How English football has fallen out of love with 4-4-2
Ah the humble 4-4-2 formation. Ever since English teams did away with the old 2-3-5 'pyramid' and 3-4-4 systems in the late 1960's and early 1970's, four defenders, four midfielders and two strikers has been the staple line-up for clubs across the country.
The beauty of the 4-4-2 formation is its simplicity. The aim of defence is to keep a solid straight line across the edge of the penalty area, perfect for playing the offside trap. Central midfielders are tasked with winning possession, protecting the back four and supplying support to the front two. The wingers main task meanwhile is to supply crosses to the strikers from wide positions and of course the front two, one sometimes playing slightly forward of the other, are tasked with getting the goals.
And that's 4-4-2 in a nutshell.
It's easy to see why the formation has been so popular in England for the best part of five decades. The national team's greatest ever achievement, winning the 1966 World Cup, was done using a 4-4-2 system - albeit a slight variation, more like the modern day 'diamond' formation. In continental competition, the formation has also yielded great results for English clubs. The all-conquering Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 1980s employed a 4-4-2 formation, as did Manchester United's treble winners of 1999.
Arsenal teams used the system to win major honours in the 1990s and early 2000's too. One side, under George Graham, was geared around the solid back-four and playing the offside trap. The other team, under Arsene Wenger, was all about attractive football, engineered by two energetic central midfielders in Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit. There job was to break down the opposition, feed the Gunners wingers and support the attack when they could. The flexibility of 4-4-2 meant two teams could play very different styles of football but with the same structure and yield the same success at home and abroad.
It wasn't just the English who fell for 4-4-2 either. Certain Italian clubs abandoned their 'Catenaccio' (bolt-door) system of play, which involved the use of a deep lying sweeper, in the late 1980's. AC Milan won three European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, three UEFA Super Cups and a host of domestic honours between 1988 and 1995 playing 4-4-2 under the management of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello. Juventus' class of 2003 also employed the system in winning Serie A in 2003.
In the early 2000s, a tactical revolution descended across central Europe and in France, Italy and Spain in particular, however and 4-2-3-1 became the formation of choice for most clubs. Spain, Holland, Germany and Brazil were amongst the international sides to start using the formation too, to great success.
It was perhaps Real Madrid who pioneered the 4-2-3-1, famously out-thwarting Manchester United in a 1999/2000 Champions League tie. Interestingly, Sir Alex Ferguson has rarely played a 4-4-2 in European competition ever since this defeat and has moved away from 4-4-2 domestically in recent seasons (though he is using the system this campaign).
Until 2005, 4-4-2 was commonplace in English football. A few teams experimented with 3-5-2 and the use of 'wingbacks' during the late 1990's/early 2000s and the diamond formation, a variant of 4-4-2, was also toyed with. At international level, the 'Christmas Tree' formation of 4-3-2-1 was used by Terry Venables at Euro 1996, but like the club formation changes, this was nothing more than a tactical rejig than a structural evolution in England.
It was Jose Mourinho who was the first significant pioneer of tactical change in the Premier League. Not long after his appointment at Chelsea, Mourinho would regularly alter the Blues' system, sometime using 4-4-2 but commonly switching between 4-5-1 and 4-4-3.
Chelsea won two titles under the Portuguese manager and key to this was the fact many teams struggled to deal with his wingers, who essentially played either side of a centre forward in possession. They were almost reminiscent of the old 'outside left' and 'outside right' of the 'pyramid' format. Whatever they were, teams couldn't contain them.
Despite Mourinho's demonstration that tactics beside 4-4-2 could succeed in English football, few managers followed suit in moving away from their 'tried and tested' formation of 4-4-2 thereafter. It has taken a number of spectacular failures for English clubs and the England national team to finally think about embracing the tactical revolution sweeping Europe and adapt accordingly.
The most notable example of 4-4-2 failure in English football was when the formation was used by Fabio Capello at the 2010 World Cup. The system was widely condemned as being 'outdated' at international prior to the tournament and certainly it did England no favours in a match up with old rivals Germany.
Playing the more modern 4-2-3-1, Germany's play makers Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mezut Ozil tormented England's midfield. They were given licence to roam between the Three Lions midfield and backline and inexperienced with dealing with this kind of threat, England were completely exposed and lost 4-1.
Capello tried a variation on a theme recently, changing to a 4-4-1-1 v Montenegro in Euro 2012 qualifying. England were frustrated though. 'Wingers' Ashley Young and Adam Johnson, who tend to play more inward roles with their clubs, constantly cut inside though leaving England with a lack of width. This meant Wayne Rooney had to increasing drop deep to collect possession and his and England's performance was anything but spectacular.
The fundamental importance of selecting a formation is that it must suit the players available to you. With an abundance of central, rather than wide, midfield talent in England, surely Capello would be better choosing a formation which focuses on attacking through the centre, rather than down the wings. 4-4-2 also leaves your backline exposed against a the modern 4-2-3-1 system. Given that 4-2-3-1 is the system most international teams now favour, England must have to give the formation some serious thought ahead of their next game.
Alas, the Premier League finally seems to be catching on to tactical change. With a lack of 'old fashioned' wingers in the game currently, most teams now play a narrow system which favours attack through the centre. One or two deep lying midfielders are complemented by three in more forward, central positions. To combat the threat of attack through the centre, other clubs are also packing five across the midfield areas to nullify that 'wingless' form of attack.
4-5-1 and 4-2-3-1, or variants of, are becoming the formations of choice in the division. Unsurprisingly, forward-thinking Arsene Wenger has been one the quickest to employ 4-2-3-1 as have Manchester City. In contrast, the likes of Aston Villa and Everton have adapted the 4-5-1 to be able to deal with the threat of free-flowing sides like Arsenal and City. Only nine teams out of 20 now regularly play a 4-4-2 formation in the Premier League.
Tactical change in England has historically resulted in clubs all eventually adapting the same formation. 4-5-1 and 4-2-3-1 is the way the Premier League is going and it won't be long before club football and quite possibly, the England national team, calls time on the trusty but dated 4-4-2.
Formations used by Premier League clubs this season
Aston Villa 4-5-1
Chelsea 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1
Manchester City 4-3-1-1/4-2-3-1
Manchester United - Reverted back to 4-4-2 this season
Newcastle United 4-4-2
Stoke City 4-4-2
Tottenham 4-4-1-1, 4-4-2
West Brom 4-1-4-1
West Ham 4-4-2