The 4-4-2 is the most commonly used formation, especially in the Premiership, but the frequency of it’s use in top European leagues has decreased. However it has been arguably the most "perfect" set up, with all recent tactical changes developed to go one better.
An article by Jonathan Wilson claims the 4-4-2 has been superseded by the 4-2-3-1 formation but there is a fine line in labeling what type of formation one team plays and what they don’t. His example concerned the Man Utd team which beat Barcelona in the 1991 Cup-Winners’ Cup final. With McClair dropping deep off front man Hughes, the wingers pushing up and Robson and Ince in the middle this made it a 4-2-3-1.
However what about the current Manchester United team?
With Berbatov or Rooney dropping off there are a number of suggestions of what system they play; 4-4-2, 4-2-4, 4-2-3-1, or 4-6-0. Which one is correct is open to interpretation.
Factor in the work the wingers are expected to do and it is even harder to determine. Ronaldo is not expected to track back much while Park is given orders to run the whole length of the pitch. This is what the formation may look like then.
Manchester United Best Line Up
Rooney - Berbatov
———Carrick - Scholes -—-Park
Evra - Vidic - Ferdinand(c) - Rafael
Van Der Sar
The attention to detail displayed by the Man Utd formation and others has come as a result of reacting to and taking advantage of many different tactical developments and requirements of the modern game. The 4-2-3-1 more popular as it allows greater flexibility in being more effective in such tactical trends.
The amount at stake in football has no doubt affected how teams are set up and because of this could be understood for being cautious. Transitions are seen as a very crucial part of the game nowadays and are very deadly if one exploits such changing of hands in possession. Euro 2008 showed how important it is to take advantage of such situations and also to defend against, Holland’s wins against France (4-1) and Italy (3-0) showing how devastating it is.
The 4-2-3-1 has become popular because amongst others, it’s ability in exploiting counter attacks. The four most advanced players in the system are shielded by the two central players allowing them to express themselves while being higher up the field means the area of weakness from the counter, the full backs, are not needed to attack as much.
Transitions have become crucial. When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position. Similarly when we lose the ball we must react immediately. In training I sometimes practice keeping a minimum of five players behind the ball, so that when we lose it we can keep a good defensive shape. The players must learn to read the game- when to press and when to return to their defensive positions. Everybody says set plays win most games, but I think it is more about transitions.
Also in English football, full backs that lack height can have problems because of the long ball tactic employed by many teams. Jose Mourinho then Chelsea manager (hence the difference between his Chelsea and Scolari’s more attacking but more vulnerable Chelsea.
Of Holland’s seven goals scored, five were counter attacks and two set plays which highlights the danger of both areas. Not many teams are set up for set plays though Bolton and Stoke can provide some examples.
The Individual and the Midfield Shield
The individual skill and dynamism of such players as Cristiano Ronaldo and before that the Galacticos (Zidane, Figo, Raul, Ronaldo) have meant teams would build a system to accommodate these players’ strengths and weaknesses. United and Madrid knew that these players are extremely deadly while defensively they will not offer much in the way of tracking back. Therefore the shield or the ‘water carrier’ became very important.
The basis for the counter attack, letting the flair players express themselves and the glue that sticks the whole team together. For Madrid it was Makelele and for the double winning Man Utd side, Scholes and Carrick.
It may be a sign that the individual has trumped the collective; the England midfielder deviating from Benitez’s plan in central midfield but now pushed up to allow greater freedom.
Pressuring high up the pitch and getting the ball early are one of the reasons for deploying wide men high up. Barcelona successfully combine the ability to use the strengths of their individuals and apply high pressure. This suffocates the space and allows them to exploit transitions.
As the wide men don’t track back, the opposition full backs are aware that if they get forward they will leave them unmarked. The doubts it causes are great and when Barca do get the ball, getting caught out of position and being hit on the counter especially against players with such pace and quality is too big a threat.
The opposition team is penned back and facing the countless Barca attacks is like contending with a team attacking in the last ten minutes of a match but with more efficiency.
Support and Movement
The role of the playmaker has become ever more appreciated but it is not only their creating ability nor their ability to link up play that makes them so effective; it is the support they give. The free role allows them to get close to any of the attacking options and provide support.
Watching European cup games it has become evident that support and off the ball movement is crucial. Getting 1 v 1 situations as often as possible can win games but off the ball movement is the key to making the best out of the situation rather than what was solely considered to be the dribbling ability of the player. This causes uncertainty on the marker and lessens the real need to dribble past, or can be provided as another option.
Another advantage of having support, is the ability to counter attack. Being closer can allow quicker retaining of possession and thus easier to counter quicker and arguably more often.
Roma’s 4-6-0 formation happened by chance as a result of injury to their second striker but with Totti as the focal point (a striker who drops deep) is unconventional. However it worked because the basis of the formation is supporting Totti and going beyond him with the movement.
The Evolution of the 4-4-2
The reason why the 4-2-3-1 is greater implemented in Spain, say as opposed to England where 4-4-2 is more prevalent could be of many factors. The speed of English football is quicker and has more aerial passes while pressuring early using such a formation as the 4-2-3-1 is negated by long balls. This is maybe why instead of Chelsea being able to implement a traditional 4-3-3 they are resorted to play 4-5-1 when defending as the ball is play quicker; the time taken to reorganize is less.
The 4-4-2 isn’t dead but rather it has evolved from what it is thought to be traditionally and what it is now (although Premier League clubs still play in the traditional way). The changing environment of the game and the individual has given the 4-4-2 more scope rather sticking to the description of the traditional 4-4-2 played by a team like Wigan with Zaki and Heskey up front. Villarreal play with one striker dropping deep as do Atletico Madrid with Rossi and Aguero respectively. The second striker especially in top level matches expected to drop deeper to support the midfield but still provide a goalscoring instinct.
Spain’s Euro 2008 win saw them play 4-4-2 in the early stages but with David Villa’s injury switching to 4-2-3-1. It showed that both systems can be equally successful.
It seems the best way to play 4-4-2 is to have two strikers who combine well but one who drops back to support the midfield in defence. The centre of midfield must be organised; one midfielder is more attack minded while the other is more defensive, providing cover. The best surveyors of the system can keep possession well denying pressure on the defence but the most undervalued area concerns the mobility and passing ability of the defence. The 4-4-2 far from being dead or old fashioned but as all things needing to evolve with the changing environment.