For any manager in the 1980’s or 1990’s, especially in England, the notion of this formation 'falling out of favour' would be laughed at. Almost every side, whether it would be the national team or a club. They would play a 4- 4-2 of some variant. The only real exceptions to this idea were the Dutch and the clubs that they had influenced, most notably Barcelona, who had been transformed by Johan Cruyff.
The simplicity of the formation was loved by players and managers alike. It created partnerships in the formation. The partnerships included both centre backs, then the full backs linking with the wingers, the two central midfielders (one would normally hold his position while the other drove into the box) and the two strikers (traditionally a player good in the air and the other striker was quick and could finish). These partnerships are written into the folk-lore of English football and are still talked about today. The likes of Shearer and Sutton or SAS, Pallister and Bruce, Beckham and Neville and Yorke and Cole are all fondly remembered by British fans.
The 4-4-2 remained dominant in international competitions and for club sides in Europe until late into the last decade. Barcelona and Spain destroyed the 4-4-2, first in Euro 2008, where Spain picked apart the opposition by keeping possession with one touch passes and good technique. And then in Rome in the Champions League Final where Manchester United chased shadows against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and lost 2-0.
The problem with the 4-4-2 against a team playing a 4-3-3 system is that you simply have less people in midfield. It is therefore harder to control that area of the pitch thus making it difficult to keep possession. As shown in the diagram above, if player 1 has the ball, either one of the midfielders will try to pressure him and win the ball back, if they do this successfully, player 2 or 3 for the green team will then be free and a simple pass can be completed to that player. It is essentially like playing piggy-in-the-middle with the two central midfielders.
One way to get around this is if the two central midfielders of the other side sit deep or don’t press, although this allows the deep lying midfielder on the other team a lot of time and space which can still cause problems.
Another problematic aspect of the 4-4-2 system is that if a striker on the opposing side drops off between the midfield and the defence and no-one tracks him he will be allowed the space and time to shoot or pick a pass. However, if one of the centre backs follows him, it can lead to a 1 on 1 and a large hole in the defence to exploit, especially if the other striker has pace, this gap can be easily exploited. Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp did this to great effect with Arsenal in the early 2000’s.
But if a defensive midfielder, as he would be in a 4-3-3, is sitting in front of the defence it makes the opposition striker dropping off the defence far easier to deal with, as the marking duties can easily be switched.
The 4-4-2 though can still be a useful formation. The natural width in a 4-4-2 allows a side to stretch teams. This can be done with direct passing towards the flanks. As shown in the diagram above, when the cross comes in from the wing there can be up to 4 people in the box, which can be extremely difficult to defend against. Manchester United have used this tactic extremely often in recent years. United would play a long ball out to Valencia/ Beckham, who then wait for the midfielders to make their runs and then any decent ball into the box can lead to a good goal scoring opportunity.
Another advantage of this formation is the ability for the front two to link up easily. This can also be exploited with a long pass, this time instead of out wide, it would be fired directly at one of the strikers. One of the strikers, usually the one who is better in the air, would then flick the ball on, whilst the other striker, usually the quicker of the two, would try to get on the end of it and exploit the space behind the defence, leading to a clear chance on goal.
Tacticians are claiming the 4-4-2 is on the decline. This isn’t true, formations go in and out of fashion quickly; the 4-4-2 has just become another victim of this cycle. For a defensive or counter-attacking side the 4-4-2 still provides the side with plenty of attacking options going forward. Also if the space between the midfield and defence is minimal and the side is willing to sit back and let the opposition have possession, it can still be a useful formation.
This article was written by Itsaballnotabomb, you can follow him on Twitter at - @ballnotabomb
You can find more of his work on his blog - itsaballnotabomb.wordpress.com
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