Art on a Football Pitch – Vincent Kompany’s Unique 4-4-2 Tactics

Article by Ben Griffis

Vincent Kompany has recently secured a top-4 finish in the Belgian First Division A for the second time in a row. After returning to his boyhood club as player-manager for the 2019/20 season, he retired from playing after that season and now acts solely as manager. After taking over the historic Brussels club in one of its worst periods, Kompany has righted the ship and is steadily improving his side while employing a 4-4-2 formation this season, after playing a 4-2-3-1 for much of his first two seasons.

In his first season exclusively as a manager, 2020/21, Kompany steered his club back into Europe after finishing 4th in the Play-offs I. He also lost in the semi-finals of the Belgian Cup to eventual winners Genk. Both competitions were improvements on his player-manager season of 19/20, and Anderlecht have released a well-produced documentary series on the season. This season, Kompany has again improved his side, with 6 more points in the regular season than last year, and a chance at the Cup title against Gent in the final on April 18th.

Kompany changed his formation this season to a 4-4-2. While this formation is often stereotyped in modern football for negative, unattractive, route-one, traditional tactics, there are many examples of managers playing fluid football in a 4-4-2, and Kompany’s unique 4-4-2 is one of them.

The 4-4-2 Kompany employs leads to energetic, attacking football with strong buildup play, swift and fluid connections between players in the final third, and a sturdy defense. In the 34-game regular season, Anderlecht only conceded 36 goals while scoring 72, one goal fewer than top-scorers, league leaders, and fellow Brussels club Union Saint-Gilloise. This is also a notable improvement from last season, when they conceded 34 in 34 but scored 51.

Watching Kompany’s Anderlecht is, from a tactical perspective, the joy of football for me recently. It was also rather surprising, as I rarely hop on any manager’s bandwagon so quickly. But when you watch Anderlecht play, you notice Kompany’s instructions that make his 4-4-2 one of the most interesting tactics in European football today. Tactics that have slight changes both within and across matches that keep opponents—and viewers—on their toes as to how exactly Anderlecht will build up and attack.

As I’ll try to demonstrate in this article, Kompany’s system is an entertaining, unique take on such a tried-and-tested formation that has seemed to lose favor among the top teams recently. If high-tempo, high-energy, attacking football by the best players is often described as “Champagne Football”, I’d describe Kompany’s Anderlecht as “Australian Shiraz Football”; complex but familiar, bold and dominant yet smooth, having a familiar aspect for fans of all styles, and a finish that leaves a lasting impression and makes you want to come back and watch again. Pardon the romantic metaphor.

For this article, I’ll work my way up from the back, much like how Kompany and Anderlecht play.

BUILDUP

For a more complete overview of Anderlecht’s buildup, please read my article from earlier in the season focusing on Kompany’s buildup shape and variants.

The first thing a new Anderlecht viewer or fan might notice in Kompany’s buildup play is the unique position of Irish midfielder Josh Cullen. While lining up as the right-sided central midfielder on paper and in defense, Cullen acts as the right-sided center back during Anderlecht’s buildup. While global football is rife with teams who drop a midfielder in front of the center backs or even between them during buildup (think Pep Guardiola’s teams), Anderlecht are different. Cullen is never seen splitting the center backs; he always takes up a wide position to form a back 3 as the right-sided player. Even if he’s further on the left side of the pitch when Anderlecht win possession, he’ll run over to slot in on the right side—never central, never left.

One example of Cullen dropping as the RCB for Anderlecht’s buildup play in the Conference League match against Vitesse.
Another example, from a match against RFC Seraing.

The movement of Josh Cullen is interesting because of its consistency and predictability. Instead of instructing Cullen to form a back 3 wherever there is space, Kompany has instructed Cullen to act as the right-center back regardless of where he is on the pitch. In every game he plays, this is consistent. It is also predictable, as Cullen drops back during almost every non-counter possession where Anderlecht build up from the back.

Kompany’s typical buildup formation. Many times, the wingers and both fullbacks will also push up.

Although his build up is predictable, one aspect of Vincent Kompany that makes him a skilled manager is his willingness and ability to slightly change his tactics. While he doesn’t make major changes, the minor changes have large effects.

One tweak is narrowing all players but the fullbacks, as shown in the image below. This will either force the opponent to vacate space on the wing to cover the sheer number of players in midfield (as in the image), or allow the players in midfield space to turn and pick passes. Most teams will choose to leave the fullbacks wide open.

When Anderlecht narrow their non-fullbacks, many passing triangles appear. The image above highlights some of these, and off-ball movement will open up even more for Anderlecht to pass around their opponent when they increase their tempo to attack. More on this in the next section.

Another tweak is bringing the right back into the back 3 and pushing Cullen higher. This change has two major benefits for Anderlecht, especially when the opposition prepared with Cullen forming the back 3 in mind.

The first benefit is having Cullen’s passing range and accuracy closer to the final third and the attackers. In the above example against Laçi in the Conference League qualifiers, Cullen pushed higher up the pitch, allowing him to be dangerous closer to the net. He assisted Yari Verschaeren’s winning goal. Changing the focal point of buildup closer to the goal forces the opposition to commit more players to midfield than the back line, where most of Anderlecht’s attackers line up.

The second benefit is that it allows Anderlecht to have more space on the right side of the pitch for players to run into. The diagram below shows a typical formation when Cullen stays in midfield and the right back forms a back 3.

In this situation, the right midfielder, usually Yari Verschaeren, will stay a little deeper, allowing him to make dangerous runs into acres of space. This also opens up the right side of the pitch for a striker to move wide and receive a long ball—a pass that Kompany’s men like to play, and one that’s perfectly fit for Joshua Zirkzee with a combination of strength, pace, and dribbling.

It’s very entertaining to watch Anderlecht build up, even if the pattern is fairly constant throughout the season. There’s always some subtleties to their buildup play that you missed in a previous match. The back 3 also have a great understanding of each other and look to find space to open up passing lanes. While typically happening when buildup is higher up the pitch than normal, these movements make it that much harder for Anderlecht’s opponent to defend their buildup.

Here is one example where Marco Kana pushes up ahead of the defensive line and the defending striker to offer an option for Cullen in a recent match against Antwerp. In this image, we can also see the right back sitting deep while the left back is high and wide, which I discuss more in depth in my article about Kompany’s buildup.

ATTACK

The off-ball movement of the center backs gives us a simple transition to Anderlecht’s attacking tactics with Kompany’s 4-4-2. The back 3 and the attackers can appear fairly disjointed, but this is a key part of Kompany’s attacking tactics. With Cullen dropping back and the wingers pushing up, there are normally just one or two players between the back 3 and the line of strikers/wingers/fullbacks. Typically, the midfielder paired with Cullen is joined by a winger or fullback who has narrowed. We can see this in both images below.

In the second image, I’ve highlighted part of the reason Kompany instructs such a gap between the back 3 and attackers. This shape leaves lots of space for the wide center backs to move into. Cullen usually has the option to dribble into space, passing options for a long ball up to a striker, or a switch to left back Gómez. If the modern game is becoming more and more about controlling space, Kompany’s formation makes great use of that space. Leaving it unoccupied allows players to make their move into that space, since opposing players rarely sit in those areas.

Another reason why I think Kompany instructs a gap between the back 3 and attackers again revolves around controlling the unoccupied space. Players in the attack will often make movements into that space in order to receive a pass from Cullen. Wingers Verschaeren, Rafaelov, Amuzu, or Ait El Hadj will make movements inside to receive a pass in open space, or one striker will come deep, drawing a defender with them to open up space in the opposition back line. Joshua Zirkzee is key for Anderlecht in this regard, as Anderlecht’s CEO Peter Verbeke put it in this season’s documentary, “he can control a ball, he can go deep, and he can dribble.”

This off-ball movement into unoccupied space opens up dangerous passing options further up the pitch for Anderlecht. Once the attacker receives a pass, the buildup is over and the tempo of Anderlecht’s attack shifts gears. Other players begin to make movements, drawing defenders and opening up passing and dribbling lanes. Aided by a host of technical players in all positions, Anderlecht can go from passing between the back 3 to a deadly attack in a short amount of time. This only adds to the threat of Kompany’s Anderlecht and increases the enjoyment for fans. The tempo shift from slow, methodical buildup to fluid passing is truly art on a football pitch by Vincent Kompany.

Here are a couple examples of the quick, fluid passing that can carve open the opposition and result in goals.

Anderlecht rank 4th in the league for shots per 90 minutes with 14.68, and 5th for shots on target percentage, at 37.3%. Pushing up the attackers allows Anderlecht to remain dangerous, even if the keeper parries the shot or it rebounds off a defender. Anderlecht rank 12th of 18 teams for the percentage of non-penalty goals that are assisted, showing their threat off the dribble and rebound for unassisted goals. Anderlecht have also been awarded the joint-third most penalties so far this season, seven, showing how dangerous they can be in the box as well as around it.
These key points in attack—from off-ball movement and tempo shifts to shots and goals—lead to Anderlecht being an exciting team to watch. Starting with buildup and continuing into attack, Kompany’s unique 4-4-2 offers constant enjoyment both for fans of entertaining football and people with a tendency to examine tactics during the match.

The major shortcoming of Kompany’s attacking tactics is their vulnerability in transition. Having sizeable gaps and relatively few players in midfield allows the opposition to turn that space against them if they win the ball back and quickly counter. It can leave attackers out of position struggling to get back into shape, as seen in the image below.

However, even with this weakness, Kompany’s side has only conceded 1.09 goals per game in the league over the past 2 seasons (all of 20/21 and the regular season of 21/22 so far—81 goals in 74 matches). Vincent Kompany returned to Anderlecht after they finished 6th in 2018/19, their lowest placing since finishing 6th in 1972/73, and has really set Anderlecht on the path towards domestic success once more. His attacking tactics using a fluid 4-4-2 allow his team to dominate in both the buildup and attacking phases as well as entertain the fans, who are amid their longest title drought since 1979/80.

DEFENSE

Now that I’ve discussed Kompany’s buildup and attack prowess, it’s time to move on to his defense. Defending is the only time where we can see a 4-4-2 shape, since in buildup Anderlecht resemble a 3-5-2 and, in attack, closer to a 3-4-3 or even a 3-1-6. Here’s an example image of the structured 4-4-2 shape in defense.

The 4-4-2 is one of the best defensive formations for many reasons, which can be read more in-depth here. It allows Kompany’s players to close down their opponents quickly, wherever the ball is on the pitch, while retaining a sturdy shape behind the press. In prolonged periods of opponent possession, Anderlecht typically remain structured even if a player presses so that their opponents have much difficulty breaking their lines. Their press is organized and their teammates shift over to help and close space down.

Kompany instructs his players to press, but instead of relentless pressure, his players work to close down space for their opponents as they get closer to the halfway line. Usually, the line of engagement is just before Anderlecht’s half, around where the strikers are in the image above. The defensive line, however, is also high, leading to a compact shape that is hard to pass through.

Being narrow and compact makes it very difficult for the opposition to move through the center of the pitch, so they force their opponents out wide to play through wingers and fullbacks. Anderlecht’s fullback and winger on the same side then quickly push out to restrict space for the ball carrier. The players aim to smother possession and win the ball back, allowing Anderlecht to begin their slow buildup.

Anderlecht average 55.8% possession per game, the 3rd-highest in the league, showing that they allow little time for their opponents to string together passes. They also concede the 2nd-fewest shots per game (10.1), while averaging the fewest tackles (15.8), 2nd-fewest interceptions (10.1), and committing the fewest fouls (9.3). All these data show that Anderlecht’s defensive shape allows them to have one of the most organized defenses in the league.

Throughout all 38 regular season and Conference League matches this season, Anderlecht only conceded more than two goals twice. Both times they conceded three goals, and both times were early in the season. The first time was in July to current league leaders Union SG (1-3 loss) and the second was in mid-August to Vitesse in the Conference League (3-3 draw). After these early hiccups, Kompany has not conceded more than two goals in a single match.

While their buildup and attack are very dangerous, Anderlecht are also one of the best defenses in the league this season. They have weaknesses, of course, but these mainly stem from their shape in attack, which leaves them open on the counter in transition and open when their press isn’t structured and too many players commit. One example of this is shown below (the same goal the screenshot is taken from above).

Another major weakness in Anderlecht’s defense is balls that bypass their midfield/striker block. In many games, these direct passes to a striker create great chances, if not goals. This is an area where Anderlecht are uncomfortable, and Kompany will need to address ahead of next season. Below are a few examples of goals coming from direct passes, bypassing Anderlecht’s lines.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Vincent Kompany’s 4-4-2 this season has been a joy to watch. I claim that it is like art on the football pitch, and each time I watch a match, I find something new that I missed before. The way Kompany has his Anderlecht side playing is very methodical, very entertaining, and very smooth. His system calls for players who work for the team but have the ability for individual flair as well. While being one of the most dangerous teams going forward, his system is also very strong defensively, conceding some of the fewest shots and goals all season. However, while the defense is very effective when the opponent keeps the ball on the ground, it is weak to long balls over the midfield.

Kompany is one of the most promising managers in Europe currently, and I believe he will become one of the world’s top managers in the not-so-distant future. His style of play is unique and highly entertaining, with subtle tweaks to confuse the opposition, making it that much more difficult to prepare for their matches against Anderlecht.

If you have not already watched any of Vincent Kompany’s matches as manager, especially this season, I recommend doing so. His team plays some of the most entertaining football you’ll see; teamwork and tactical instructions coupled with individual talent and skill from academy players make for a joyful experience. Shiraz football, as I said earlier.

Header image source.

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