Anyone growing up in the 1980’s and the 1990’s would easily tell you that the 4-4-2 is the simplest formation to work with. It was in fact the most popular formation from the late 80s to the early 2000’s, but soon began to fade with more emphasis being laid on possession football.
With more managers preferring to use the 4-2-3-1 or the 4-3-3 by 2010, 4-4-2 was a dying formation. And when Joachim L w’s Germany, with the 4-2-3-1 formation thrashed the 4-4-2 of England by a margin of 4-1, the latter formation was thought to be inefficient.
But just like moustaches (one can never be sure whether it’s out of fashion or otherwise), the 4-4-2 seems to be experiencing a revival of sorts this season.
While the widely used 4-2-3-1 gives midfield supremacy, the 4-4-2 gives teams the dynamism and width on the pitch, which the likes of Claudio Ranieri and Quique Sanchez Flores have used extensively to the advantage of their teams this season.
Teams leading the 4-4-2 revolution
The formation seemed to have died its natural death by the end of the last decade, being outnumbered in midfield, but the dynamism used by Leicester City and Watford seems to have brought the 4-4-2 back to life.
It must first be said however that the formation started having that tiny hope of revival when Diego Simeone led Atletico Madrid to the 2013/14 La Liga title, at the expense of the more fancied FC Barcelona and Real Madrid sides. While both the Spanish giants concentrated on their midfield, Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side was more intent on using the full width of the pitch, with the likes of Raul Garcia and Koke out wide, and Diego Costa and David Villa up front.
Bringing about such a change in the Premier League is a much tougher aspect though, as not only do the teams have to think about the tactics, but they also have to keep up with the pace of the game. This is where both Ranieri and Sanchez Flores have been clever.
Pace on the counter
While the 4-2-3-1 gives much more importance to possession and build-up play, the 4-4-2 allowed the teams to sit back and hit their oppositions with great pace. Having just one striker while playing on the counter could be akin to leaving things up to chance. However, having two strikers increases the frequency of the number of counter attacks, as, instead of just holding the ball up, a forward can immediately pass it on to his partner.
With players like Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Marc Albrighton (Leicester City), and Odiao Ighalo, Troy Deeney, Jose Jurado (Watford), both the sides have enough pace to burn, and now find themselves high upon the table.
With the English game depending on the high tempo of a match, these teams turbo-charge themselves whenever they get the ball and hit on the counter. A classic example of this is Jamie Vardy’s 24th minute goal against Manchester United last month. Notice in the video below, how Vardy is standing at the edge of his own penalty area while defending a corner.
However, he just takes off, the moment Kasper Schmeichel gets hold of the ball and is on the edge of United’s penalty area in no time, to latch onto the through ball by Christian Fuchs.
The strike partners
This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 4-4-2 formation. Simeone had two great forwards in the form of David Villa and Diego Costa in 2013/14, but both Ranieri and Sanchez Flores have had to work with humbler outfits.
However, they have managed theirs side extremely well to get the strike partners to gel with each other. At Leicester the strike force is all about Vardy, complemented by either Leonardo Ulloa or Shinji Okazaki, while at Watford it is the partnership of Ighalo and Deeney that does all the magic.
A huge part of a strike partnership is bullying the opposition centrebacks. Watford’s second goal against Norwich scored by Ighalo on the 90th minute is a perfect example of how he and Deeney have been bullying defenders all season long.
It is not just in attack that they can bully the defenders. Centerbacks are not often the fastest of players on the pitch and when they have the ball, they often find it quite easy to pass the ball around against a single striker. However, with two men pressing from up front, the game becomes much tougher for the defenders.
This is exactly how Leicester City trumped Chelsea FC earlier this month, with the two Leicester strikers pressing the Chelsea FC centrebacks, the wingers pressing the fullbacks, and the midfielders pressin the two pivots. This is clearly illustrated in the diagram below.
This kind of a pressing game left the baffled Chelsea FC defenders and defensive midfielders with no space whatsoever, and although the Blues had 66 per cent possession of the ball, they merely managed to pass it sideways, managing to get just four shots on target in the entire match. Leicester on the other hand, got five shots on target, with just 33 per cent possession.
The fact of the matter is that the two strikers are now getting the better of the four-man defence because, they can directly go one-on-one with the two central defenders, and either bully them with strength or beat them with pace and both of these attributes, as we have heard many times, are essential to the English game.
How to beat the 4-4-2?
The obvious advantage that the 4-2-3-1 has over the 4-4-2 is that the former outnumbers the latter in the middle of the park 3/2.
However, when teams play the 4-2-3-1, they tend to use more attacking fullbacks, who bomb down the wings, help their team going forward. This has especially helped the inverted wingers, who like to cut inside and shoot.
The likes of Ranieri and Sanchez Flores take advantage of exactly this aspect to outnumber their opposition defence from the flanks going forward. In normal circumstances, it would be 4 vs. 4, with the strikers and the wingers squaring off against the back four. However, with the opposition fullbacks bombing forward, the likes of Leicester City and Watford outnumber the defence from the wings, allowing their strikers to bully the centrebacks.
To tackle such a problem, the defenders need to go back to the basics — good old fashioned defending. Having a pair of fullbacks with old fashioned values for defending could greatly help in such scenarios, as the modern 4-4-2 generally looks to break on the counter.
Once their wing-play is negated, it should not be very hard to contain such sides, as they are already outnumbered in the midfield, against both the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 formations.