Tactics explained : the simple 4-4-2

The 4-4-2

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.

The 4-4-2 set up (right).

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.

At AC Milan under Arrigo Sacchi, the general plan was not to flick the long balls on, but to hold the ball up and knock it back to one of the midfielders who would pick out one of the quick wide-midfielders making a run forward.

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.

The 4-3-3 midfield (diamonds) overruns the 4-4-2 midfield as is represented inside the blue square, making it easier to either keep possession or steam through. Games can be won and lost in the midfield.

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.

Loftus Road: West London’s hidden gem

The city of London hosts a wealth of fantastic away days. From the depths of Brentford’s old-school Griffin Park to the idyllic views over the Thames at Craven Cottage, each ground and location seems to have it’s own little quirks. One ground, however, attracts little attention- yet offers so much. Wedged in between an unsuspecting housing estate is Loftus Road- the home of QPR.

Loftus Road was built in 1904, and first occupied by QPR in 1917. It’s last major alteration was the erection of the new Ellerslie Road stand in 1972, raising the standing capacity to around 35,000. However following the Hillsborough disaster the capacity plummeted to a mere 18,000 ( 4th lowest of the 12 football league clubs in London) as all-seater stadiums became mandatory. Yet what’s most surprising is not the size of the ground for a club dipping in and out of the Premier League in recent years, but the fact they can actually fit 18,000 people in there.

On my trip down last season, where Forest triumphed 1-0, Reds fans felt obliged to rekindle one of the old favourites from the dark days in League 1: “My garden shed, my garden shed, is bigger than this, is bigger than this,”. Tongue-in-cheek ? Yes. But wildly inaccurate ? Not so sure. It’s microscopical seats are accompanied by an equally dwarfish leg room, to the extent whereby one’s knees actually graze the person in front’s back. Crouchy, if you’re reading this, please never go to QPR away.

We can joke over the size all we want, but the bottom line is that it made for a cracking atmosphere and viewing. The seating at both goal ends is reminiscent of Valencia’s intimidating ‘La Mestalla’ stadium, where the stands angle at practically 90 degrees. It feels as if your perched in the heavens- yet directly above the keeper. What is most striking, however, is the compactness and sense of community within the ground. Loftus Road lies, quite magnificently, in the heart of an active Shepherd’s Bush housing estate. And that doesn’t mean there is some sensible gap between the houses and the ground, oh no. Some residents can literally walk out their garden door and find themselves face-to-face with the turnstiles. A proper hearty, old-fashioned set-up.

The QPR away day, though, is much more than the match itself. Put it this way, you have two options: glamour-fest or absolute p*** up. Loftus Road is a mere 10 minute drive from the famous Notting Hill and Portobello Road, which hosts an abundance of beautiful pubs and restaurants for those who need a bite to eat after catching the morning train or coach. Post-match, the likes of Marble Arch, Grenfell Tower and Hyde Park are all nearby landmarks available to visit. And then there’s option two. Scattered among the various Shepherd’s Bush alleyways are your grimy, hooligan boozers: open all night long and ideal for those middle-aged, Stone Island head-to-toe men who came down to London for a scrap outside the “White Fox” or some other generic pub name. QPR away really does have it all.

Chelsea failed Sarri

“Sarri’s not a Chelsea man!”, bellowed Rory from Chelsea Fan TV. In all honesty, he could be forgiven for thinking so. Maurizio Sarri was unorthodox in many ways, but one particular move backhanded the ‘Chelsea way’ right across the face. He attempted, dare we say it, to instil a positive brand of football- an attribute Abramovich has yearned for throughout his time at Chelsea, but something he has rarely ever recieved. Sarri was billed as the signpost of a new era at Stamford Bridge, following in the footsteps of the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool with long-term planning and a positive footballing identity. Initially, anyway, Chelsea fans pledged to support the revolution. But one thing is saying and one thing is doing. As soon as a couple of results went wayward, and form went downhill, Chelsea, well, became Chelsea again. The torches were out, calling for Sarri’s head, and the managerial merry-go-round turned full circle once more. Indeed, his supposedly revolutionary ‘Sarriball’ was largely unconvincing. Sarriball revolves around moving the ball forward urgently, vertical one-twos and rapid attacking transitions. Yet, especially early on in the season, his side were notorious for “sideways”, “unambitious” football.

Image from http://www.squawka.com

In fact, come the latter parts of the season, displeased Chelsea fans felt it necessary to voice their opinions on the system rather, well, explicitly. “F*** Sarriball, f*** Sarriball” topped the charts at Stamford Bridge. Jorginho- Sarri’s golden boy and systematic linchpin- fell prey to particularly harsh criticism. His defensive shortcomings and alleged lack of forward passing was lambasted by Chelsea fans and pundits, especially considering he was taking the position of fan-favourite N’Golo Kante. However, and this is what irate Chelsea fans couldn’t seem to grasp, the problem with Sarriball- and for that matter Jorginho- did not lie within Sarri himself. It was a lack of time to work on the training ground, and at the same time, a lack of a squad able to perform the system.

First, and most importantly, Sarriball requires defenders comfortable on the ball. This is so that if Jorginho- the man responsible for creating from deep and linking build up play in their own half- is marked out of the game, one of the centre-halfs can bring the ball forward out of defence and pick a forward pass. Kalidou Koulibaly performed this to a tee at Napoli. Yes, David Luiz is renowned for his technical quality, but he has a tendency to attempt long, extravagant balls rather than the simple forward pass. Antonio Rudiger is more sensible, but needed more time on the training ground to learn when to step out of defence and what passes to pick.

Image courtesy of https://metro.co.uk

The false 9 is another key component of Sarriball. The job of the false 9 is to drop in between the lines to offer options to passing combinations, while also lurking on the defenders’ shoulders to offer options in behind on quick breaks. Therefore, your archetypal false 9 is quick, nimble and technically gifted- with a fantastic awareness of space. None of these characteristics, however, would you associate with Alvaro Morata or Gonzalo Higuain. It would be unfair to describe the pair as old-fashioned no.9s, but nor are they your typical modern day striker. Both thrive on crosses into the box and scraps in the penalty area rather than offering selfless link-up play. This is partly why Chelsea’s possession went sideways not forward- there was no false 9 to play off.

Behind the soap opera, we easily forget Sarri had a very successful season. Chelsea finished 3rd thus guaranteeing Champions League football, won a European trophy and were only beaten on penalties by eventual league-winners Manchester City in the Carbao Cup final. However – and this narrative is becoming freakishly identical to the one up the M25 at the City Ground- Sarri burnt bridges with the fanbase. They despised his stubborn adherence to the system and supposed ‘lack of adaptation’ when results turned pear-shaped. Don’t listen to them Maurizio. Once your on those sunbeds in Turin, you’ll forget Chelsea ever happened.

What is a Chelsea man though ?

Tumultuous week for Forest sees O’Neill out, Lamouchi in

Not again, Forest. In a seismic eighteen minutes, Nottingham Forest’s future was sent crashing into the unknown with a process all too familiar in recent years at the City Ground. At 13:21, Friday afternoon, the club’s social media announced the ‘departure’ of Martin O’Neill, followed by the announcement of Sabri Lamouchi as new head coach at 13:39. Manager out, manager in : it wasn’t our finest hour. With Pochettino excelling at Tottenham, and Liverpool finally reaping the rewards of their faith in Klopp, continuity and long-termism have become buzzwords of the modern game, ideals yearned for by modern clubs. Trentside, though, has evolved into a slaughterhouse. 8 managers in 6 years we have hacked our way through- and that’s excluding caretakers. It’s naive to believe Karanka wasn’t pressured out of the club by Marinakis, and similarly senseless to think that O’Neill did, in fact, voluntarily leave. If that was the case, then how did the club find a replacement a mere 18 minutes later ? Let’s not disrespect or be ungrateful to Marinakis here – he shares an ambition and drive with the fans with the money he has invested and stadium renovations- but two promising managers have now been given the chop in 6 months. Alarm bells are ringing.

Yet whether O’Neill did, in fact, have a future at Forest, has been the point of great discussion and debate among Forest fans. The Irishman led the Reds to a respectable 9th, but blew potential play-off hopes in a wretched April, where Forest picked up zero points out of a possible 12. It was the style of football, though, which particularly dismayed the Red’s faithful. O’Neill was largely adherent to a 4-1-4-1, with not one defensive midfielder- but three- in the middle of the park. Tight and compact defensively, we lacked the requisite creativity and rhythm further up the pitch with star-man Joao Carvalho relegated to the bench and old fashioned no.9 Daryl Murphy favoured up top. O’Neill refused to adapt- even when results turned pear-shaped- until the last three games of the season. By this point, however, O’Neill was public enemy no.1 among Forest fans- the relationship irrevocable. It was his dogma, his old-school approach, his ignorance: while all the players would clap the fans off after the match, he would simply walk straight down the tunnel. There grew a tension between the fanbase and the dugout.

However, what actually happened in the last three games of the season is key to the discussion. Not only did results begin to improve ( three wins on the bounce, first away win since November ), but O’Neill began to stray away from his principles, and experiment with the squad. Formation switched to a 3-5-2-1, Carvalho was drafted back in for three immaculate performances, and Murphy was shunted out. On the whole, our ball-retention improved and so did attacking fluidity, with the extra options in between the lines. O’Neill credited this to having nothing to play for, and explained that the reason for the poor quality of football beforehand was just him trying to grind out results. After all, he always spoke of wanting to implement a positive footballing philosophy at Forest, so perhaps those final three games were just the baby steps.

Rumours surrounding his dismissal suggested a ‘player revolt’, a backlash against O’Neill’s alleged old-school training methods. The legitimacy of those reports can be questioned, though it wouldn’t be surprising if it was true, especially considering the mysterious departure of Roy Keane a few days earlier, a man famed for his hardline approach. Admittedly, should the rumours be accurate, it changes the complexion entirely. The narrative is no longer one of a lack of time for O’Neill, but of the Irishman’s failure to adapt to modern man-management. Players nowadays won’t be ruled by fear like Brian Clough used to, they won’t accept a dressing down after a poor touch or spit flying in their faces after a below-par performance. And if there was this much-speculated ‘revolt’, it owes to a flaw in O’Neill’s man-management. Once you loose the dressing room, you’re already halfway out the door. It’s all rumours though, and the bottom line is that O’Neill’s project had more to offer. We’ll see what Lamouchi has in his locker, but we are undoubtedly weakened for next season with the departure of the Irishman. Managers can’t just walk through the doors, click their fingers and get results. It’s a huge gamble on an unknown quantity with very little time before the dawn of the new season. And Marinakis won’t wait.