It’s not a la mode but I’ve had a load of fun with the 4-4-2 recently. It can be tough to avoid the lure of the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 variants but it wasn’t so long ago that the world’s best coaches relied on the 4-4-2 for its stability and pitch coverage. There is something charming about it that has drawn me to it, and perhaps more significantly, away from 4-3-3s and 4-5-1s.
Why was the 4-4-2 so revered?
The 4-4-2 was widely adopted by teams across Europe in the 1990s, and many managers that rose to fame in that decade still remain faithful to it. Box to box midfielders like Patrick Vieira in midfield, and poachers like Alan Shearer up front were crazily successful in a way that they perhaps would not be in more modern football (unless of course Harry Redknapp thought they were ‘triffic).The difference between then and now is partnerships. If you look at the above image, there are duos everywhere, which means that every player has a direct pairing with a teammate. This seems to be often talked about but no-one ever elaborates on why partnerships were so important.
It is far far easier for one dimensional players (or should that be the much more polite “functional”?) to be successful as they have someone in support who can do what they don’t. That’s exactly why players like Vieira and Shearer, as well as the likes of Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs excelled. Of course, these players have shown over their career that they are more than simply one dimensional but they found particular success when they didn’t have to fulfil a complex tactical role and rather, were relied upon for their physical qualities or specific skill (finishing for Shearer). They often had someone they could lay the ball off to or rely on for service so they could do their specific duty.
And though it is commonly mentioned that the 4-2-3-1 covers a football pitch snugly, the 4-4-2 is a strong contender for this. Managers in the 1990s, at least those who weren’t just blindly following the trend, figured that the coverage that the spine of their team, the two centre backs, centre midfielders and centre forwards, was the best of any formation. That is completely true and its apparent triviality is deceiving. Such coverage is important as it allowed 4-4-2s to dominate the most important part of the pitch, the middle section, and before the 4-2-3-1, this was the best way to dictate proceedings.
It is all well and good talking about why managers loved the 4-4-2 so, but it is completely irrelevant unless I talk about why my love for the 4-4-2 has been reignited recently in FM and its representation of modern football, a game that is very different to the 1990s.
Why I love the 4-4-2
The first reason is probably one that I have mentioned before in some capacity – in the Beginners Resource Pack perhaps - and it is the simplicity of the formation. This is a formation that has been popular for many years and in most countries, it is very familiar to players and fans. Consequently, it is easier to understand and easier to implement – because we have nearly all seen 4-4-2s used in hundreds of matches over the years – and arguably it is easier for your players to play in.
I have not run any tests on this but from my experience, players can grasp the 4-4-2 more quickly and successfully than a more complex formation that is used by the top teams and requires more tactical understanding from each individual for the system to be played successfully. This may well tie in with the previously mentioned traditional ease with which less tactically rounded players can fit into a 4-4-2 and even flourish under the freedom and support of such a simple system.
Shaun Wright-Phillips is a great example of a player that might find himself underwhelmed with the popularity of the 4-2-3-1. He is fast but perhaps too small and not skilful enough to fulfil an inside forward role that so many modern wingers do. In this case, the 4-4-2 offers him a much better opportunity at stamping his mark on the game because he has more space to attack with speed, something we discussed recently and he simply has less to think about, which is probably the best thing I could do for him (sorry Shaun).
There are more options for SWP than there might be in a 4-2-3-1 for example, because he would be farther up the pitch and usually be encouraged to cut inside with the ball. He can cut it back to his partner on the right hand side or inside to the centre back or inside to #6, Granero. It’s much simpler for simpler players because they have support and don’t have to do anything complicated. And this makes sense if you think about it: a 4-4-2 is the default formation, or at least a fallback option, for most of the Sunday League teams throughout Britain – I know personally that my old manager never toyed with anything other than a 4-4-2 because we weren’t very good! Of course, whether you agree with me on this point depends partially on how much you think of SI and their ability to replicate real life in their game but I’ve been surprised so many times by SI that I tend to err on the optimistic side.
This is something that Sean, the other PTW writer, bangs on about an awful lot. It might seem a bit illogical when the best pressing teams in the world use anything but a 4-4-2, but it can actually be really really true. The 4-4-2 is quite an attacking formation when compared to a 4-2-3-1, since it places less emphasis on keeping a tight midfield and sacrifices that for a two-man strikeforce. That strikeforce is what provides so much pressing potential, because the point where you are now applying the most pressure is higher up and in what could be called a better area.
Though the 4-2-3-1 is clearly a brilliant pressing formation, I have tried to demonstrate above where it may be slightly inferior to 4-4-2 in certain scenarios. Good pressure relies on the backup of teammates and in the 4-2-3-1, the main chasing “pack” comes from the striker forming an arrowhead with his wingers or a 1-1 shape with his attacking midfielder – obviously effective, especially because there is another arrowhead that can back it up (around the rest of the team). However, I often find that the 4-4-2′s double strikeforce can be really effective – just as effective – because it is a more of a flat kind of pressure and together the two strikers can apply pressure to the opposing defence almost immediately, whereas the 4-2-3-1 needs players from midfield to step up and support. It’s a minor difference but it’s a difference that can make the 4-4-2 a more aggressive pressing formation.
To add a little context to this screenshot, my two strikers are Junior Hoilett (#9) and Andy Johnson (#10); Hoilett, as many will know, is quite lazy, whereas Johnson is a hard working, scrap-for-his-life striker, but both are chasing down the Lorient defender with a surprising enthusiasm. It is easy to criticise the 4-4-2 for the space it leaves in central midfield against 5-man midfielders but this shows that you can really cover space effectively if your two strikers are committed to pressing the ball. There is not an option on in the middle here because my two strikers have formed something of a wall in front, and Bourillon would have to go to number 6, who is being watched by my number 6, or make a sideways pass. This sequence of play surprised me because I had all but written off the 4-4-2, at least in a pressing sense, but this really impressed me.
Bourillon goes straight back to his keeper here after a little delay. That is the perfect result, bar getting the ball turned over.
I found something else interesting here. If you look at the space that we leave free, it is mostly harmless. The 4-4-2 is often asociated with giving too much space to attacking midfielders and though this is partly true here, the passing path into that space is blocked off and it would be a simple case of my centre backs stepping up and my number 8 pushing over.
Genuine attacking intent
The 4-4-2 is awesome when you want to be really aggressive in going for the win. It could be argued that the 4-2-3-1s and 4-1-2-3s used by top teams today are more attacking but for me that is completely untrue; a lot of the time these modern formations are based around stifling the opposition with midfield triangles and targeting numerical advantages in central areas. We are big proponents of modern formations, especially the 4-2-3-1 but it is a little refreshing to play with a formation that cares more about having two strikers than having three midfielders and that forgets all about the complicated world of cliches like “the midfield battle” and “4-3-3 with the ball and 4-5-1 without it”.
There are some parts of this post where I don’t ramble on about charm and refreshment, and there is some really simple theory behind it that you can see playing out. What I particularly like about the 4-4-2 is the overlaps that are possible when wingers are more balanced.
Wingers are expected to be quick and skilful in modern football so they can cut inside and run at defences, but this is not so essential in a 4-4-2 because they are further back and can spray balls from deep if they don’t have the pace to take players on. This gives plenty of freedom to the full back on the same side as they have the option of staying forward and stretching the opposition, knowing they are being covered. Gary Neville had a legendary partnership with David Beckham based on the same principles; Beckham wasn’t the quickest and he had the delivery to sit fairly deep and dictate play, whereas Neville loved to bomb down the wing and cross from the byline.
At QPR, I have some decent full-backs in Fabio, Armand Traore, and Jose Bosingwa, none of which are particularly rounded but all able to flourish in a 4-4-2 thanks to the cover they will receive from the winger on their side. Park Ji-Sung will fit into this kind of system perfectly because he is really hard working and will run himself into the ground for the team. This is fluidity at its simplest; I am equally comfortable having my full back ahead of my winger as I am the other way round, because they are closer together than they would be in another formation.
This screenshot shows the potential of the wide players in a 4-4-2. We have a tight hold on Lorient’s number 7 and it would be really easy for Fabio to go outside of Park.
Park isn’t particularly deep on this shot but he does seem to have more restraint than one might expect from a modern winger. He has drawn two players towards him and he goes on to roll it into the path of Fabio. I deliberately cropped in the space in the middle because I thought it was a particularly telling pocket of space; an inside forward would be attacking this space and leaving his full-back under threat on the wing, but Park retains his position and can easily support Fabio going back if the ball is lost.
4-4-2: worth the time?
I absolutely love the 4-4-2, even though I’m confident I am a minority in the Football Manager community. The older players (I’m pretty sure the average age is dropping – 25 is old now!) are perhaps more likely to remember the glory days of the 4-4-2 and particularly its effectiveness on the older FM games, but it seems that newer players, those who grew up with 4-3-3 and 4-5-1s think that a 4-4-2 simply can’t “work”. It certainly can, and I really really enjoy the refreshing style of the 4-4-2: it is much easier to set up, the midfield duo can be split into attacking/defending roles rather than having two holders, and there is a remarkable potential for devastating attacking moves with the multitude of partnerships all over the pitch.