success beyond the faithful 4-4-2

Lone striker Kanu scores the winning goal in the 2008 FA Cup final against Cardiff
Lone striker Kanu scores the winning goal in the 2008 FA Cup final against Cardiff
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To this day, 89,874 remains the biggest crowd for an FA Cup final at the new Wembley.

Kanu was the hero, John Utaka the instigator, Sol Campbell the triumphant captain, and Lassana Diarra the true man of the match.

As for Harry Redknapp, he recruited each member of that victorious 18-man squad and implemented the tactics.

And the system which succeeded so gloriously in May 2008 against Cardiff City? A 4-5-1 formation.

Kanu as the lone striker, John Utaka and Niko Kranjcar serving on each flank, with Pedro Mendes, Diarra and Sulley Muntari as the central midfielders.

Alas, not a 4-4-2 – the default setting among so many football supporters across the country.

Good old 4-4-2, the faithful, reliable, solid, dependable friend. Like an Old English Sheepdog or a Border Collie.

Lassie, come home.

Generally, there can be an air of mistrust among fans over perceived new-fangled methods of playing the beautiful game. Straying from the familiar is often frowned upon.

This season Paul Cook has dared to go against the stereotypical grain by introducing a 4-2-3-1 – a long-held footballing preference detailed so prominently on his CV.

The system earned him various trophies at Sligo Rovers, before generating League Two promotion at Chesterfield and then a spot in the League One play-offs. In his experience it has worked.

But down at Fratton Park there remains resistance among supporters who have rightly become frustrated at repeated failure to defeat sides at home, irrespective of the midweek York romp.

Apparently, 4-4-2 remains the solution and the true path forward for a side sitting fourth in League Two before today’s trip to Wycombe with two losses in 19 league fixtures.

Although, when Cook did introduce it for the visit of AFC Wimbledon, the occasion produced a desolate affair, yielding the worst possession stats in the league this season for the Blues.

A strong point proven by the manager, perhaps.

However, Cook is not a lone voice in singing the praises of the 4-2-3-1 system. Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Southampton are all converts.

So are reigning champions Chelsea, regardless of present placing.

Although, Premier League leaders Leicester City have varied – last weekend’s 3-0 win at Newcastle was achieved with a 4-4-2 and Leonardo Ulloa and Jamie Vardy up front.

Focusing back on Pompey, Redknapp is harshly ridiculed as a tactical dinosaur, yet twice led the club to success utilising different systems. Neither involved a 4-4-2.

Long before the 2008 FA Cup run, he employed three central defenders and two wing-backs to inspire the charge to the Division One title in 2002-03.

The decisive moment arrived at half-time during the third match of the campaign, with the Blues trailing 2-0 at Crystal Palace.

Redknapp scrapped his system to employ 3-5-2, with Jason Crowe coming off the bench to serve as a ring wing-back.

Matt Taylor went left wing-back, Hayden Foxe, Linvoy Primus and Arjan De Zeeuw operated as the central defenders, while Paul Merson switched to a role in the hole.

The Blues subsequently ran out 3-2 winners and the formation remained in a campaign which produced 98 points and plus-52 goal difference.

A system triumph for Redknapp, whose tactical nous Merson believes is underrated in the game.

In Played Up Pompey, the ex-England midfielder said: ‘That day at Selhurst Park was down to Harry and people are so disrespectful to him saying he is a wheeler dealer and all that. So disrespectful.

‘I have worked under a lot of managers in the game and he is one of the most tactically-astute I have played under.

‘He doesn’t mess about. People go on about Jose Mourinho making changes, well Harry didn’t waste any time, this game happened before Mourinho came over, he went bang, bang, three at the back – bang.’

Some five years later, punctured by a swift spell with Southampton, Redknapp was largely operating with a 4-5-1 on his travels.

That included four of the five matches away from home in the successful FA Cup run, while the formation also aided the team’s finish of eighth in the Premier League.

Kanu was the lone striker at Ipswich, while Benjani and David Nugent partnered each other in a 4-4-2 at Fratton Park against Plymouth.

Then it was back to Kanu on his own at Preston in a 2-1 win.

As for the Old Trafford victory over a Manchester United side which would ultimately triumph in both the Premier League and Champions League that season – it was a 4-5-1.

With Benjani having joined Manchester City after the fourth round and the cup-tied Jermain Defoe subsequently arriving, Kanu was Redknapp’s striking preference.

Although, when Utaka was robbed of the West Brom semi-final through a hamstring injury, Milan Baros was drafted into a 4-4-2 for the 1-0 Wembley victory. He also set up Kanu’s match-winner.

Yet when Sol went up to lift the FA Cup it was achieved with a 4-5-1.

Moving on, at the September 2013 Pompey Supporters’ Trust AGM, a supporter publicly asked chairman Iain McInnes about the concept of a footballing ‘philosophy’ introduced throughout the club.

Well, 4-2-3-1 is Cook’s trademark – one which has been ingrained from the Academy upwards.

‘We try to mirror the first-team,’ said under-18 boss Mikey Harris.

‘We believe if we do that we are giving the lads the best chance to progress into the gaffer’s first team.

‘It is important they know their roles and responsibilities, we are still all learning. I think it’s a fantastic formation, I really do, I really like it.

‘And I have really enjoyed learning about it.’

Some remain to be convinced – yet winning matches can be highly persuasive.

And history has shown no single playing system is solely responsible for success. Not even 4-4-2.