A lot of teams these days are experimenting with formations. Recently, we’ve seen a movement away from the traditional 4-4-2 to all sorts of different tactics. These include the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3, the 4-4-1-1 and the 4-5-1.
So what is good about the 4-4-2? Why do a lot of teams like to play the 4-4-2? Basically, it’s a very simple system that nearly everyone knows how to play. Not only is it simple, but it can also be learned very quickly, unlike a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3.
At its core, the 4-4-2 is about partnerships. When the role of each player in these partnerships is understood and complementary, the 4-4-2 works very well. However when it is not played well, the faults in each partnership become obvious.
The two central defenders work best when there is a clear understanding of which player will attack the ball and which player will sweep in behind. A perfect example of this was the Manchester United pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand a couple of years ago. Vidic would attack the ball while Ferdinand would look to mop up anything that got past him.
The two centre forwards need to have a similar relationship to be successful. More often than not, one player will act as a target man, while the other will work off him, looking for knockdowns and flick-ons from long balls or exploiting the space created when their partner drops deep. Depending on what Liverpool do in the current transfer window, Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez could potentially have this sort of relationship in the upcoming Premier League season.
This isn’t always the case for a front two pairing. A notable example of a completely different partnership was Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry of ‘The Invincibles’. However, in that case the playing styles of Arsenal’s wide players and the sheer genius of Bergkamp and Henry made that system work.
In the 4-4-2, the fullbacks and wingers also need to have a strong understanding of how the other plays. In reality, the fullback should be the winger’s get out of jail card, a simple option backwards when confronted by two defenders and on the touchline. With the evolving role of the fullback however, more often than not they overlap and provide the width whilst the winger tucks in.
That’s fine when the wide midfielder is aware of the fullback getting beyond them and provides defensive cover, but when they both get forward and the ball is turned over, there is an acre of space in behind them.
Perhaps the most pivotal partnership in any 4-4-2 is between the two central midfielders. Essentially, when one goes forward, the other must stay back. If both are pushing on when the ball is lost, immense pressure is put on the back four who are confronted not just with the attacking players already in their midst, but also opposition players running straight at them.
In this situation, one of the defenders – usually the one closest to the ball – will have to step out, causing the back four to lose their shape.
Herein lies one of the key problems of the 4-4-2 in the modern game. For the 4-4-2 to be successful, a team either has to have a workaholic ball winning midfielder in the Mathieu Flamini or Javier Mascherano mould or, alternatively, they could to use a partnership similar to that of Patrick Vieira and Gilberto in the middle. But what about players like Cesc Fabregas, Luka Modric and Andres Iniesta? Guys who are good ball players but aren’t too suited to a physical battle in the middle of the park.
Well you could pair them with a workaholic ball winner, for example Gennaro Gattuso at Milan for Andrea Pirlo, but, if like most clubs you don’t have or can’t afford one of these, one of two things will happen. One, they get put out on the wing or two, you alter the formation, normally having them operating behind a single striker.
Athleticism in the middle of midfield is essential for a 4-4-2 to work. This is because unless the opposition is playing two in the middle of the park, they’ll be outnumbered. This athleticism is especially critical in leagues where the game is played at a fast tempo.
However, while there is no doubt that the 4-4-2 has some deficiencies, it remains the standard formation for most amateur teams because it is so simple. You have your buddy and you work in pairs. If you’re lost, all you have to do is look to help out your partner.
There’s no doubt that there are limitations with the 4-4-2, specifically against a team playing three in the middle of the park; however the fact that it’s simple and most people (in Australia at least) have grown up playing it means it is a pretty good option for any team.