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Is The 4-4-2 Finished?

circa 1968:  The Aztec Stadium in Mexico, seen from the air.  (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

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).

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  1. aud lesta uk.........

    May 5, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    aud Leicester uk I SAID 4-4-2 was dead as in two wingers LOL

    man u just won premiere league with a old skool out and out 4-4-2 with 2 wingers and a weakened squad beating the likes of chelsea and arsenal and are in champs leage final vs barca but did play 4-3-3 in the semi final any formation can work but this was a shock they looked weak on paper this year

  2. SoccerBoyz

    August 28, 2010 at 1:06 am

    I think the variation of 4-4-2 such as 4-2-2-2 works against 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1

  3. aud leicester uk argy fanboy

    August 26, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Chelsea play the ac milan system but lack a kaka /or chelsea play a argentina system but lack a roman
    4 at back then 3 man unit of midfielders then a free roll player then 2 forwards

    lampard is not in the same league (lol get it) as kaka and is not of the same planet as the greatest play-maker of all time in human history roman 4-3-1-2 is almost the roman system that guy will run a game and out play the opposite 11 all on his own in that system his now 32 and there seems n one around even remotly like him

    maradona wanted messi to be more like him and be part of midfield but he lacks a amaradona/roman like ability to own a pitch and run games all by him self so maradona went for the faster more aggressive 4-1-2-1-2 but he went overboard with it and got the midfield over ran by germany

    4-3-1-2 is all about the midfield /4-1-2-1-2 is all about by passing the midfield and gunning for the goal JUST LIKE OLD SKOOL ENGLISH 4-4-2 WAS……

    i think the only players capable of making it work are the very very best so a diamond would consist of
    ———-messi———— so much ability and brain there you can maintain possession maradona tried to use maxi and dimaria as pretend iniesta and xavi

    if he was playing 4-3-1-2 it would have been say veron and cambiasso or gago and cambiasso flanking mascharano

    i think 4-4-2 can survive but it has to be of high quality each player good at his job and to play 1 winger and a playmaker free to cut in on the other flank

    2 wingers and flat 4s are DEAD

  4. Dave C

    August 25, 2010 at 11:07 am

    I think I read somewhere that Alex Ferguson claims to have NEVER fielded a simple 4-4-2. -i.e he never had two “proper strikers”.

    I also read an interesting article somewhere arguing that nearly all successfull teams can approximately be described as a 4-2-3-1, regardless of what formation they are described as on paper or on TV.

    i.e. in the case of Man Utd of the mid/late 90s: Cantona would drop deep leaving Hughes up front alone. This would leave Cantona level with the two wide midfielders (Giggs and Sharpe/Kanchelskis), creating the 3-1 part at the top of the formation. The two central midfielders (Ince and Keane) would play deeper. Hence you have a 4-2-3-1.

    Thomas’ post above makes a similar point (although he’s arguing that it creates a 4-3-3)
    From what he says, I would say that it sounds much like 4-2-3-1 (with Mikel and Essien being the 2, Malouda, Lampard and Anelka being the 3, and Drogba being the 1). Although in this case, I’m not sure if he has his personnel right – I don’t remember Chelsea ever using both Mikel AND Essien together (usually Mikel comes in when Essien’s injured).

  5. brn442

    August 24, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    My Name aside, I ‘ve said this once, I will say it again – Football is an awfully simple game – it’s the intellectuals that muck it up. That’s why Sir Ferguson will always run circles around Mr. Venables.

    As the others have said – if you play with 2 strikers, 4 midfielders and 4 defenders – it’ s a 4 4 2. The question should be – how, where and what those players do once the whistle blows. Tactical awareness, positional discipline, improvisation, simple common sense, and TALENT usually bare more weight.

    I can give you the top 5 reasons Liverpool got their arses handed to them on Monday and their starting formation is not one of them – same for England this past summer.

    • Poker Rakeback

      August 24, 2010 at 11:35 pm

      You are right BRN, I don’t know what AUD is on about, call it how you want 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-3-1-2, that’s just bollocks, the simple question should be how many midfielders are you playing? How many strikers are you playing? How many defenders are you playing?
      DIAMOND = 4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 strikers = 4-4-2. It’s not rocket science.

      • Dave C

        August 25, 2010 at 10:50 am

        “the simple question should be how many midfielders are you playing”…the problem is that this is NOT as simple as you would think.

        If a “striker” operates from a wide position (such as Henry in his prime or Robinho), is he still a striker, or is he a winger? If such a wide-striker tracks back often (in the style of Etoo or Kuyt) does that make him a wide-midfielder?

        If a forward drops deep centrally on a regular basis (such as Tevez coming further back than the wingers), is he more of a midfielder?

        Are guys who play in the “hole” (i.e. classic #10s such as Maradona, Baggio…or [sigh] Joe Cole) deep-lying forwards, or attacking midfielders?

        If a defensive midfielder often plays inline with the center backs (such as Gilberto) a midfielder or a center back? If a center back pushes forward with the ball often (such as Marquez or Vermaelen), does that make him a midfielder?

        Are wing-backs midfielders or defenders??

        All of a sudden, it’s not that simple after all.

  6. Thomas

    August 24, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    Chelsea play closer to a 4-3-3 than a 4-3-1-2.

    Malouda plays wide and cuts in from the left.

    Anelka is techincally the right sided midfielder/winger, but he drifts in. Drogba leads the line.

    Essien and Obi hold, and Lampard plays behind Drogs.

  7. King of Most things..

    August 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    “arsenal days of henry/derkamp peres and the swis dude on the wings” Inept he says lol….wtf

  8. King of Most things..

    August 24, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    Ugh your grammar hurts my eyes.

  9. AUD argy fan leicester UK

    August 24, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    interesting read but i now have to correct most of you!!!

    diamond=4-1-2-1-2 chelsea=4-3-1-2 you all seem confused or even inept hhhmmmmmm.
    arsenal days of henry/derkamp peres and the swis dude on the wings was 4-4-2 diamond
    chelsea today is 4-3-1-2 witch is 3 midfield and a playmaker BIG DIFFERANCE



    4-3-1-2 is not 4-4-2 diamond thats 4-1-2-1-2 YOU IS CONFUSED!!!!!

    barsalona =4-3-3 but messi as he matures is playing more behind front 2 so barcalona play a flouting 4-1-4-1/4-3-3/4-1-2-1-2

    if villa and ibra play upfront tgether plus messi behind barsa will still call it 4-3-3 but its really4-1-2-1-2

    if they get mascharano it could easily be back 4 then mascharano then xavi/iniesta inside wide left/right messi behind ibra and villa=amassing 4-1-2-1-2

    4-3-1-2 is best but requires world class true midfielders

    • Dave C

      August 25, 2010 at 11:14 am

      At the risk of sounding inept…who was the “Swiss dude” who played on the wing for Arsenal??

  10. Dave B.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Good article. I was surprised Liverpool didn’t change things up once it was apparently we were getting drowned out in the middle of the field by Toure, De Jong, Barry and company.

    The game also showed the shortcomings of Lucas IMO. I like him as a defensive minded player, but he’s too hesitant and not confident at all with the ball. Most of the time he just quickly sends the ball to the person who he got it from or back to the defense.

    Players should also be screaming at Carragher to stop bombing the ball down the pitch. He had to have given away at least 10 balls by thumping them up field toward a player who was open for a split second, only to see a light blue kit jump on it.

  11. Brian

    August 24, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I think that almost all formations can be used to win major leagues and tournaments in this day and age, but the problem is who is playing in the formation. Too often managers have a formation or style they want to play, and try to shoehorn the players they have into playing that way regardless of weather the players are suited to it or not. An example of this is how Aston Villa tried to use Stephen Ireland in the same way they used James Milner despite the fact they are two very different players, and the scoreline reflected that. One thing Jose does very well is looking at the talent on the team and finding a formation that gets the most out of those players. While he may have a general formation that he sticks to, he does adopt it so that the players he is using can flourish rather than be stifled during play. This is also part of the reason I feel that some players just don’t succeed after changing teams, or succeed after a move when they did poor at a current club, it is because they are put in the correct position for them to play.

  12. Jason

    August 24, 2010 at 9:50 am

    I agree that overall it’s gone and a bit of an old style of football. With that said I know Tottenham will roll out a 4-4-2 when strikers are healthy in league games. They also had it going in their qualifier against Young Boys I believe but I could be wrong… I’ve tried to purge that match from memory as whatever they did didn’t work out too well 🙂

  13. Yusoff

    August 24, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Variations…Manchester plays with a 4-4-2…Chelsea 4-4-2 diamond…Arsenal Invincibles 4-4-2…of course at times strikers drop deep into the hole or the midfield turns into a central trio of destroyer,center-mid and trequartista or the side peels off into the wings but essentially the team shape is still a 4-4-2…i personally like the 4-4-2 as it opens up a whole lot of options in term of possession football…

    • Matthew Reed

      August 24, 2010 at 12:53 pm

      I think that this response is telling. 4-4-2 is a formation, yes, but there are really many different ways to play it that have wildly different results. Tactics are often linked with formations and that really doesn’t do it justice. A 4-4-2 does not really describe the managers approach to the game. Technically, I think the diamond is a 4-1-2-1-1 but from a personnel standpoint, it could be considered a 4-4-2.

      The point is, the formation is more a reflection of personnel than it is the actual tactic. This was a great article (more tactics, please), the main point I came away with is that 3 is better than 2 in up front attack to provide width.

      Anyone else who is interested in game tactics really should read “Inverting the Pyramid” by Jonathan Wilson, book is complete class.

      • Poker Rakeback

        August 24, 2010 at 1:22 pm

        The diamond is a strange formation, yes it is a 4-4-2 because you are playing with 4 midfielders and 2 strikers but when people think of a 4-4-2 they think of 2 wingers and 2 centre midfielders, this is not the case with a diamond. With a diamond you actually have 4 centre midfielders playing in the shape of a diamond. You get your width from your fullbacks bombing down the wing.
        When Chelsea used it they had Essien playing at the bottom of the diamond, joe cole playing at the top of the diamond and lampard and Ballack playing on either side. You can not call any of these players wingers, they are all centre midfielders.

  14. Poker Rakeback

    August 24, 2010 at 8:59 am

    I’m not a big fan of the 4-4-2, I think it can be used but you need to have the right players. Man Utd use it but they have two deep sitting midfielders in Scholes and Fletcher, their wingers track back and work hard. Both front men whether it be Rooney, Macheda, Berbatov or Chicharito work hard and come back to help out. Still they only tend to play this in the prem and against lesser teams or teams playing the same formation. Anytime they play a top team in England or when they play in the Champions League they tend to play Rooney upfront on his own.
    Years ago you would have a 4-4-2 with one defensive mid and one very attacking mid, those days are gone.
    Whether you play a 4-4-1-1, 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 you are basically saying you are playing with 5 midfielders and this is the key to keeping hold of the ball and keeping possession. Man Utd can get away with 4-4-2 when they play crap teams because they are good on the ball and their team works hard but on the whole the formation is no good against good opponents.

    • Person

      August 24, 2010 at 8:22 pm

      Mate you are too right, Very good analysis. The 4 midfielders are the seential ones in that formatoin as you’ve mentioned. They have to be good on the ball and also hard workers and play a very team oriented game

  15. Person

    August 24, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Top article. Personally i hate playing 4-4-2 and it simply doesn’t work in a world class level as seen in the World Cup with England

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