Ranieri kisses the PL trophy after guiding Leicester to glory with the 4-4-2 formation

Introduction

The 4-4-2 formation is a true classic that has seen a decline in use since the turn of the last decade. It is perhaps most synonymous with traditional English football – physically demanding, fast-paced and stretched out with wide midfielders and full-backs.  

History 

It is difficult to pinpoint the birth of a football formation, but the 4-4-2 system was arguably first tinkered with in the early 1960’s, gaining widespread acceptance by the end of that decade. In response to the very offensive 4-2-4 formation widely employed in the 50’s and early 60’s, Sir Alfred Ramsey began experimenting with a 4-4-2 in his days as Ipswich Town manager in order to reinforce his midfield. 

International teams such as Brazil and Hungary, who were the epitome of high-quality international football at the time, also tested out the 4-4-2 formation in the mid 1960’s. England went on to secure their first and only World Cup trophy under Sir Alfred Ramsey’s in 1966, with Celtic becoming the first non-Latin team to win the European Cup for Club Champions in 1967, both used the 4-4-2 system.

These immense victories for football on the British Isles silenced the many critics that the 4-4-2 formation had attracted (such as Joe Mercer, former Man City coach), following a switch from the more attacking 4-2-4. It further gained popularity worldwide, most notably with Ajax utilising a version of 4-4-2 during their ‘total football’ era in the 1970’s. 

The 4-4-2 formation went on to be used for decades. In fact, it was so prominent in the 1990s and early 2000s that it inspired the name of the world-famous magazine ‘FourFourTwo’.

Teams that were known for this system at the time include Arrigo Saachi’s AC Milan and Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.

Modern Proponents

Although the 4-4-2 formation has been steadily declining in use, there are examples of more modern uses of the system – Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid (2011 – present), Claudio Ranieri’s title-winning Leicester (2015-2017), and Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid (2013-2015) in some phases of play.

Simeone’s Atletico Madrid

Diego Simeone won the Europa League title in his first season at Atletico, having only taken over in December, and went on to win a La Liga title, Copa Del Rey, the Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA Super Cup as well as finishing runners up in the Champions League, twice. Given this, Simeone’s Atletico are the best and most enduring modern example of the efficacy of the 4-4-2 system. Simeone’s Atleti sides are known for being well-organised, defensive and incredibly hard working, always attempting to minimise risk and close spaces with their movement. Like Saachi’s AC Milan, Simeone’s men are always looking to create two banks of four and are vertically compact and narrow. These two elements allow his team to create both a congested midfield and overloads out wide. For more compactness, the two central midfielders and two forwards would pull back, allowing the opposition defence some space. It is in this way that Atletico can dictate play by only allowing the opposition into areas that cannot hurt them. This is just one of many ways that Simeone’s team look to minimise risk.

When attacking, Atletico tend to focus on using the wide spaces, with an average of 30% of attacks coming from the centre across El Cholo’s time at Atletico. Simeone requires intelligent passing from his players in order to maximise the efficiency of their attacks as well as to eliminate risk, a theme that runs prevalent in his interpretation of the 4-4-2 system (often referred to as ‘Cholismo’).

Ranieri’s Leicester

Ranieri employed the 4-4-2 formation from the beginning of his spell at Leicester, offering him balance with the limited squad he had at his disposal. Much like Simeone’s team, the tactics were based on organisation, hard work and counter attacking at pace. Leicester’s defensive shape consisted of two deep-lying and compact banks of four. This was partly due to the lack of speed between the centre back pairing of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, but mainly because of the formation’s effective use of space in blocking the opposition from passing or dribbling in between the lines – especially against opponents who were of high technical quality. This was heavily aided by then relatively unknown N’golo Kante. 

The 4-4-2 formation requires exactly what the partnership between Kante and Drinkwater encapsulated – two indefatigable central midfielders who are capable of defensive and offensive work, as well as being adept at pressing. When attacking, Leicester’s wingers (Marc Albrighton and Riyad Mahrez) were encouraged to attack at pace in order to create overloads on the wings with Jamie Vardy, enabling the free winger to be 1v1 if he receives the ball. When defending, Leicester would utilise the compact lines to block out the opposition, with one forward (Shinji Okazaki) tracking back to help create numerical advantages in midfield. Vardy would sit in between the opposition centre-backs waiting to run in the channels if his team recover the ball and do what he does best.

Ancelotti’s Real Madrid 

Ancelotti, although having extremely successful periods with teams, is not known for one way of playing. He is more of a reactionary manager that experiments until he finds the right balance in a system. He bases his system around the players at his disposal. 

Upon his arrival, Real were having troubles defensively before Ancelotti implemented a hybrid formation – 4-3-3 in the attacking phase and 4-4-2 in the defensive phase. The 4-3-3 was the formation of choice before Ancelotti’s arrival, however, Xavi Alonso was often outnumbered in midfield playing as a lone pivot. Ancelotti solved this by reverting to a compact 4-4-2 while in defence. He was a player in Saachi’s dominant AC Milan team and was therefore was well-versed in the functioning of this system.

Real were gaining serious momentum with the new system, going on to win the Champions League – Real Madrid’s long awaited ‘La Decima’. After beating Bayern Munich in the semi-finals, Ancelotti stated that “4-4-2 allows us to protect ourselves between the lines, without giving up key spaces, and that’s what we accomplished tonight”. 

Although Real were not using the 4-4-2 system in all situations, this highlights the effectiveness of such a system, even in today’s fast-paced and highly tactical world of football. 

Tactical Overview

The 4-4-2 formation comprises of two banks of four players behind a strike partnership and is most commonly used in order to achieve defensive compactness. It is also renowned as one of the most easily understandable formation and can help establish stability and organisation in any floundering team. It is an excellent foundation for playing counter-attacking football and when a team wants to create numerical advantages in all areas of the pitch when pressing. 

Arsene Wenger claims that the 4-4-2 system is the best suited to the dimensions of a football pitch. This is because you will have the six central players (two CB’s, two CM’s, and two ST’s) covering 60% of the pitch, with the four wide players covering 40% of the pitch (10% each – most efficient distribution). This is perhaps why the system endured through several decades and is still utilised today, although more sparingly.

Strengths

Joe Mercer referred to it as “cruelty to centre forwards” switching from 4-2-4 to 4-4-2 when Sir Alfred Ramsey employed it prior to winning the 1966 World Cup. This interestingly highlights the attacking instincts of football at the time, but the move was nonetheless wise, in terms of tactics. 

As mentioned, it’s extremely useful for compactness and good organisation – something that weaker teams, although not exclusively, employ when attempting to get results against more favourable opposition. The formation has an inherent symmetry that allows players to know where their teammates are at all times, and it enables the creation of numerical superiority in all areas of the pitch. Numerical superiority is key for effective pressing and it allows teams that employ it to therefore press up high. 

It is best utilised against teams that like to commit players forward, being able to counter-attack with numbers and speed when the ball is recovered. Having a strike partnership allows for direct and fast build-up play because the midfielders are not required to join all attacks. Formation that has one striker would need to slowly build up for the striker to have ample support and have someone to play off.

Lastly, when employing a wide formation such as the 4-4-2, teams can stretch out the opposition defence in order to penetrate between the lines. The wingers would force the opposition full backs to cover them, allowing for the striker duo to take advantage of the space and creating 1v1 situations which are favourable for strikers.

As a testament to these strengths, it must be mentioned that many successful teams switch to 4-4-2 in defence (Ancelotti’s Real Madrid above) because of its efficient use of space and ability to close the space between rows of players. Further, it helped Leicester win the Premier League, despite the fact they were 5000/1 at the start of that season. 

Weaknesses

Rigidity and predictability are good in terms of knowing where your teammates are and where their runs will be. But it is also a drawback as it can stifle creativity and make an attack predictable. It goes without saying that a coach can choose to be creative with the 4-4-2 system but then it loses the advantages it has – compactness, predictability and efficient placement across the pitch. 

Additionally, this system demands a lot from the players, particularly the central midfielders – they must be part of the attack and defence. Demanding more from your team can cultivate team spirit but it leaves teams at risk of fatigue, which poses the additional challenges of injuries.

Today, many teams play with three players in midfield, which serves to outnumber the two that 4-4-2 offers. A forward can be required to drop back into midfield, but the great counter-attacking advantage that 4-4-2 offers is then neutralised. Therefore, like all formations, this requires flexibility according to the situation and circumstances. 

The 4-4-2 makes efficient use of space, which leads to minimum risk. However, this implies that it will have consequences in terms of ceding possession and looking to play on the counterattack. It must be noted that this is not entirely the case, with Ancelotti’s Real Madrid using this formation, albeit while defending, in a Champions League winning season. In general, however, this formation is associated with a cautious and more defensive approach and it therefore requires having quality forwards who can finish off what little opportunities come their way.

Johan Cruyff said that having three straight lines of players is not conducive of creating passing triangles – and a triangle always beats a line (see 4-2-3-1, which consists of interlocking triangles). The 4-4-2 system also does not allow for the use of creative midfielders (usually a no.10) as they are not often defensively capable and are more useful in the attacking third for link-up play. This is possibly the reason Ancelotti used it solely for defensive purposes. 

4-4-2 has gone from being used by 57% of the teams in the Premier League in the 2007/08 season to only 8% from 2011 to 2014. It was mostly superseded by the 4-2-3-1 formation, with Germany (using 4-2-3-1) beating England (using 4-4-2) 4-1 in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa being almost symbolic of this power shift.  

Summary

Overall, the 4-4-2 system seems to be out of favour, but it still utilised when organisation is needed or when the underdog is still trying to play head-to-head with bigger teams (i.e., Leicester). Some even go to say that it is the death of traditional wingers that led to a decline in the formation, with inside forwards such as Messi, Ronaldo, Hazard, and Salah replacing them. However, if a team possesses high quality forwards and a fit, hard-working team, it can be a challenge for any system.

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