The 4-4-2 Diamond formation.
Whilst the traditional 4-4-2 formation has become less common in recent years, the diamond variation is alive and well. The differences between the two formations may appear to be small, but actually have a number of wide-ranging consequences which mean the two styles of playing are much further apart than would first seem. The diamond formation has a large number of strengths, most of which do not exist in the ‘classic’ formation. That said, in football, there is always a trade-off; no formation is perfect, and the diamond is no exception. In this article, we’ll look at the upsides to playing a diamond as well as the problems which are often encountered by teams who set up in this fashion.
One of the main problems with a typical, flat 4-4-2 formation is the numerical inferiority in the middle of the park. In the era of the three-man midfield (two of the most used formations in modern football being the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3) a traditional 4-4-2 is often outgunned in the centre. Manchester City’s travails in the Champions’ League are a testament to this; whilst they have often been able to overcome their opponents in domestic competition due to the fact they have better players, when these players are amongst opponents of equal ability in Europe, the problems of playing a 2v3 become readily apparent. In the diamond formation, however, this deficiency is reversed, and even overturned, leading to a 4v3 advantage in the midfield. This superiority in numbers means that the team who set up with a diamond often find themselves in control of the middle of the pitch.
The diamond is also extremely good as an attacking formation. Not only do the two box-to-box midfielders allow for quick transitions, each one of the four man midfield has an attacking role to play, from the orthodox number 10 at the ‘tip’ of the diamond to the deep-lying playmaker at the base. A fine example of the attacking potential of this system would be the Liverpool side of 2013-14; with Steven Gerrard as the deepest midfielder, the team were able to switch from defence to attack very rapidly due to his passing range and the speed on the counter of players such as Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling. Likewise, the 2005 Milan team profited hugely from having Andrea Pirlo directing their attacks from deep and a formidable combination of Gattuso, Seedorf and Kaka ahead of him.
Of course, it is not only in the midfield area that the diamond formation could be considered to be an attacking structure. The fact that it allows for two strikers is a not insignificant advantage as it usually leaves opponents with the choice of leaving their centre-backs in a 1v1 match-up against the forward, or pulling some of their other defenders back to cover. With the two strikers, the number 10, the box-to-box midfielders and attacking fullbacks on each flank, the diamond formation can have up to seven players in advanced attacking positions at any one time whilst retaining sufficient cover in the case of a loss of possession.
There are a couple of main weaknesses to the diamond formation. Firstly, if the two central midfielders are narrow, it lacks a lot of width and concedes dangerous overlap opportunities on the flanks. However, should one of the central midfielders pull wide to cover the full-back, large spaces can appear in the middle of the pitch. This means that the formation can be extremely vulnerable defensively. Using Liverpool as an example again, it could be argued that a less cavalier formation might well have been the key to winning the title; using the diamond, the team were counter-attacked ruthlessly at both Chelsea and Crystal Palace, both games proving extremely costly.
The diamond formation also demands a huge workload. On the full-backs, who are given the sole responsibility for an entire wing of the pitch; on the box-to-box players, who have to make a huge effort in both defence and attack; and finally, on the deep-lying playmaker. In this system, the deepest midfielder is the start point of the attacks, but often also has to act as the last line of defence – an auxiliary third centre-back. Once more, we can look at Liverpool (for the last time, I promise) and Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip to see how costly a mistake in this position can be.
The diamond formation is almost definitely an upgrade on its traditional cousin. Although a classic 4-4-2 can offer defensive merits (a Hodgson-esque “two banks of four” springs to mind) or attacking play, such as with City under Pellegrini, it is rarely successful at providing both. The diamond, however, retains all of the attacking benefits of two strikers and two box-to-box midfielders, in addition to the further boost of a deep-lying playmaker. Perhaps most crucially, this formation avoids the pitfalls of being outnumbered in central midfield. There is no doubt that there are frailties to the system; it requires an astonishing level of fitness in a number of different positions and can be vulnerable when used in a cavalier manner, but overall it is an exciting and flexible formation which we are sure to see more of in the future.