GROWING UP IN ENGLAND, 4-4-2 WAS THE FORMATION. The one you play in, watch on the TV and line up your microstars in. It’s even splashed across the front of your monthly football subscription. If you watch Premiership Years up until about 2007, you’ll see big men, little men, fast wingers and nasty centre-halves.
It was a formation that worked. It was tried and it was tested. It both got the best out of the English breed, and led to a developmental ethos that, though arguably still shackling the national team, seemed momentarily foolproof. Homogenous throughout the Premier League, at international level this lead to success for those footballers that could slot into this formation, and alienation for those who couldn’t.
Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and David Beckham, though all unique talents, saw their brilliant but limited attributes amplified out of accordance with 4-4-2. On the other hand Steve McManaman, the lost child of English football, heads a list of those wasted by the national team due to a lack of tactical compliance. No England coach knew what to do with the supremely talented scouser. Vain attempts to get him to fill the riddled left-midfield void culminated in Nick Barmby and Trevor Sinclair displacing him from international selection. Despite winning two Champions League titles at Real Madrid, scoring in the first of those two finals, McManaman’s international days were over by 2002.
Joe Cole, Matt Le Tissier and Paul Scholes, three of the Premier League’s greatest ever creative players, join him in filling up a who’s-who of English talent wasted by stoical managers playing a rigid system. The death knell for the nation’s favourite formation had begun to toll.
Fast forward to 2008; the European Championships are taking place in Switzerland and Austria. By now 4-4-2 has been, by and large, consigned to the history books. Any hint of a linear formation would incur hoots of laughter and references to oval shaped balls. 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 were now in vogue, and they set the backdrop to a philosophical revolution as Spain and Barcelona enjoyed half a decade of domination; aesthetically and culturally.
By the time Barcelona won their fourth La Liga title in five years in May 2013, 4-4-2 was no more than a fading legacy. Aspiring to the demi-god of possession football, Pep Guardiola rose to prominence playing variations on 4-3-3. Brendan Rodgers at Swansea and Marcelo Bielsa at Athletic Club de Bilbao to name but a few adopted and adapted the system. Of course this was nothing new. Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal had ingrained this formation into the Dutch, Spanish and European psyche over the course of several decades, but it had never before become so ubiquitous as now. It replaced 4-4-2 as the default formation.
Though as Arsène Wenger would probably tell you, all good things must come to an end. For teams not quite able enough, or not quite compliant enough, a tiki taka-soaked 4-3-3 was simply not an option. José Mourinho arguably provided the watershed moment by winning the Champions League with Inter Milan in 2010 and defeating Pep’s diminutive bunch along the way. Yes, Mourinho’s winning formula was indeed a 4-2-3-1, but with Samuel Eto’o acting as a de facto striker alongside Diego Milito, something new was bubbling.
Whilst a selection of clubs seemingly dominated possession, it seemed the other half were left to respond. 2010 saw the re-birth of reactive football. Beginning in its most primitive form, this tactical retaliation arrived with buses parked and World Cups ruined. Switzerland beat Spain in South Africa. Chelsea won the Champions League two years later. Mourinho toppled Pep the same year. Football was changing.
Anyway, enough of the past. What relevance does this have to today’s game? Well this retaliation, a backlash to a once enthralling brand of quick triangles, third man runs and five-foot superstars gave birth to the revival of 4-4-2. A different 4-4-2, albeit one maintaining its entrenched principles.
When Bayern Munich beat Barcelona 7-0 over two legs in 2013, Thomas Müller joined Mario Mandžukić in a front two every time the eventual winners bombed forward, and scored three goals over the two legs. This was direct, rapid football; a thump in the face to an ideology that was now being termed ‘a death by a million passes’.
When Real Madrid beat holders Bayern Munich, now managed by the godfather of tiki taka, Pep Guardiola, 5-0 on aggregate last season, the eventual winners left Munich shell-shocked with lightning quick counter-attacks played through an effective 4-4-2 with Ronaldo and Benzema upfront. This result joined a collection of similarly seminal results over the course of the season and the ensuing World Cup. Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal. Man City 6-3 Arsenal. Holland 5-1 Spain. Atlético Madrid 1-0 Barcelona. The odd one out in that list is seemingly Holland’s victory, however the 3-5-2 shape preferred by van Gaal often had the guise of 4-4-2, with either full-back joining the midfield and van Persie and Robben tearing through Spain’s core.
Indeed not only did 2013/14 see the odd backlash, but it hosted a seismic shift in the way football matches were won. Now fully evolved from the reactionary, but largely defensive, victories of Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, and even Holland’s nearly-moment in South Africa, 4-4-2 was back, but this time with a bang. It was the ultimate reactive force, both beautiful and efficient. Stagnant possession had been replaced by devastating attacking play.
Liverpool and Man City tore up the Premier League playing an exciting brand of 4-4-2. This is not to say they didn’t keep the ball, but they did so with a penetrative drive that had often been lacked by the tiki taka teams. Their styles flew in the face of critics, ready to damn the formation as stale, linear and inflexible. Rapid transitions, exhilarating counter-attacks and penetrative possession all played around a structure that had for so long been associated with predictive, one-dimensional football. Ironically these terms were now being used to describe those teams that hadn’t quite moved with the times.
Arsenal, for one, stuck to their blunt 4-3-3 and it wasn’t until Wenger threw on a second striker in the FA Cup final that their trophyless scourge was finally broken. Indeed, Arsenal have been at their most devastating in recent years playing Walcott alongside Olivier Giroud in a lopsided formation that, to all intents and purposes, is a 4-4-2.
Like Liverpool and City, Real Madrid conquered Europe playing a similarly quick breed of direct football. Benzema and Ronaldo lead the line, though their starting positions were so brilliantly un-4-4-2 that when the pair burst forward with Bale and Di María racing up to join them, one would be forgiven for not recognizing it as such. Germany, too, did not line up as 4-4-2 in their blitz of the World Cup, but if Thomas Müller is a midfielder then I’m a professional skydiver. And I’m scared of heights. Atlético Madrid starred in last season’s number one fairy tale by breaking La Liga’s powerful duopoly and winning their first title in 18 years; the only non-clásico team to win it for a decade. They did this by playing a more obvious 4-4-2, scaring and bullying teams into submission through pacey counter-attacks, a powerful front line and a water-tight defence.
Tiki taka wasn’t dead, as some were desperate to suggest – passing the ball will always be a good way to win a football match – but impotent possession was being wiped out.
Last week Roy Hodgson was roundly criticized for even suggesting an England future with 4-4-2 at its core, and so I asked myself, is that really that bad? Football has changed, and therefore, so has its formations. Whilst they may, on paper at least, look the same as they did two or three decades ago, those very formations are today, entirely different. This is due to a number of factors: more athletic players, better prepared managers, in depth opposition analysis. That said, it would be useful to remember that Arsenal won the Premier League without losing a match playing 4-4-2. No one said it was boring then.
Similarly Sir Alex Ferguson mastered the 4-4-2 that Manchester United used to win the league for a number of years without ever really playing that well. Ferguson managed to ignore a gaping chasm in his number 10 position by turning Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney into the most potent attacking combination in the league. Run, Run, Cross, Goal.
Formations are, as Jonathan Wilson points out, entirely neural. If England approach the next two years playing a rigid, stale, regressive 4-4-2 then criticism will be merited. However, with any of Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott, Jordan Henderson and Ross Barkley occupying the front six positions then I’d suggest that is highly unlikely. 4-4-2 it may be. But the 4-4-2 of today is not the same one we saw yesterday.
By Josh Bodnash. Follow @joshbednash