This season's Premier League has been intriguing, chaotic and unpredictable in equal measure; results are hard to call, most fans' pre-season projections have been firmly thrown out the window (thanks, Leicester City) and the top four, genuinely, is anyone’s guess.
It’s made for quite the enthralling watch—albeit with the caveat of a reduced overall quality. It’s not hard to understand why Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal found it so tough in the Champions League when they routinely struggle on home soil against the likes of AFC Bournemouth and Swansea City.
The chief reason for the league’s unpredictability this year has been a mass herding toward the 4-4-2 formation—something Danny Higginbotham pinpointed in his Independent column in December, and something uMAXit Football’s Alex Keble expanded on brilliantly.
Leicester are, of course, leading the charge for the 4-4-2 with a furious, frenzied approach to the game. They’ve acquired energetic, vertical players and unleashed them in a reasonably skeletal tactical system, allowing the likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante to improvise as they see fit.
Watford, too, have enjoyed their return to the Premier League thanks not only to a stable defensive setup, but also an incredibly prolific front two. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have 20 goals and seven assists between them, per WhoScored.com, and link superbly with each other and with the rest of the team.
There are others, too; West Ham United have dabbled, Crystal Palace have toyed with it in light of injuries, AFC Bournemouth are branded 4-4-1-1 but play similarly, and Newcastle United operate with two strikers because they have four costly ones on the books.
Teams who have adopted the 4-4-2 (4-4-1-1) this season have tended to enjoy success; a more direct approach utilising two men up top—one of whom drops into midfield and makes up the numbers off the ball—has edged the slower, possession-hungry style we’ve seen dominate for the last six to eight years.
So that begs the question: In such a topsy-turvy season, where titles, places and Premier League safety are there to be grabbed, who else could adopt a 4-4-2 system and benefit from it in this most critical, money-spinning campaign?
Villa have both the utensils and the need to move to 4-4-2. If you haven’t heard, they’re 11 points off safety with less than half the season’s fixture list left. If you don’t throw caution to the wind at this point, when you are so direly in need of victories, there won’t be a fan in the stadium for the final home game.
The squad have badly underperformed and scored the lowest number of goals in the division with 16, but on paper, the players aren’t that weak. This isn’t a roster akin to the Derby one that secured just 11 points in (2007-08); it’s one that has goals in it...if only the confidence wasn’t severely drained.
Rudy Gestede and Jordan Ayew is the idyllic "big man-small man" combination. The former is a towering 6’4” target man who, if serviced correctly, is one of the best headers of the ball in Europe, while the latter is the epitome of a support striker—he can tread the role up front on his own, but he’s much better utilising the space a fellow striker creates.
Gestede’s big drawback is that he’s incredibly immobile, meaning when he spearheads a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, he’s often too isolated to make a difference. Villa have tried to play pretty football rather than swing in crosses, and that’s not playing to Gestede’s strengths.
Ayew can act as the Deeney—the man who drops in and makes up the numbers in midfield when out of possession. He’s skilful and strong enough to build attacks through, and he can occupy the positions between Gestede and the midfield two, turning and running or creating.
News that Adama Traore—tailor-made for the right-wing crossing role—will miss eight to 10 weeks because of an injury might put a bullet in any formative 4-4-2 plans Remi Garde had, but they have the players—when fit—to utilise it.
Peak Borussia Dortmund under Jurgen Klopp played a system commonly seen as a 4-2-3-1, but in reality it filtered into a 4-4-1-1 fairly regularly—particularly off the ball.
The 4-4-2 is an ideal pressing shape, and that would suit Klopp’s style of play, with the No. 10 the key instigator for pressure. In Roberto Firmino, one of the world’s few forwards who is as energetic and defensively conscious as he is creative, he has the first vital building block for the system.
The energy in midfield is present, Jordon Ibe is getting looks from Klopp despite his end-product issues, and Philippe Coutinho is the sort of player who could relish the Marco Reus role off the left-hand side. Under former manager Brendan Rodgers, Coutinho was reasonably ineffective from the left, but give him the right responsibilities and he can shine.
The aggression in the team—starting from the defensive line and spreading all the way to the tip—suits the formation. They have all the pieces required and can mix up the striker scenario depending on who is fit.
But Klopp has seldom used this formation as a base since taking up the reins at Liverpool. He started in a 4-3-2-1 which worked for a while, has dabbled in 4-2-3-1 and flexed a diamond late on during some games. Setting up in a 4-4-2 isn’t guaranteed to fix their maddening consistency issues, but it’s an eminently viable system there to use if required.
You know it, we know it, and you can say with certainty that Old Trafford knows it: Manchester United have all the tools needed to execute a 4-4-2, but Louis van Gaal remains incredibly reticent to do it, for who knows why.
It wouldn’t suit his patient build-up play, as losing a man deeper in midfield would automatically create and necessitate quicker, more direct attacks. But Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger/Ander Herrera are absolutely capable of running things in a midfield two, and it feels as though LVG’s caution is the only thing holding this team back.
Fans would love to see Anthony Martial up top regularly and could stomach the selection of Wayne Rooney a little better if he was working in tandem with the Frenchman. Ashley Young has thrived in this system in the past and stands the perfect type of winger to occupy one of the wide roles, while the inbound Adnan Januzaj could relish it, too.
Think about it: Manchester United, who’ve spent hundreds of millions of pounds of the last two years, have scored just 12 home goals this season—the same number as Norwich City and Sunderland, who are both staring the very real possibility of relegation in the face.
If not a consistent basis, then why not just at home against clearly weaker sides? Old Trafford chants of “Attack! Attack! Attack!” and “4-4-2! 4-4-2!” are not merely frustrations aired by any means possible; the words are spoken in knowledge of what a joy United were to watch when they used to play this formation under a certain someone’s stewardship.