4-4-2, A formation that in today’s game conjures an image of English pragmatism at its very peak. Week in week out those watching would be lectured on the need to have two banks of four players in order to make it difficult for the opposition to break you down. Commentators, analysts, journalists and coaches all agreed that this was the optimal way for a team to be set out in order to make them “difficult to beat”. It wasn’t always this way though and indeed football revolutionaries like Arrigo Sacchi and Valeriy Lobanovskyi remained adamant that 4-4-2 was the formation that best encapsulated their groundbreaking football theories.

Why then is the 4-4-2 so underused by today’s virtual football managers? Have we all become so enamoured by the 4-3-3 of Barcelona or the 4-2-3-1 that shot to prominence at the 2010 World Cup that we are blind to other possibilities? Has the attacking nature of the modern game led us to turn our back on the stereotype of pragmatic defensive football? More and more threads are appearing all over the FM ‘scene’ asking for help in developing possession hungry tactics which will allow the user to sit back and watch his Wrexham side play like Barcelona with a Xavi-esque figure in midfield completing 100 passes a game. This led me to think about the alternatives and indeed to look back at when 4-4-2 was anything but pragmatic and when Sacchi’s superb Milan side swept all before them with a high pressing attacking variant of the 4-4-2.

The following is an example as to why despite its undoubted flaws the 4-4-2 should still have a place in the options of the modern FM player….

The Case for the 4-4-2

Let’s start with the formation itself.

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Im sure you will all agree this basic setup is one of the most familiar graphics in the modern age of televised football. For the purposes of this article I will conveniently ignore the various variations of the basic shape including the split striker setup and concentrate solely on the standard 4-4-2. What does this setup offer the user? First of all we have to consider the system as a series of connections that offer both defensive support and passing options. This is best illustrated by a simple graphic..

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Here you can see that each area of the field is split into a two man section with players able to support one another. This adds depth both in attack and defence and is one of the primary reasons that the shape is considered so suited to dull defensive football. It can have its attacking uses as well though.

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Here you can clearly see that as Albrighton receives the pass in the right midfield position he immediately has a set of three easy passing options that will have a high completion rate. He can shift the ball straight back to his defensive connection or move the ball infield to the central midfielder to stretch the play. He also has the option of moving the ball into the attacking third with one of the two strikers available to receive the ball. Indeed the presence of two strikers is one of the most obvious advantages that the 4-4-2 has over lone striker setups.

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This time for example you can see a graphic of when the team transitions from defence into attack. In any lone striker setup when the ball is played to the attacker like this he will have to hold it up to wait for support to arrive. With the 4-4-2 though he has a partner able to offer immediate support and options which help to enable an immediate attacking threat. You also have the added bonus of attacking support from the wide areas to stretch the defence and keep the AI off balance. In truth when in an established attacking position the presence of two strikers and two wide midfielders effectively gives you a four man attacking line.

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Here we have Albrighton in the wide right position with one striker pulled over to offer a connection to him and the other shifted into a central position. The key point though is the presence of Young as he comes off the left touchline to attack the box. This stretching of the oppositions defence creates gaps and confusion which can be easily capitalised on by your attacking players to create scoring chances.

So far I have given you the basic advantages of the system but im sure you will agree that these are fairly obvious to most FM players that take the time to consider the tactical side of the game properly. Lets take things to the next step then and consider the deeper advantage to the 4-4-2 and the one that I think makes it a relevant system even in todays game.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi was one of the first true football scientists and a man that believed that innovation was the key to success. He was a huge supporter of the 4-4-2 because he saw the key to winning any game was not control of the ball but control of the space on the pitch. Not only control of space when you were attacking but control of space when you were in more defensive positions. He saw the basic setout of the 4-4-2 as providing the key base positions to best ensure this control. Lets go back to the basic formation again..

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This time I have split the connections into distinct zones of the pitch in which we will have three players at any point in position to pressure the ball or add attacking options. The only player that Lobanovskyi would use in two zones would be the wide midifelder who is expected to support both attacking and defensive phases whilst shifting up the field. I have also identified a couple of ingame situations when you can see these zones in practice.

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Here we are on the defensive as Shevchenko receives the ball to feet in the centre circle. As you can see he is contained by a triangle of players each pressing the ball and putting the player in possession at a disadvantage. The way our players are set out this defensive triangle is flanked by two more which should force the AI to either turn possession back to us or attempt a risky longer ball through our defensive zones.

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This time an attacking example. As Renato has possession in the inside right position we have three attacking zones which we are in control of giving our options to pass and support. The left striker also has space to stretch the depth of the attack which would simply shift the zone that we are in control of giving us options further up the field. These zones allow us to keep possession – with the right settings – and show in my opinion that 4-4-2 offers far more options than it may first seem.

The Case Against 4-4-2

There are obvious drawbacks to the 4-4-2 system that have been much discussed and should be acknowledged in any discussion of the system to give a balanced assessment. Lets go back again to the formation graphic..

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Here we have once more the basic 4-4-2 with the zones illustrated but this time I have highlighted the fatal flaw that many perceive with the 4-4-2. The lack of capacity to deal with players that play ‘between the lines’ especially between the midfield and attack which as I have shown is the weak spot of our defensive zones.

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 Here we are against a 4-2-3-1 setup which perfectly illustrates the issues that face the 4-4-2. Because the AI has two wide players slightly withdrawn our fullbacks tend to creep forward to pressure the player and prevent the easy pass. We are then left with a lone striker that is taking the attentions of both centrebacks and an AM that is completely unmarked and able to drift into large areas of space to cause havoc. Any intelligent player in this position will cause the 4-4-2 no end of problems without more advanced tactical tricks like staggering the central midfield so that the AM is constantly challenged by a more defensive midfielder. This of course makes the attacking phase less effective though.

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Once more we can see an AM in acres of space. Saha is the lone striker that is occupying both centrebacks and the right back is being drawn out towards the ball. As such Cahill is free to move deeper into space to receive the ball to feet or burst through for a deep through ball.

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The AM isn’t the only player that plays between the lines though. The 4-4-2 can struggle against teams that are willing to play a deep lying playmaker simply because it doesn’t have the capacity to pressure the player effectively in that area of the pitch. As you can see in the image above our central midfielders are maintaining a close connection as you would expect from the 4-4-2. This does make it difficult to play through us but it also allows the AI time and space to build its attacks.

Concluding Thoughts

This hasn’t been written because I am a devout fan of the 4-4-2 and indeed it’s a base that I rarely use. That isn’t to say though that it doesn’t have its advantages and I feel these are largely missed when people do discuss the merits of the system.

For the modern FM player it may well be fashionable to play 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 but there are advantages to and lessons that you can take from the simple 4-4-2. The use of zones to control the pitch especially is one that any aspiring tactical should consider if only to pay homage to the genius that was Valeriy Lobanovskyi.

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