In Praise Of 4-4-2
written by Johnny Peters
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Johan Cruyff famously put the boot into the 4-4-2 formation when he said that teams should pass in triangles and not a straight line. His thinking was infectious, and since tactical trends tend to propagate downwards from successful clubs (see everyone’s Barca-induced obsession with possession-based football at the moment), the 4-2-3-1 of Mourinho and Heynckes and European football in general has overtaken it as the default.
These days, you’re more likely to hear the term 4-4-2 in a joke, perhaps alongside jumpers for goalposts, ‘getting stuck in’, or giving it to the big man. It has become synonymous with the long-ball, tactical shallowness, and an emphasis on physicality.
Cruyff was right – to a certain extent – but he spoke from the perspective of Barcelona, of Holland, and of his own Ajax team. All teams with exceptional players, teams which tend to have most of the possession, teams whose greatest problems are maximising the already-advantageous abilities of their superstar squads. If you have half a dozen of the world’s best forwards, and you expect to hammer teams week in, week out, then there are better options than 4-4-2.
In FM, 4-4-2 looks static because it is only a basis for a variety of movement. Instead of passes moving between slow players, the essence of the 4-4-2 are players moving constantly and intelligently around the ball. Think of Arsenal’s Invincibles. It is supposed to be a fluid formation, allowing players to roam.
There is no room for a singularly-focused ‘destroyer’ Makelele type in the midfield duo; it would make the team static in the middle of the pitch. Likewise, an overly attack-minded playmaker would leave the middle of the pitch uncontested. There is a balance to be struck here – not only with player selection, but with the players themselves.
Ferguson, one of the last, and greatest, promoters of 4-4-2 in the modern game said himself: ‘I don’t think we’ve had a holding player since I’ve been here. We’ve never had a holding player. We tried to get Roy Keane to do that but he just couldn’t do it. He had to play a way that was his own way of playing, so I’ve not had it for 25 years. Why should I think about it now?’
Similarly, it’s a common misconception that playing your speedy, dribbling wide player alongside central midfielders somehow blunts their potency by pulling them too far away from goal. The temptation being to place players whom you expect to score goals close to the goal, of course, but in doing so, you reduce the space into which that player can run into and make him a lot easier to mark.
Even the poster boy for the exciting wing forward Ronaldo, began his goal-ridden career as a winger under Ferguson’s 4-4-2. Actually look at the play of players like Ronaldo, Robben, and Hazard (at Lille) and you find that much of their success comes with mazy, pacy runs from deep out on the flanks. Contrast that with the 4-2-3-1 wing-forward, who must play with his back to goal predominantly and cannot use pace or skill to initiate attacks from the middle of the pitch.
Arguably the greatest loss since the demise of the 4-4-2 is the striking duo, however. (I’m including in that the two in a 4-4-1-1, as this is often how 4-4-2 translated on the pitch.) History is replete with variations on the ‘two up front’, the craft and pace of Henry and Bergkamp, the combative power of Sutton and Shearer, the intuitive trickery of Romario and Ronaldo, the telepathic Yorke and Cole, the list goes on and on. There is a clarity of purpose to having two strikers – scoring goals, and helping your co-striker score goals. Rarely did you see the kind of isolated, frustrated forwards in a 4-4-2 that has now become a common occurrence with single-striker formations (see the recent form of Torres, Giroud, Jelavic, Soldado, Cisse).
It’s a coincidental shame that the 4-4-2 was popular at the same time as English, and indeed many other, leagues went through a period of ugly, physical football, becoming culturally linked in an unfair and untrue way.
It is ironic that the 4-2-3-1 along with a fluid style has become the default for many FM players when it clearly separates attacking players from defensive, and even pre-ordains the pattern of play for them. 4-4-2 demanded a lot from each player, but also allowed them to fully express themselves. It did not limit them to specific tasks, taking away all other responsibilities in an overly controlled manner.
As the 4-4-2 using Arrigo Sacchi summed up perfectly: ‘Today’s football is about managing the characteristics of individuals and that’s why you see the proliferation of specialists, the individual has trumped the collective. But it’s a sign of weakness. It’s reactive, not pro-active.’