Whatever Happened to 4-4-2?

4-4-2 has long been considered the fundamental formation for any football team, particularly in the UK. Kids all over the country play their first full-sized games in a 4-4-2 formation, and it remains the most popular formation across the Football League. Nonetheless, it is coming to seem increasingly out-dated. Premier League champions Manchester City employ dozens of different formations, but rarely a traditional 4-4-2, and Mancini is far from alone in shunning the increasingly unfashionable formation.

So what has happened to 4-4-2? Why is it no longer the formation of choice for the best teams in the world and increasingly viewed as outdated? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, lies in the reason that 4-4-2 became popular in the first place.

In the early 1990s 4-4-2 was developed as a response to the increasing physicality of the game. The ball, and the players, were moving quicker than ever before. Full-backs were expected to get up and support the wide midfielders, leaving gaps to be exploited for quick counter attacks. This required a defensive midfielder, but also an attacking midfielder to support the forwards. With very few players able to get from box to box quick enough to fulfil both roles, 4-4-2 allowed for one holding midfielder, one attacking midfielder, and flexible covering options across the pitch.

Now, however, the game has moved on again, and the best teams are all about ultra-flexible retention of possession and interchange of positions, the game is faster once again and 4-4-2 is just too rigid. Barcelona play 4 at the back (although the full-backs are often seen far down the pitch), and then a holding midfielder, and everyone else is liable to change positions at any moment. Spain, perhaps the most successful national team of all time, no longer play with an out and out striker.

The False 9 allows any player to fulfil any role at any time, conventional marking systems don’t work against it, and players are given complete license to attack as and when they see an opportunity. It relies on versatile players who can attack, defend, and control possession effortlessly, footballing intelligence of the highest degree, and excellent fitness – everything the best modern day professionals have to have.

Modern players must be able to play the ball first and foremost. Gone are the days of a holding midfielder like Makelele or Gattuso who broke up play and passed to a more talented ball player, these days holding midfielders are expected to be the start of a new phase of development as well as break up play and support the defence.

All of which suggests that the England national team will continue to struggle given that our players don’t have the technical ability to play with the fluidity that the “new” formations require. Whilst 4-4-2 retains its uses from a defensive perspective – it is very compact and difficult to break down – it will ultimately be unpicked by a better side with formations versatile enough to spot weaknesses and attack them wherever they appear. It is too rigid, and breeds players that are too easy to mark because they tend to stay in fixed positions.

So, the days of 4-4-2 could well be over, and maybe so too are the days when formations could be easily described in numbers. Teams like Barcelona and Spain – where the much vaunted Tiki Taka style has emerged as an evolution of Rinus Michels’ ‘Total Football’ which always prioritised positional fluidity over a rigid system – in full flight seem almost formation-less in their fluidity.