The renaissance of the English 4-4-2

By Joe Davies

English football was once a game of partnerships. Big man, little man – one guy to hold it up, one to work the channels and play on the shoulder – was the dominant strike pairing across all British sides. Managers lined their teams up with two pacy, outside wingers, and two box-to-box midfielders in the middle, with one going while the other stayed and vice versa. In defence, you would have two imposing centre-halves, one covering while the other marked tight, and full-backs would adopt a similar strategy to the central midfielders in order to make sure there were always three staying back in possession. This is the way all English school kids grew up playing football on the weekend, and is still the dominant shape in Sunday-league football today. Football was simple.

On the continent, however, things were a little different. Triangles were all the rage in teams schooled in the Totaalvoetbal of Rinus Michels, with 4-3-3 and its variants being the dominant shape from Ajax to Barcelona. This kind of possession-oriented, fluid, passing football has become something of a mainstay in the Premier League in the modern day, but it was something all together more practical and catenaccio-esque that made a single striker with three central midfielders a must for managers in Britain.

When José Mourinho came to these shores in 2004, he brought with him a new shape that would make the old-fashioned way of playing with two out-and-out strikers, popularised with the dominance of Manchester United and Arsenal in the 1990s and ’00s, unthinkable in the years ahead. Mou’s Chelsea played with a strict 4-3-3, which aimed to profit from the extra man advantage in the centre of the park it afforded them. Mourinho said:

“Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.”

This shape wasn’t deployed in order to dominate the ball or play pretty tiki-taka in the way we see Manchester City or Chelsea doing nowadays. It was about winning the tactical battle, and stifling the natural attacking tendencies of teams deploying a 4-4-2. And win it did: the ‘Special One’ won 2 league titles, two league cups and one FA cup during his first stint in charge in West London, and forced the rest of the Premier League to start deploying more numbers in midfield to catch up.

Since then, the 4-4-2 has been something of a rarity in England’s top flight. The England national team was derided for its use in the 2010 World Cup, with the formation seen as archaic compared to the more sophisticated philosophies of other nations. However, in the last few years the shape has started to rise in popularity again. A number of English teams have begun using the formation, though in a different way to how it has been traditionally used, not because of a renaissance of old-school, British football, but a surprising Spanish influence.

From Vincente Calderón to Turf Moor

Oddly, rather than being used for the obvious attacking benefits of having two strikers in a side, the 4-4-2 has become something of a defensive move for coaches around the world. When pundits talk about ‘modern’ managers, they are generally referring to those who favour a high-line, playing the ball out the back, and high-energy pressing when out of possession, which are all generally facilitated best by a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 shape (though Arrigo Sacchi may disagree). When questioned about how he would fit both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette into the same side, Unai Emery seemed to suggest that playing a 4-4-2 would sacrifice his attacking ideals as a coach.

“For me, the 4-1-4-1 is the system which facilitates that type of pressing,” he said.

“The 4-4-2 is designed more and more for zonal positioning. It’s less aggressive, but is more difficult to get past. That’s the case with Marcelino’s teams, Quique Sanchez Flores’ teams, Saint-Étienne when we last played them…

“I am not ruling out the possibility of a 4-4-2. That’s not the idea that I privilege, but if it allows me to be more competitive, then I’ll go towards it without hesitating.”

It is not surprising, however, that this view came from a Spanish coach; the renaissance of the 4-4-2 as a defensive tactic began in La Liga under one man in particular.

Atlético Madrid’s 2013-14 La Liga winning side

In 2013-14, Atlético Madrid won La Liga, ending a 9-year steak of Barcelona and Real Madrid dominance over the Spanish top flight, at a time when both clubs were still in possession of their stars, Messi and Ronaldo, at their peaks. Diego Simeone took over the Madrid underdogs in 2011, following a disappointing 7th place finish under old Watford boss Quique Sánchez Flores in the 2010-11 season. He quickly revolutionised Atléti’s style of play, winning the Europa League in his first season in charge, and taking the club to an all time high in 2014 in the aforementioned La Liga victory in 2014, complemented by a Champions League final appearance in the same year – a true David and Goliath story.

Simeone built his success on the unfashionable 4-4-2, adapting the catenaccio tactics he had learnt as a player at Inter Milan to form one of the most successful defensive sides European football has witnessed since Mourinho’s Champions League victory with the Nerazurri – and continue to be to this day. Atléti were (are) compact and narrow in defence, forming a tight two banks of four, which shift across the pitch as they force the opposition into wider, less dangerous areas.

Simeone countered the natural numbers advantage in the middle of teams playing with a 4-3-3 variant in two ways. First, by forcing the opposition out wide, Atléti could create overloads on the man on the ball, with a full-back, winger and either a striker dropping back or central midfielder coming across all pressing the man in possession. This was facilitated by the team’s narrowness, as they would be able to keep their shape during a press without opening up space in the middle, due to other players coming across. Second, if teams did endeavour to attack through central areas, Los Cholchineros would stifle their offence by sitting back in a deep defensive block, with a striker dropping back into the midfield to balance the numbers.

This allowed for Atléti’s main advantage when on the ball: the counter-attack. By sucking teams into their half, Simeone’s men could quickly launch a counter attack down the flanks once they received possession, and fire balls to the man left up top when in the defensive phase, usually Diego Costa. Indeed, Atlético were caught offside 131 times over the season, second only to the far more attack-oriented Real Madrid, which gives indication of the pace at which the team broke when in possession of the ball. Atléti relied on individual talent in attack, rather than clever use of possession, and this sort of simple football, reminiscent of the old, English way of playing, became incredibly successful due to the defensive bed rock on which it was built.

Burnley’s 2017-18 Europa League-qualifying line-up

In many ways, Sean Dyche’s seventh-placed 2017-18 Burnley side were a carbon copy of Atléti’s tactics, albeit with weaker individual players. They played in the same tight defensive block perfected by Simeone, and relied on counter-attacking football to great success, earning their highest position in English top flight football since 1974. Despite having the second fewest tackles-per-game in the league, at only 13.4, Burnley had the fifth fewest goals conceded over the season, demonstrating their defensive brilliance as a unit compared to the teams above who had, arguably, far better individual defenders. Burnley’s surprising low tackle rate may be explained when looking at blocking statistics; Dyche’s side had the highest number of shots and crosses blocked in the league by some margin, at 191 and 134 respectively over the course of the season.

Generally, Burnley were considered to something of a relic, deploying an outmoded formation and somehow fluking their way to a Europa League qualification position. However, when viewed within the context of Atlético’s success using largely the same tactics in exotic, continental Spain, it would appear that Sean Dyche may be worthy of more credit as a modern, defensive coach. Both team’s success with the 4-4-2 demonstrate its utility in the present day, and no Premier League team has reaped its benefits more emphatically than a midlands club supported by a certain Gary Lineker.

The Leicester Title Charge

Leicester’s 2015-16 title-winning team

In Leicester, we have probably the best example of an underdog team defying expectations to achieve success few will have ever had envisaged. In 2016, Claudio Ranieri led the blues to their highest ever league position, securing the Premier League crown, and leading to Jamie Vardy selling his movie rights and Gary Lineker presenting Match of the Day in his underwear.

Such was the surprise of Leicester’s unprecedented run, few gave adequate attention to the tactics that enabled the Foxes to over-achieve in the way they did. Unlike Atléti and Burnley, Leicester were not renowned for their tightness out of possession particularly. Yes, they sat back and played counter-attacking football, even replicating the Costa-deep striker partnership deployed by Simeone, with Okazaki acting as the man to drop back into midfield in defensive phases. However, the true heart of this team wasn’t the individual brilliance of PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, or the goal-scoring exploits of Jamie Vardy, but in fact the midfield partnership of Kante and Drinkwater, reminiscent of the sort of football mentioned at the top of this piece.

While Kante has gone on to achieve great success, both with Chelsea, wining the Premier League and Player of the Year award in hist first season at the club, and France, winning the World Cup last summer, Danny Drinkwater has been somewhat forgotten at the same West London club as his French counterpart. In 2015-16, however, he was arguably as important as N’Golo ‘the water-carrier’ Kante. While Kante stole the plaudits with his energetic, record-braking defensive performances, Drinkwater acted as the midfield fulcrum in possession, calmly distributing the ball and acting as the perfect foil for Kante. The two embodied the classic box-to-box partnership associated with ’90s and earlier British football.

While so-called better teams insisted one-up-top systems, Leicester demonstrated how teams could cope with having just two central midfielders against a variety of opposition, even if this was somewhat reliant on the pure industry of Okazaki and Kante. In short, Leicester re-popularised the 4-4-2 in England more than any team in Spain ever could, acting as a shining example for mid-table Premier League teams in the years to come.

London Calling

So far, the return of the 4-4-2 has been noticeably found with teams hoping to over-achieve, and this trend has continued this season with two teams in London: West Ham and Crystal Palace.

Manuel Pellegrini’s 4-4-2

Manuel Pellegrini has begun to found success this season by employing the 4-4-2 he used at giant-killing Villarreal and title-winning Manchester City earlier in his career. West Ham struggled at the beginning of the season, trying to incorporate new signings Jack Wilshere and Carlos Sanchez in 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 shapes, losing their first four games in a row against Liverpool, Bournemouth, Arsenal and Wolves. However, since the start of December, the Irons have won four in a row, taking them to a comfortable ninth placed position in the league, having begun using the formation in a 3-0 win against Newcastle.

Manuel Pellegrini doesn’t have the same strict, tactical style of managers like Klopp, Emery and Pochettino. His teams have always been known for having an attractive style, but tend to operate in quite a free form, unhampered by the kind of positional discipline imposed by the Guardiolas of this world. His West Ham are no different; Pellegrini’s 4-4-2 is vastly different to that employed by Simeone or Dyche, and is perhaps more similar to Ranieri’s Leicester in so far as it relies on the brilliance of attacking players rather than the functionality of the team as a unit.

A particular area of interest in the current West Ham team is the strikers. Though traditional forward Javier Hernandez has found himself with more game time as a result of injuries to Marko Arnautović, generally Pellegrini has opted for a pairing of the ‘bad boy of Austrian football’ alongside the physical Michael Antonio. Both players are former inconsistent wingers, but have found new leases of life in central areas, combining effectively with those placed in their former position out wide. Snodgrass and Anderson have been the shining lights of West Ham’s recent upturn in form, with the Brazilian in particular benefitting from the freedom of Pellegrini’s tactical philosophy.

Roy Hodgson’s 4-4-2

South of the river from West Ham we find another team using two wingers up top, in a twist on the classic 4-4-2. Since Roy Hodgson was appointed Crystal Palace boss in September 2017, he has set the South London side up in a modified 4-4-2, with Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend nominally taking the striking berths, and more central players playing ‘out wide’. In practice, Palace end up defending in a very narrow two banks of four, much like Atléti, though they generally keep both Zaha and Townsend ready to pounce on the break. The forwards’ natural tendencies to drift wide in possession prove vital in counter attacks, with balls launched forward and wide for the pair to latch onto, much like how Thierry Henry used to operate in Arsenal’s invincible days.

Palace finished a solid 11th last season, somewhat remarkably considering they were rock bottom at the time of Hodgson’s appointment and one of the lowest spending sides in the division. They currently sit more precariously at 15th in the Premier League, struggling more due to injuries to star man Zaha and the loss of loanee Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who’s stellar performances last year earned him an England World Cup place.

However, what both Palace and West Ham demonstrate is the same thing seen throughout the modern comeback of the 4-4-2. As the game has increasingly become about clubs’ spending power, teams struggling to compete have found a way to counter the dominance of possession-based sides like Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich or Manchester City. By looking back to the past, and going against the mainstream trend of increasing numbers in the middle, coaches like Simeone, Dyche, Ranieri, Pellegrini, and Hodgson have found ways to get the best out of their sides despite a lack of resources, and reach triumphs few would have expected. The 4-4-2 may have been an old-fashioned, English tradition, but it has now become an international method of getting the best out of players, whether by relying on the collective defending it encourages, or the license it gives to star players to truly perform. The 4-4-2 is back.

Joe Davies is a founder of 5WFootball, edits copy and writes regularly for the site. You can see his work for 5WF here and follow him on Twitter here.

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