4-4-2 – A thing of the past?


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The 4-4-2 formation – a British tradition to rival the Beatles, Shakespeare, backing the underdog and hating the French. Two solid banks of four spearheaded by the big man/little man combination up front. It has been the default system for teams from these isles for some 40 years championed by fans, pundits and Mike Bassett alike. But following England’s embarrassing performance at this summer’s World Cup, doubts have arisen over the future of this beloved formation, and whether it is now as unfashionable as Cliff Richard.

It was Total Football’s Johan Cruyff who led the critics, labelling the system as too rigid – a salient point considering the way Messrs Ozil, Mueller, and Podolski danced through England’s midfield. One of the key features of some of the great 4-4-2 sides, for example Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, was the ability to press the opposition, as a team. The liberalisation of the offside law has gone some way to negating this, although Fulham managed this in last season’s Europa League. While Uruguay’s success in South Africa shows how 4-4-2 does have a future, but not if you look at the top European teams.

Indeed the most popular formation today is 4-5-1 or at least a variation of it. It has long been considered a boring tactic in this country – the antithesis of the Brazilian (and Keegan) style of “you score 3 and we’ll score 4”. The need for a holding player in the Makélelé role that emerged at the turn of the century changed this. But who would call Spain or Barcelona boring? Both teams place strong emphasis on attack. Spain utilised Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila as attacking full-backs, key to starting intricate side attacks. Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, a ball winner and deep-lying playmaker, as holding midfielders, with the metronome Xavi stationed just in front. Andres Iniesta and Pedro offered offensive width, behind the lethal David Villa. This is a team aesthetically pleasing on the eye, not only monopolising possession and entertaining, but winning.

The pressure to win and fear of failure has seen other managers use this system, seeing it as more pragmatic. But even Jose Mourinho, the most pragmatic of the lot, won the Champions League with Inter Milan playing 4-2-1-3; led by Diego Milito, supported out wide by Goran Pandev and Samuel Eto’o, and supplied from deep by Wesley Sneijder and Dejan Stankovic, yet still called anti-football.

So does this mean England are lagging behind or just tactically naive? Given the trophy cabinet of Fabio Capello this is unlikely, although English football does suffer from tactical inflexibility. Capello was lambasted for using Steven Gerrard as a left-midfielder with license to cut inside. His Anfield teammate Dirk Kuyt, has been transformed into a hybrid wide midfielder/defensive forward, despite arriving on Merseyside with a reputation as a prolific goal scorer, yet starred for Holland on their way to the final in his new role.

So ultimately isn’t winning football matches about the quality of your players and not tactics? As Brian Clough said: “Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.”

Sub-standard goalkeepers, Glen Johnson’s lack of defensive nous, the absence of an international class partner for John Terry, an immobile midfield unit, a collective inability to retain possession, Wayne Rooney’s lack of form, Emile Heskey’s inclusion…these squad failings seem more pertinent than how the ‘Golden Generation’ were set-up, and the use of 4-4-2.

James Riley