The 4-4-2 is out of fashion, or is it? It is no secret that coaches in recent years have opted for variations of the 4-3-3, and the 3-4-3. Perhaps this is due to the versatility that those systems afford. However, tactics are always evolving, the success of a system depends on many factors. One could argue that the quality of players, the precision of movement and timing, as well as effective exploitation of space are some of the factors that determine how effective a system is. It is therefore not about the system, but about how the system is deployed. The 4-4-2 is no different. While it is not as commonly used as it once was, there are teams in 2020 that have used the system to varying degrees of success. This tactical theory does not give a general overview of the 4-4-2, as that will not allow us the luxury to give a detailed analysis of the system. Instead, I’ve opted to analyze specific situations that may arise in a football game, and how the 4-4-2 has been deployed by teams this season.
In this tactical analysis, we breakdown some situation-specific ways that the 4-4-2 is being used in modern football.
The Pendulum swing: (Case study, Atlético Madrid)
As a shape, the 4-4-2 features two banks of four, protecting the whole width of the pitch, from midfield to defence. However, this major strength of the 4-4-2 also happens to also be a key weakness.
Through the flank, It is very difficult to attack against a 4-4-2. This is because the wingers in the shape are usually in close proximity to their full-backs. Any opposition winger looking to penetrate would have to find a way to come out on top of a two versus one situation. For example, a winger who attacks Atlético Madrid must get past Thomas Lemar, and Renan Lodi, no easy task. However, the threat of an overlapping full-back like Trent Alexander-Arnold supposedly balances the odds by forming a two versus two. Except, it doesn’t. Lemar and Lodi know that there will never be a two versus two, simply because Saúl Ñíguez would drift in from the centre and support their defensive efforts.
Fig one is a more extreme case, with the opposing fullback more conservative. Still, The chances of Vinícius Junior getting past Lemar and Lodi in this instance are very slim. Should Carvajal choose to overlap, Saúl is already coming towards the action, and that would create a three versus two situation. When the ball goes to the left flank or the right flank, Atlético’s midfield adjusts its positioning accordingly.
As seen in fig 2, the three-man press is executed by João Félix, Kieran Trippier and Koke is similar to the partnership of Lemar, Lodi, and Saúl. The three Atlético men have formed an overload on that side of the pitch, reducing the space for Real Madrid’s explosive wingers to exploit. However, there is something else to observe here.
Saúl and Lemar have not held their original position, instead, they have moved closer to the action. Whilst Koke, Trippier and Félix are busy with Real Madrid’s wingers, the fact is that Real Madrid still has a potent midfield. Koke has left his position in the middle of the park to provide support, which creates space in that zone. But Saúl has moved into the position previously occupied by Koke, and Lemar has moved into Saúl’s position. It is worthy to note that the position of Saul’s head suggests that he is there to provide cover. This has been potent this season as they average 27.43 interceptions per game. Koke may be closer to the wing in this situation, but Saul and Lemar will hold the centre, ready to intervene when needed. This is in line with the Total Football philosophy where any outfield player can take the role of every outfield player in the team. This movement also creates a block around Atletico’s midfield.
The two strikers, Álvaro Morata and Diego Costa are not just lurking around. Their presence in this mid-block creates a shape around the midfield. What we observe here is that with the exception of the centre-backs, every single Atlético player is involved in the attempt at recovering the ball, and they’re all in close proximity with one another. No doubt this has paid its dividends. Atlético averages 69.8 defensive duels per game and wins up to 59% of those. These figures have given them the second-best defensive record – conceding just 21 goals – in the league, just behind Real Madrid. To show theses tactics in action, let’s add one more illustration, but this time from the other wing.
Let’s summarise this shape. Wingers and fullbacks in the 4-4-2 system are usually close to each other when the team is out of possession. Against one winger, this creates a two versus one. But if the opposing fullback decides to overload, then the odds become balanced, as it’s a two versus two. This is where one of the near-by midfielders come in, close to the action and effectively putting the odds back in the favour of the team with the 4-4-2. True to total football principles, the second box to box midfielder has to fill the space vacated by his partner. While the winger on the inactive area of the pitch moves into the middle to fill the space left by the box to box midfielder. These series of movements take place depending on the flank that the team is defending. And when the team defends the middle, both wingers simply tuck into the centre.
This is effective, but also quite dangerous. First, box to box midfielders have to keep shuttling left and right. This kind of constant movement can only be sustained with a lot of stamina. Even Lemar and Felix have to work very hard as well. When players move around a lot, they get tired and may even lose focus.
Furthermore, this is a reactive, rather than a proactive style of play. I’m not suggesting that reactive tactics are bad, it’s just that this kind of play requires players to adjust the positioning and movement according to the opposition. The danger in this is that the opposition can stretch them too wide, or force them to become too narrow. This can create spaces in dangerous areas of the pitch, that can be used to punish a team using the 4-4-2. The Pendulum swings to the right, to the centre, and to the left. This means that teams that use the 4-4-2 in this way have to sacrifice space in some areas of the pitch, in order to overload some others.
Numerical advantage in keeping possession:
If the 4-4-2 can provide defensive solidarity, it also offers ball playing teams the numerical superiority to pass the ball around and retain possession. The build-up phase is a good example of this. Since a 4-4-2 always features a double pivot, the full-backs can push up a bit and be on the same line as the double pivot. This gives both centre-backs two passing options each. For Olympiakos, if Ousseynou Ba, right centre-back has the ball, he has his full-back, Lazar Ranđelović, and the box to box midfielder, Mady Camara as passing options. Likewise, the left centre-back Pape Cissé has full-back Bruno Gasper, and box to box midfielder Andreas Bouchalakis as passing options.
This effectively creates two groups of three men on both sides of the pitch. If a team hopes to play from the back, short passes would be more easily exchanged, because there would be enough men to commit to the cause. Ball playing teams need to have the confidence that comes with numerical superiority. This is especially important in this phase because teammates can reduce the opponent’s pressure of the player in possession, thereby ensuring ball retention. Furthermore, this support is crucial because it is often what determines that the sequence of play continues, and advances into positions where the team can really threaten the opposition. This can serve as a form of psychological support for the player in possession. He would have more confidence when he knows that his comrades are always around him.
As illustrated above, the team has managed to keep possession and advance with the ball. If a team’s game plan is not ‘play it long and hope the striker reaches the ball’, then the team is in a much better position to create a goal. But first, this situation offers no obvious opportunity to create a goal. Therefore, the priority should be to keep the ball. In this more advanced position. The full-back holds possession, but now he has the box to box midfielder and the winger providing offensive coverage. Higher up the pitch, the forward is making his way towards the three men, making himself available for a pass that could get the ball in an even more advanced position. The exciting thing about this style of play is the organic manner in which the team proceeds to do their business. Note that in both situations that we’ve considered, the team in possession maintains their superiority in numbers. This gives them a better chance to play combination passes, and cut through the opposition like a hot knife cuts through pudding!
We earlier discussed the confidence that players have when they are sufficiently supported by their teammates. This is also an advantage in terms of how a team uses the space and penetrates the defence with good passes. After all, the less pressure a midfielder faces, the more likely he is to play a good forward pass. This is especially important, as it is one thing to hold possession, and a different thing to be effective with that possession. This effectiveness in possession can be derived from the numerical superiority of the 4-4-2. For example, in a 4-4-2 shape, the wingers can tuck in, becoming inside forwards. This effectively creates a situation where there are four forwards overloading the centre areas close to the opposition’s final third. As expected, Olympiakos have an xG average of 1.75, and 14.22 shots per game. This shows that they have constantly worked their way to good goal scoring positions. This overload has also paid divided in that they average 29.83 positional attacks per game, with 23% of those leading to 7 shots per game. This is a positive, if they could improve on decision making in the final third.
The aim of this is to force the opposition defenders into a compact shape, thus freeing up space on the flank for the full-back to exploit. This use of space can be beneficial as a means to get the ball behind the defence. Ideally, the midfielder can play a forward pass that’s timed according to the forward run of the full-back. This could open the defence up, giving the four inside forwards the license to run forward and anticipate an early cross, or in-depth pass from the full-back.
The 4-4-2 is a versatile system that can achieve the objectives of a defensive team, or a ball playing, aggressively attacking one. The system is so versatile that one piece cannot cover all the possibilities. Proof of this is found in all the great teams that have successfully used the 4-4-2. Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson used this system to devastating effect, winning everything that was up for grabs. The system may have grown out of fashion in recent years, but the way it has been used by Atletico Madrid, Olympiakos, and even Liverpool in the 2019/2020 season proves that modern teams can be successful with it.