Generally, football matches are won by the team with the better players. It’s not a game that upon first glance seems to lend itself to a great deal of tactics, a team just tries to send the ball to it’s most talented goal scorer by any legal means. Yet people like Jose Mourinho have taken sides like FC Porto to the top of Europe by using strategies that squeeze every ounce of potential from their players.
Something that can put a team over the top is the formation that it comes out with, for example lower ranked teams often crowd the midfield with five players when playing a top side, trying to congest the middle of the park and stop the opponent finding space to get into the final third. The midfielders are also in a good position to get back behind the ball if necessary. New Zealand went into the World Cup with a 4-3-3, a strongly aggressive formation that to many would just seem to invite thrashings for such a low ranked country. However, such positivity paid off and they finished with their highest ever point total.
In that same World Cup, England played a much maligned 4-4-2, criticized by almost everybody as a formation that cannot be used today, with the players having completely different skill sets than those of yesteryear. It is often pointed out that no other top sides play a 4-4-2.
Watching the Liverpool-Manchester City game, it’s easy to see why in this day and age the 4-4-2 simply cannot work. One need to look only as far as Spain, and how narrow they played, to see which way the game is going. The formation is built to beat teams that “park the bus” in front of their goal by utilizing a couple of destroyers in the middle, with two wide players to outlet the ball to and bypass the clog in the center of the pitch. However against a lot of the formations used today, such as the 4-2-3-1 that Mancini trotted out, or the 4-3-3 or even the 4-4-1-1, this ancient formation is simply outnumbered in the middle. That means all width is sucked out of the attack as all four midfielders congregate in the middle to prevent a massacre in the center and the team becomes stagnant with the ball. There is simply nowhere to send it when you finally gain possession.The formation’s two strikers up top then are made redundant, because almost all of their service will come from only a couple of areas, with little variation (again seen in Liverpool vs City, when the only really good chances for Liverpool came from Torres dropping deep and linking with Gerrard, the kind of interplay often seen when Gerrard was in a hole behind the striker and all this 4-4-2 nonsense was conceptual).
That is not to say that the 4-4-2 is a terrible idea, like all formations it simply requires the right players. For instance, if Mascherano was playing, perhaps his skills as a destructive presence would have been enough for a winger like Johnson to wreak havoc as he wouldn’t have to constantly help out. Strikers with more chemistry can destroy a defense with interplay in a 4-4-2. However, in this day and age, not too many teams have all these sort of players available, so this formation isn’t playing to a team’s strengths (definitely wasn’t playing to England’s).