The 4-4-2 Formation

The 4-4-2 formation might have become out of fashion in the modern game. However, in my opinion, I think it is one of the most under rated formations.

These days managers and back room staff seem to work for hours and hours every week  in order to crack the best system which suits their team and to exploit weaknesses in their oppositions plans and to help them earn the victories in games.

Recently it has been common for 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 each manager wants to over load and control the midfield area with the 5 in midfield.
Despite this, the  4-4-2 formation is still used by a number of teams.
Examples of teams who execute this formation perfectly are current Premier League champions Leicester City and Championship winners Burnley. I have also seen Atletico Madrid use it to great effect.

Leicester City were crowned Premier League champions in 2016 after playing a 4-4-2 formation. (Credit Daily Mail)

The 4-4-2 formation was the original tactic used by pretty much every team in the 90’s as it is simple to understand, 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.

It provides a lot of stability for the defence as their is still 4 defenders at the back and provides the team with a lot of width in midfield. It is also an effective way as it you play with 2 strikers.

Here is a brief summary of what each player brings to this formation:

The 4-4-2 formation and it’s positions. (Credit BBC)

Centre Backs:
These two players are the spine of the defence. The centre backs main job is to prevent any goals from being conceded and to see off any attacks from the opposition.
This position requires a lot of heading, tackling, communication to other players and anticipation of danger.
This position doesn’t necessarily give defenders a lot of protection as there isn’t a defensive midfielder in front of them but this is why it is crucial for them to pass on quality information to their team mates.
In possession of the ball, the centre backs job is to distribute the ball quickly with quality to midfielders and play  forward passes to the strikers and wingers.

Full Backs:
The full back’s responsibility in this formation is to be solid defensively and support the play when attacking.
They are required to help out the central defenders when out of possession by preventing goals being conceded and they are expected to provide width and space in attack by getting forward and causing problems for the opposition.
In attacking positions, full backs also need to be able to cross the ball with quality to create chances for the strikers to score.
Because this system has a winger in front of them, it is important that the full back doesn’t kill the wingers space so in attacking play they tend to back up play if the winger can’t get past their defender while dribbling with the ball.
In defence, full backs aim to defend rigidly against their opponent (the opposition winger) with help from the wingers in-front of them.

Centre Midfielders:
The central midfielders are the engine of the team, in a 4-4-2 formation the central midfielders need to be covering a lot of distance as they are required to attack and defend.
The reason why Leicester City were so successful in this area last season was because their central midfield pairing N’golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater were brilliant in supporting attack and helping out the defenders when they were out of possession with the ball.

Central midfielders are responsible for transporting to ball from defence to attack, they tend to be the players who get the most touches of the ball in games. In some cases, one central midfielder tends to hang back in a more defensive position 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 central midfielders need have to be strong tacklers and great passers of the ball.

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri with central midfielders N’golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater. (Credit AP)

Wingers are considered as an attacking player and their main responsibility is to provide goals and goalscoring opportunities for their team mates.
The ‘traditional winger’ tends to stay out wide and attempts to beat their defender at every opportunity with a shot at goal or a cross.
However, wingers in today’s game like to mix their game up so they vary their positioning by staying wide and moving in-field to create problems for the opposition.

Like central midfielders, this position requires a lot of running as a winger is expected to help the full-back behind them while defending. They also need to help the central midfielders, they can not afford to have a wide starting position as this leaves space in the middle of the pitch for opposing attacking players to exploit. While attacking, they are required to be a threat on the counter attack with quick, direct running. As well as chipping in with goals, crossing is a fundamental part of their game, they need to be able to deliver quality crosses into the box for strikers to try and score.

Burnley were so successful last season in the Championship as they had wingers who were willing to work very hard for the team. George Boyd and Scott Arfield were always on hand to help full backs Matthew Lowton and Stephen Ward when out of possession but whenever they got the ball they always attacked with great pace and stamina in order to try create or score a goal.

Burnley are another top flight club who have had success with the 4-4-2 formation. (Credit Chris Brunskill)

These players are expected to bring goals to the team and cause problems for the opposition defenders.
The benefit of the 4-4-2 formation is that it allows 2 strikers to play up front to link-up with each other. Sometimes when a striker plays up-front on their own it often leaves them exposed as they don’t have team-mates who stay close to them and support them in possession. Out of possession, strikers are required to work hard and press defenders in order for them to force a mistake. They are the first line of defence

Normally in a 4-4-2 the strikers work with each other. One striker stretches the opposition defence by making runs in behind while the other lays off just behind him. There are many examples of a pairing that works well in this system.

Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki have a great understanding in this position. Vardy stretches defences with his electric pace in behind which allows space for Okazaki to play in a deeper role to get on the ball and dictate the tempo of the game.

Burnley’s Andre Gray and Sam Vokes are another pairing who compliment each other’s game very well in this system.
Like Vardy, Gray stretches the opposition defence with his pace in behind and this leaves Vokes to drop deeper to get the ball, turn, and attack the opposition defence.

The Benefits and Downsides of 4-4-2

The system provides a perfect and simple shape for the team using it, whether this be defensive or attacking. The team is balanced as it is the easiest formation to understand as the majority of footballers were brought up playing this way.
However, with the team being so rigid, there is less room for players to roam from their position. In this formation it is essential that the midfield are athletic as they are required to cover a lot of ground to help in defence and attack.

Some formations make the pitch too congested in the middle, but the 4-4-2 formation gives a different option. It gives the team an outlet of width which is good for the strikers as the full backs and wingers can cross the balls in areas for the strikers to have chances on goal. It also allows the team to play with two strikers so they can link up and create chances for each other.


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