Guest Post: Tactical Terrier – Tweaking The Traditional 4-4-2 For The Modern Game

alex ferguson young

Fergie – The Godfather of the    4-4-2

The days of the traditional 4-4-2 are long gone. The game has evolved since teams dominated using the simply formation, especially seen in the Premier League which has seen some sides achieve great feats whilst using the 4-4-2, such as the ‘invincibles’ Arsenal team, and the sides with Sir Alex Ferguson has worked magnificently throughout his admirable career at Old Trafford.

Only squads possessing quality players can effectively pull off a 4-4-2, a formation Mancini deploys his Manchester City side in when he has both Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero available. Even probably the most stereotypically ‘English’ side have moved away from the old formation, as Tony Pulis has adopted a similar 4-4-1-1 system for his Stoke team.

The Problems with the Traditional 4-4-2

In the modern game, the biggest weakness in the 4-4-2 is it’s midfield as it is constantly outnumbered by the now more popular formations such as the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. This is a subject often talked about when these two formations are put up against each other as what happens in the centre of the pitch often dictates how a match plays out.

Another disadvantage a team playing the 4-4-2 has is linked to the few midfielders, ball retention. Passing out of the defence has become an important part of defending in the modern game, and is very effective for nullifying the oppositions attack, as shown by Spain in the World Cup.

4-4-2 formationIn a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, one midfielder can drop deep to collect the ball off of the defence without the side suffering any consequences. If  a midfielder drops to the defence in a 4-3-3, there will still be 2 midfielders in the centre. On the other hand, if one midfielder in a 4-4-2 drops into defence to collect the ball, he will leave his teammate on his own who will get isolated in the centre, even against another 4-4-2.

As you can see in the diagram, one midfielder has dropped deep and is in possession of the ball. However, since his teammate in the centre is still in midfield and up against 2 opposition midfielders, he’s likely to get isolated which means his only safe passing options are to the right and left back, making it very difficult to advance forwards from the defence. Because of this, teams often have to resort to playing the long ball and hope for the best in order for them to progress up the pitch.

The Strengths of the Traditional 4-4-2

The most threatening aspect of the 4-4-2 is it’s strength on the flanks, an area that Ferguson’s United sides were formidable for, as they had players such as Giggs, Kanchelskis and Best marauding the opposition full-backs. With the support of their own attacking wing-backs, the wingers in a 4-4-2 can be devastatingly effective, and in the 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 system Ferguson sometimes uses, full-backs have a great influence on the side, as we saw in new signing Alexander Büttner against Wigan on Saturday.

As you can also see from the influence stat, Nani was also heavily involved in United’s play, a point reinforced by his received passes chalkboard.

One more thing to point out from the influence diagram is how the most influential players were the wide men, Büttner, Rafael and Nani, this alongside Scholes’ passing chalkboard shows Ferguson likes to get the most out of the 4-4-2’s main advantage, it’s wing play.

Fixing the Weak Points whilst Keeping it’s Best Aspects

To make the 4-4-2 work well in modern football, we need to remodel it to make there be no weaknesses that hinder the old formation, whilst at the same time, keeping it’s best features.

For a summary of it’s weaknesses and advantages, I’ll make a list so it’s easier for you.

+ Good threat on the flanks

+ Two strikers make you threatening in attack

– A lot of space to be taken advantage of

– Only 2 central midfielders

– No defensive or attacking midfielders

– Difficult to pass out of defence

– Easy to attack against

– Difficult to attack through the centre

The negatives evidently outweigh the positives, which is strange since it was such a dominant formation for many years.

Lack of Defensive Midfielder – A Simple Solution

A very simple way to get around the lack of a holding midfielder is to play avery high defensive line. Bringing the defence up would close the gap up between them and the midfielder, meaning that the system wouldn’t need a defensive midfielder.

On the left, the midfield is compact with the CMs close to the CBs so there is little space for an opposition number 10 could take advantage of.

On the right however, the defensive line is positioned deeper, so there is space for the opposition to take advantage of with an attacking midfielder.

This could solve the problem regarding ball retention, however I have a better solution for that matter…

Ball Retention – Switching to a 3-4-3

Without a defensive midfielder, it’s difficult to link the defence to the attack, though a fluid system could just solve that problem. This solution is quite a complex one, so it wouldn’t work well with lesser sides, but top division sides could be able to pull it off.

On the left shows the original formation with the movement which will take place. The shape of the side depends on the positioning of the ball, in this example the ball is on the right flank, but if it were on the left, then the movement would simply be switched.

As the centre-back steps forward, he links the defence to the midfield and also fills in the defensive midfield role missing in the traditional 4-4-2.

The only risk in this is the possibility of being beaten on the counter-attack. With a high defensive line and only two or three defenders depending on how you look at it, the team is susceptible to a quick break from the opposition, making this system rather risky. This system fixes a lot of the aforementioned problems with the 4-4-2, but makes one worse (easy to attack against).

Difficult to Attack Through the Centre – Another Easy Fix

Something to implement in order to fix this problem is already seen in a lot of systems; a deep lying forward (or false 9). With one striker dropping deep, he fills the attacking midfield slot and can link the play from there. Alongside the previous switch involving the centre-back, both holes are covered, meaning there is a link from defence to midfield, and midfield to attack allowing for a better ball retention and attacking versatility.


This system would be interesting to see, though I’m not sure if it would work, primarily for the formation change to a 3-4-3. I think it could be used by only the top teams who would be comfortable in making quite a big change to their system during a match.

Sorry for the long article, I always seem to ramble on too much, you can follow my blog through Twitter, where I will keep you updated on all new articles and we can have a talk on football If you’d like!

For more tactical insight into the beautiful game and more, check out his blog!


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