The 4-4-2 Formation: Complete Handbook

The 4-4-2

Famously used by Sir Alex Fergusonthe 4-4-2 formation has been the staple of English (and global) football for decades. The simplicity behind the 4-4-2 is its main strength. Ask any player if they know how to play the 442 formation and the answer will be a resounding yes.  

However, the simplicity of the 4-4-2 has also led to its downfall. Many teams now favour newer and more complex formations over the 4-4-2 due to the needs of the modern game and to the emphasis placed on attacking football.  

For example, in 2010, none of the winners of the Spanish, English and Italian leagues, or the Champions League, played the 4-4-2, and that was 10 years ago!  

The 4-4-2 is simply not versatile enough for many teams and does not provide the complicated passing lanes and flexibility that many teams desire. 

442 Football Formation

What is the 4-4-2 Formation? 

If we are to answer the question, “is 4-4-2 a good formation?” you must first understand the basic layout of this formation.  

The 4-4-2 is the simplest of all formations. At the back there is a goalkeeper (obviously), two full-backs and two centre backs. Then in the midfield there are two central midfielders, a left midfielder, and a right midfielder. Lastly, up front, there are two strikers. 

Due to this layout it is quite a concrete formation. You have a solid defence with full-backs who can be an attacking and defensive presence. You also have four midfielders that can support both the offense and the defence. And you have a strong attacking threat with two strikers.  

When it is used correctly, the 4-4-2 is a defensive formation as there is essentially a wall of two rows of four players (famously known as the Two Banks of Four) that the opposing team have to breach to get through on goal. 

  • There are also a few variations of the 4-4-2. For example, you can play one of your central midfielders behind the other midfielder to play a deeper role – such as Sergio Busquets or Jordan Henderson – and offer extra protection to the defence. 
  • You can also play the 4-4-2 with two defensive midfielders. This gives a team extra protection against the opposition breaking through the defence. 
  • Another variation of the 4-4-2 is the diamond formation. In this variation you have one attacking midfielder and one defensive midfielder. The wide midfielders also come inside a bit which makes the formation very narrow and concentrated in the midfield. This is great if you want total midfield domination. However, you end up sacrificing width which leads to all the responsibility for this being put on the fullbacks shoulders. 

Is the 4-4-2 a Good Formation? 

Now here’s the part you have all been waiting for. Is the 4-4-2 a good formation? 

As mentioned before, it is an extremely simple formation to implement as there are clear roles for each player. With the 4-4-2 you essentially have three rows of players who are all playing fairly similar roles within their layers. This means that you do not need highly specialised players to fill each position. 

The three layers also work fairly individually from each other, unlike in three at the back formations where the wide midfielders have to play essentially two roles. There is not much fluidity between the layers meaning you do not need to have the most tactically minded players. 

Due to the two strikers up front, there is no need for the midfield and defence to wait before starting an attackthere are already two strikers ready and waiting. The two strikers can carry out an attack themselves, as opposed to if there was only one striker who would have to wait for support. 

The 4-4-2 formation also allows for great strike partnerships to form between players. For example, the deadly partnership between Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo which led Manchester United to a Champions League Final victory vs Chelsea in 2008. 

The wide midfielders offer defensive cover as well as attacking support and width. However, this means that they can often be overworked as they are having to defend as well as attack. The central midfielders can also add strength to the attack or cover the defence. For example, when Manchester United won the treble in 1998-1999, it was Roy Keane and Paul Scholes who filled these roles. Paul Scholes picked up 11 goals from 38 appearances which proves that the midfielders provide an attacking threat, as well as defensive cover.  

Although there are benefits from just having two central midfielders, the 4-4-2 meets its downfall when faced with formationthat have three or more central midfielders. The central midfielders can easily be outplayed and passed around. 

This means that for the 4-4-2 to work effectively, you have to adapt the style of play, or re-engineer the formation into the diamond variation. 

In terms of defence, 4-4-2 is a very strong formation as there are four defenders who have support from the midfield. The fullbacks can also pose attacking threats if need be.

  • Problems 

However, if you play the diamond variation then the defence is significantly weakened as the fullbacks have to provide attacking width as well as defensive support. 

One big downside to the 4-4-2 is that, due to its simplicity, there is a significant lack of passing options. In other formations there are often a lot more options available to the player on the ball. This can lead to long spells of passing around the back.  

It also leads to a particular onus on crosses to provide goal opportunities, as the 4-4-2 limits the number of complex attacks that are able to unfold. 

Which Clubs use the 4-4-2? 

In the Premier League, only three out of twenty clubs consistently used the 4-4-2 as their primary formation in the 2019-20 season. These clubs were Brighton, Burnley, and Bournemouth. They finished 15th, 10th and 18th respectively. All mid to low table finishes. 

In La Liga, eight out of twenty clubs employed the 4-4-2 formation last season. This is the most out of the five main leagues. These clubs were Barcelona (2ndAtletico Madrid (3rd), Getafe (8th), Valencia (9th), Levante (12th), Valladolid (13th), Eibar (14th), Alaves (16th), Mallorca (19th) and Espanyol (20th). All fairly mid to low table finishes with the exception of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. 

In the Bundesliga, three out of eighteen clubs used the 4-4-2. These were Freiburg, Schalke and Paderborn who finished 8th, 12th and 18th respectively. Again, all mid to low table finishes. 

In the Serie A, three out of twenty teams used the 4-4-2 formation. Notably, Juventus used it to clinch the title last year. The other two teams (Sampdoria and Brescia) finished 15th and 19th last season.  

In Ligue 1, only one out of twenty clubs (the least of the five main leagues) used the 4-4-2 formation. Nantes finished 13th. 

How is the 4-4-2 Played? 

  • Strengths: 
    • Simple to play – the 4-4-2 is a very simple formation to play as all the players have clear roles to fulfil. 
    • Very strong defence – due to the Two Banks of Four the 4-4-2 is very strong defensively as eight players can be behind the ball at all times. 
    • Strong attack – with two dedicated strikers and two wide players, the 4-4-2 formation is relatively strong attackingwise compared to other formations with only one up front. 
    • Can launch an attack very fast – because the 4-4-2 has two outandout strikers, the defence and midfield does not have to wait before starting an attack. 
    • Very solid formation – there are players covering all areas of the pitch and there is a line of midfielders in front of the defence which means that the defence is never left completely exposed. The wide midfielders can also support the defence as well as the attack, which further consolidates the solidity. 
  • Weaknesses:  
    • Fewer passing options – due to the simplicity of the formation there are fewer passing opportunities for players. 
    • Need good central midfielders – in the 4-4-2 formation the central midfielders play key roles in the defence, as well as the attack. They have to be able to distribute the ball to the strikers and wide players, but also be able to provide defensive cover. 
    • Weak against formations with three central midfielders – as mentioned before, the 4-4-2 becomes very vulnerable against formations with three midfielders. 
    • Wide midfielders have to track back – if the 4-4-2 is to be used effectively then the wide midfielders cannot act as wingers and stay in the opposition’s half constantly. They have to track back and provide defensive help if it is required. 
    • Vulnerabilities between the Two Banks of Four – there is a lot of space in between the midfield and the defence which can be easily exploited by the opposition. 

Conclusion 

In answer to the question “is 4-4-2 a good formation?”, the 4-4-2 was once the goto formation, but it is slowly being edged out by other, more versatile formations.  

One of the 4-4-2’s main vulnerabilities is the fact that it is weak against formations with three in the middle. These formations are widely used nowadays; the 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1 and the 5-3-2 to list a few. 

However, 4-4-2 seems to be making a small comeback, especially in Spain where it is used by seven clubs. This may be due to the balance and solidity it offers as a formation and how simple it is to use. 

But the general trend is that the 4-4-2 formation, once the staple of football around the world, has fallen out of favour. 

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