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Football News: Tactics: Part 1 - The 4-4-2

Tactics: Part 1 - The 4-4-2
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Tactics - Part 1 - 4-4-2


I thought I would start off this first episode in a new series on tactics discussing the formation that the legendary tactical genius Mike Bassett used, the 4-4-2. It has become associated with inflexible British-style longball football, but it does not have to be used that way. It can be a very flexible system in the right hands. Managers as diverse as Arrigo Sacchi, Arsene Wenger, Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche have relied upon a variant of it at times in their career.

Sean Dyche, for example, uses a very simple and basic variant of 4-4-2. In fact it is very close to the British longball style of football that has given the formation a bad name in the past. His team sits deep and defends with two banks of four and looks to hits the target men with an early ball, hopefully something they can control and then lay off to midfielders arriving in support, but often it is just aerial balls for them to contest and hope to pick up bits and pieces.

Dyche wants his wide men to hit the byline and cross the ball to create chances and works especially hard on setpiece situations to create goalscoring opportunities. It does have weaknesses, not just in being lacking aesthetically. It can get overrun in midfield, which means he accepts that the opposition will have most of the possession.

However, what do you do if you do not want to accept that your midfield will be overrun and want to be the team who controls possession as much as possible? You could try the variation employed by Arsene Wenger in his early days at Arsenal, which was very much a 4-4-2 when on the ball but off it, then it was different, almost a 4-3-3.

The left winger, usually Marc Overmars in my recollection, would hold his position further forward, to provide an out ball. One striker would withdraw deep to find space between the opponent's defence and midfield, while the other would stay on the shoulder of the last defender to stop them pushing up too high. The key to the system was the way the other three midfielders worked.

It was utilised to take advantage of Ray Parlour's workrate and ability to get wide and deliver when Arsenal had possession. When they lost it Parlour would move more central, moving inside to create a central three with Vieira and himself either side of Petit. With both Vieira and Parlour having good mobility and work ethic, they were able to cover the full-backs and avoid being outnumbered in midfield.

It was heavily reliant on Parlour's workrate, his willingness to track back and get forward, like a modern day full-back. It was mainly because he had Parlour available to him that Wenger chose to play this way. Without him it would not have been as effective. With the emergence of the modern-day flying wing-back, there would be no need for him to cover the wide areas on the ball, as the full-back would provide the width.

An early variation of the system was to withdraw one forward when your team lost the ball, which was the way Liverpool operated when Bob Paisley first took charge, amongst a number of systems. For all people think that in those days British teams used to be inflexible 4-4-2 only, Paisley would use a mix of formations in order to attain his success, from 4-4-2 to what is seen as a modern-day formation, the 4-3-3, and everything in between.

The arrival of Kenny Dalglish allowed the team to swap easily between 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1 and 4-5-1, as Dalglish could easily drop off and play the deep-lying striker role or even into midfield if it was being overrun. While pretty much everyone else was playing a big man/little man duo up front in England, Liverpool changed it.

There was no quick launch forwards for the big man to knock down to his partner. It was played through the midfield and to Dalglish to create something for a penalty box predator. Due to its success, deep-lying forwards soon became very much in vogue. It worked well going forward, the predator would make forward runs, they would force the defence to drop off and that would leave space between the midfield and defence for the deep lying forward to operate in.

It is understandable why it is still used even today. As you can see from those few examples above, the 4-4-2 can be very flexible and adaptable. The set up provides good width and balance, as well as being probably the most suitable formation for a deep-lying defend at all costs team. The two banks of four create a very solid and compact protection for the goalkeeper, it is easy for players to understand and extremely difficult to break down.

Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid are the prime example of a deep-lying defensive system utilising the 4-4-2 to great effect. They keep their defence within the width of the penalty box as much as possible, giving up the wide areas of the pitch in order to protect the centre. They are comfortable in their ability to deal with anything which gets played into the box and so they are happy to allow opponents time and space on the wings to deliver crosses.

If they are really struggling, then one or even both forwards can drop deeper to help out, but that then leaves the team lacking an out ball, so they try not to do that. The problem with that system is that it is more about not losing, rather than winning. It is easier to play not to lose, but, in this era of 3 points for a win, it often leads to 2 points being dropped. That makes it difficult to win leagues and lends itself to cups and midtable football, rather than league winners.

The main reason it has gone out of fashion in the modern era is because of the emphasis on possession, with a 4-3-3/4-5-1 being able to outnumber a 4-4-2 centrally, it is much more suited to keeping hold of the ball. While a 4-4-2 can be tweaked to counter it, if your intent is to keep possession, it is much easier to just start with the extra man in there as a basic set up. It can still be a very useful formation and it is likely that it will never truly vanish due to the balance it provides across the pitch when defending.

Written by Tris Burke July 15 2020 10:29:14


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