Shining like a diamond – how Cambridge’s 4-1-2-1-2 formation has led them to the top of League Two


For most of the 2020/21 season, Cambridge United have lined up in a traditional 4-4-2 formation.

It was a system that helped the U’s achieve a flying start to the season, climbing up to the summit of League Two in mid-October. However, the return of fans in December saw Mark Bonner’s side stumble to their first home defeats of the campaign, while an injury crisis prevented them from managing a consistent run of wins at the start of 2021.

Defeats to Salford, Cheltenham, Scunthorpe and Bolton saw Cambridge hanging on by a thread. They kept their top three place purely because they’d played many more games than the teams around them, so it was clear something had to change ahead of a gruelling promotion run-in.

In fact, Cambridge’s final games of the season are the hardest of any team in the division based on their opponents’ average league position. Their first game of this run was a visit from Forest Green Rovers, a clear rival for automatic promotion, but a side that had struggled for form after shock defeats to Southend and Stevenage.

Despite having come from 2-0 down to secure a 4-2 away win at Oldham the previous week, Bonner changed his system. Gone was the 4-4-2 that the U’s had stuck to religiously since the start of the season. Instead, Cambridge lined up in a diamond formation.

This irked many of the club’s supporters. Fans had flashbacks to Shaun Derry’s time in charge of the club where he hopelessly persevered with his own 4-1-2-1-2 formation. In hindsight, many considered it to be one of the strongest squads that Cambridge had since the turn of the century, but their opportunity for success was squandered due to the manager and his stubborn tactics.

But they played their Gloucestershire opponents off the park, securing a 1-0 win in what was by far and away their strongest performance of the season to date.

Clearly, this proved to be the best way forward for the U’s. Their midfield is arguably one of the strongest in the entire division, and the diamond allows them to play four of them in the same lineup. There’s also a lack of out-and-out wingers in the squad, which isn’t an issue in their newly adopted formation.

Wes Hoolahan has regularly been deployed on the left flank, which isn’t his natural position. He’s still been able to show his ability out wide, but clearly thrives as an attacking midfielder, which is where he has played for almost all of his illustrious career at club and international level. In the diamond formation, he gets to play centrally behind the two strikers.

The 38-year-old has registered five goals and seven assists so far this season, but his importance has been highlighted beyond that. Hoolahan’s age means that he’s unable to play every game for Cambridge, especially midweek matches. The Irishman has been left out of the U’s squad ten times this season – they’ve only won three without him.

Luckily for Bonner, his side only have one more midweek game to play this season, a tough trip to Brisbane Road to face in-form Leyton Orient in mid-April. But, having played against Morecambe on Good Friday, question marks remain over whether he’ll feature away at Tranmere on Easter Monday. Cambridge may struggle to function in their new formation without the Norwich City legend.

Liam O’Neil and Hiram Boateng play behind him as box-to-box midfielders. They play a very dynamic and active role, especially when in possession. Boateng’s creativity was sorely missed during his injury and heaped added pressure onto Hoolahan, but his return in February has completely rejuvenated the U’s midfield.

O’Neil usually plays as a much more defensive-minded player, but has recently been given the freedom to showcase his attacking qualities. Adam May, on the other hand, has regularly featured off the bench after struggling to nail down a starting spot in the lineup. Nonetheless, he deserves a lot of praise for overcoming significant criticism from supporters with his impressive performances.

Paul Digby’s role at the base of the diamond is perhaps the most important one. The 26-year-old pushes high up the pitch when in possession, but incredibly deep when off the ball. Having played as a centre-back at Forest Green and Stevenage in previous years, Digby feels comfortable moving into a five-man defence when opponents are attacking, making it much more difficult for them to break Cambridge down.

Furthermore, it gives the U’s full-backs the license to push forward. Kyle Knoyle and Jack Iredale have seemingly endless energy to run up and down the flanks, and are known for their pinpoint crosses and regular attacking contributions. In that sense, they play a similar role to that of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool.

In an overly narrow and midfield-centric system, they have to act as the widest players on the pitch when Cambridge are in possession. Almost every passage of play in a wide area goes through them.

This suits the two strikers perfectly. Joe Ironside is an incredibly physical striker and relishes aerial duels against opposition defenders when Knoyle or Iredale float crosses into the box. Even though he’s failed to score in his last 12 league matches, his hold-up play has become a crucial part of how the U’s play, and his importance cannot be undermined.

His strike partner, Paul Mullin, is by far the top scorer in the division. He’s even had The Abbey’s South Stand named after him until the end of the season for breaking David Crown’s record of 24 goals in a single league campaign. Of course, he deserves all the plaudits that come with his incredible goalscoring form, but a considerable portion of his success stems from the fact that he fits the system like a glove.

Even in a 4-4-2, he has four teammates playing behind him. This means that there’s a continuous creative intent when Cambridge are in possession. Chances come thick and fast from start to finish of every game because Bonner overflows the midfield, so his side is constantly on the ball. Since the U’s adopted the diamond, they’ve had had an average of 56.3% possession.

With Mullin proving to be arguably the best finisher in the division, most of those chances end up in the back of the net. That’s why he’s got 27 to his name so far this season, and why Cambridge are the second top scorers in League Two.

The formation does have its downsides, however. Certain players are isolated from the starting lineup because they simply don’t suit it.

Luke Hannant has played a crucial part in Cambridge’s success this season, but looked completely burned out by December due to being the only out-and-out winger at the club and playing so regularly as a result. Shilow Tracey, who joined the U’s on loan from Spurs in January, has also struggled to find a place in the side.

It does allow Bonner to be flexible with the players at his disposal. His side are used to playing in a 4-4-2 formation, so he can freely change the system mid-match if he wants to use his wingers on the bench.

Luton Town are perhaps the best example of how to use a diamond. The Hatters achieved incredible success when using a 4-1-2-1-2 formation, finishing second in League Two in 2017/18 before winning the League One title the following season. While manager Nathan Jones found that the system had too many limitations in the Championship, they proved how effective it can be in the lower end of the EFL.

This change in tactics was exactly what Cambridge needed as they head into the climax of the League Two promotion race. Their original 4-4-2 formation proved to be incredibly effective, but ultimately, it turned stale. Bonner has found the best system to suit his squad and has implemented it at the perfect time.

The U’s have now won four games on the bounce, a run that has lifted them to the top of the table with just seven games to go. They’ve hit form at exactly the right time, and will prove to be an incredibly tough team to stop as they look to secure a top three place.

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East Anglian football editor for Prost International.

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