Football Tactics For Beginners: The 4-4-2 Formation

The classic 4-4-2 formation might have become obsolete in the modern game,but there remains a certain charm in this basic but effective formation

Hodgson 4-4-2 formation

When football was first majorly popularised in the last century, tactics in football and football formations were not as prominent an issue as they are in the modern game. These days however, managers and back room staff work for hours and hours every week in order to crack their oppositions plans and earn the victories they so crave. To do so, managers employ football formations as the 4-5-1, the 4-4-1-1,the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3. These formations have all become much more frequent in today’s game as they appear “fashionable”. Despite this, the legend of the classic 4-4-2 formation still lives on. Still the most popular formation in the footballing world,the 4-4-2 formation is now rarely used at the highest level

The 4-4-2 formation was the original tactic used by pretty much every team, as it is simple, and yet at the same time, extremely effective. The reason it was widely viewed as the best tactic for a long time is because of it’s balanced shape between defence, midfield and attack as well as providing the team with a lot of necessary width. Here is a brief summary of what each player has to bring to this formation:

Centre Backs: these two players are the last line of defence. The centre backs main job is to see off any attacks from the opposition primarily by heading the ball away and tackling players. They have to dominate aerial battles, so they should be tall and strong players (being quick is also extremely helpful). The centre backs should be decent in possession of the ball, as they have to distribute the ball quickly to the midfielders and sometimes play some challenging passes to strikers and wingers. In a 4-4-2 formation, defences often implement the offside trap, meaning the centre backs have to control the rest of their defenders in order for this tactic to work. Arigo Sacchi found great success with a 4-4-2 formation where the defenders maintain a high line and squeeze play into a small area. Of course with the rule changes,this tactic might not be the best in the modern game

Full Backs: The left and right back in this formation have to provide width and space  in attack by getting forward and making overlapping runs. Once in attacking positions, full backs also need to be able to cross the ball well, as to provide ammunition for strikers to score the goals. In defence, full backs aim to defend rigidly with help from the wingers doubling up on the opposition on each side to win the ball back from an attack. At corners, full backs usually stay back as their pace is imperative in stopping an opposition counter attack.

Centre Midfielders: the central midfielders are the engine of the team. They are responsible for transporting to ball from defence to attack, they are the link that ties the team together. One central midfielder tends to hang back in a more defensive position as to prevent gaps between midfield and defence when in and out of possession, whilst one centre mid plays further forward to create chances to score and support strikers in the box. The centre minds have to be strong tacklers and great passers of the ball.

Wingers: The wingers main responsibility is to take on the full backs and provide for the strikers. The common, old fashioned winger will attempt to exploit the flanks, and cut in, whether this be for a shot or cross. Concentration is also key for these players. They need to be able to link up with full-backs for a potential overlap situation. They also often take corners, so crossing is a fundamental part of their game. While the advanced midfielder has a responsibility to support the strikers, it is also the job of the wingers to get into advanced goalscoring positions. When on the back foot, it is the job of a winger to defend against opposing wingers and full-backs. If required to deal with an attacking-minded full-back such as Dani Alves or Philip Lahm, it is critical that the winger supports his own full-back, or there is a risk that that wing could become alarmingly exposed.

Strikers: Using a striker high up the pitch, and one to lay-off just behind him, has become somewhat prevalent for many managers across the globe. The player at the very top of the pitch is often a big target man, physical enough to hold off opposition players, and bring his teammates into play. Despite this, some teams tend to deploy a withdrawn striker, capable enough to play in the ‘hole’ behind the main striker, and use whatever skills they have to create chances for teammates. Dennis Bergkamp and Wayne Rooney are very good examples of this type of player. Whichever attacking combination a manager opts to use, the player who isn’t a creative hole player, or a target man, is a versatile goal poacher, with the ability to sniff out chances, and pounce on defensive misfortunes.

The Benefits and Downsides of 4-4-2

This rigid system provides a perfect shape for the team using it, whether this be defensive or attacking, the team is balanced. However, with the team being so rigid, there is less room for creativity, that players like David Silva and Juan Mata thrive on. Their positions are simply too fixed. Some formations make the pitch too congested in the middle, but the 4-4-2 formation administers an alternative option. It gives the team an outlet of width, and makes spreading the play easier. This is more beneficial for lower league teams however, as premier league teams, with lots of skill would be able to cope with congestion whilst lower teams may struggle.

Atletico’s 4-4-2

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid has performed beyond expectations this season and has a chance of winning an unprecedented double. Atletico on paper use a 4-4-2,with David Villa and Diego Costa upfront. The crazy nature of their high intensity pressing and their compactness allows them to play a successful 4-4-2 formation. Both the strikers drop back deep and in the big games they defend with all eleven men. Their attacking transitions are quick and penetrative which allows them to attack even thought are setup quite deep.

Although the 4-4-2 is out of favour in present day,we see variants of it everywhere. Especially this season,we have seen a revival of the striking partnerships in the Premier League,so the 4-4-2 is still alive but it has evolved so much that it is unrecognizable from its primitive form.

Luke Jarrett and Peter Marfleet