The 4-4-2 will forever be associated with English football for many reasons. Primarily, for it’s simplicity being so synonymous with the English mindset on football tactics. British managers have, over time, built a reputation for turning their nose up at acute tactics and marginal gains, holding the belief that ‘fight’ and ‘spirit’ will pull through. The early 90’s saw Fabio Capello building this “win at all costs” identity at A.C Milan; Van Gaal and Ajax popularising a Cruyffian, space-orientated style of football while a decade and a half later Guardiola and Barcelona would make their stamp on Spanish football with the 2009 tiki-taka, possession-based treble. English football, though, was in the dark when it came to having a real tactical footprint.
No team from England would win the Champions League for 15 years (1984-1999). We were outthought, outwitted and outran on the big stage. Even Ferguson’s early title-winning sides did not really triumph as a result of a particular footballing philosophy or clever system; but primarily through possessing the best squad. But what part does the 4-4-2 play in all of this ? Well although like every formation it possesses it’s variations, the 4-4-2 facilitates a very simple, limited build up. Let’s not get it twisted- no formation in football is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s about choosing a system that best fits your group of players, best unlocks a certain player’s individual qualities and best minimises space for the opposition.
With two out-and-out centre-forwards, the 4-4-2 can bully a centre-back pairing. As a defender you do not want to be left one-on-one, but this situation becomes common when the 4-4-2 meets a back four. The ideal striker pairing is the target man- preferably tall and strong to flick on long balls or hold the ball up- and the speedster to run in behind to meet the flicks of the target man. If one centre-back marks the target man, he is leaving the other centre-back one-on-one with the speedster- a situation that is best avoided. Yes, one of the opposition’s full backs could tuck inside to help but that would leave the wide midfielders unmarked which could be particularly problematic if they decide to push on. The ideal way to combat this would be to switch to a back five, but it’s all about which players you actually have at your disposal.
A classic example of the 4-4-2 striker pairing was Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, dubbed the SAS, who fired Blackburn Rovers to glory in 1995. While both of them can be considered traditional number 9’s the partnership still managed to flourish, with both of them displaying an incredible eye for goal. Sutton would primarily take the role of the target man though the roles could be reversed, Shearer netting 31 goals that season and his counterpart 15. Yet despite forging such a formidable duo on the pitch, the pair were not best of friends off it. Both wanted to be top dog, manifesting an almost palpable tension between the two.
4-4-2 chance creation and build up play
Once again, Blackburn Rovers’ 1994/95 title-winning season is the most appropriate case study for the majority of build-up play and chance creation in the 4-4-2. The long ball was, of course, a staple in the arsenal of all English clubs at the time, but there was also a huge emphasis on crosses into the box: a tactic embodied to an almost comical extent by Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn. They absolutely abused it. Every training session revolved around working crossing positions into what Ray Harford, Dalglish’s revered assistant, labelled the ‘magic zone’. This so-called magic zone was essentially the penalty box stretched to the full width of the pitch, and the idea was that it created better quality chances for Shearer and Sutton to wreak havoc.
Training would often consist of setting up in the 4-4-2 shape and simply practising recycling the ball to the wings to cross in. One day, however, Dalglish decided to devise a ‘Plan B’. He pulled star-winger Stuart Ripley aside in training and told him that soon the widemen would be found out and ushered deeper and centrally, so he asked Ripley “where do you want the strikers to position themselves for the cross in this case”. Ripley stared back at him blankly, then responded “Are you taking the p***.”
Dalglish’s Blackburn knew only one way to play, and these rigid tactics were exposed not only in Europe against the more savvy, technical sides- but the following season as even the dim English clubs wised up to the predictability of their build-up play. Don’t get me wrong, Blackburn were an extreme example of one-dimensionality in 4-4-2 but the system in general relies heavily on two main outlets : the long ball and crosses. In a system like the 4-3-3 however, you have passing triangles all across the pitch.
In the modern era of possession-based, high-pressing football there is no place anymore for the traditional 4-4-2 since teams can simply retain the ball for as long as they like to stop the long balls coming forward. And, more crucially, the very philosophy of the system revolves around physicality- a trait which, over the past decade or two, has been proved inferior to technical ability.