While many have talked about the demise of the classic 4-4-2 formation, this is a misconception that doesn’t accurately reveal the nature of football’s tactical evolution since the 1990s.
More specifically, while we’ve seen well-resourced teams with creative attacking talent adopt more expansive and high-pressing 4-3-3 formations of late, the 4-4-2 shape has made something of a resurgence among lesser sides whose primary goal is to contain their opposition.
So, let’s take a closer look at this formation and why it’s so popular among defence minded sides.
What is the 4-4-2 and Who Uses it?
The 4-4-2 system comprises a flat, four-man midfield in front of a four-man defensive line, while it also makes provision for two centre forwards.
These elements make the shape something of an anomaly in contemporary tactical parlance, which often focus on deploying players in between midfield and attack and tend to feature a lone striker.
Interestingly, this system has become incredibly popular in La Liga of late, with Villareal one of six La Liga sideswho regularly deployed a 4-4-2 as their primary formation during the 2019/20 campaign and beyond.
At least half of these sides used the 4-4-2 for more than 80% of minutes played, while EPL teams such as Burnley have studiously used the same system for years in the English top flight.
At the recent World Cup, several of the competing sides regularly used a 4-4-2 shape. These include finalists Argentina and South American side Ecuador, while Tunisia and Ghana also leveraged the same system at different times before their exit.
Both Ecuador and Tunisia were defensively compact and organised in their approach too, with the use of a 4-4-2 formation crucial in such respects.
Why Does the 4-4-2 Remain So Popular?
Ultimately, the 4-4-2 formation is nowhere near as popular as it once was, particularly given the modern penchant for having numbers in the middle of the park and the need for increasingly flexible systems and tactical shapes.
However, the simplicity and rigidity of the system does remain popular from a defensive perspective, as it enables teams to defend resolutely with two banks of four and minimise the space between the attacking and midfield lines.
During periods of concerted pressure from the opposition, one of the two strikers may even drop deeper to create an additional body in midfield, while the forwards can also pressure the opposing centre halves when they’re in possession.
From a wider perspective, the type of teams that are typically defensive by nature (such as lower-half sides or those with minimal budgets) typically can’t afford the type of playmaking talent or mobile forward that’s capable of playing successfully in a 4-3-3 shape or fluid 4-2-3-1.
The aforementioned Burnley side offer a relevant case in point here, as under the stewardship of former manager Sean Dyche, they opted for a pragmatic 4-4-2 shape while spending little during each transfer window.
This enabled them to regularly defend in an aggressive and organised manner, and one that let them compete more tenaciously with much better resourced sides.
Remember, superior sides that deploy the popular 4-3-3 shape are usually blessed with technically astute midfielders and choose to adopt a possession-oriented approach.
As a result, sides without the same level of quality in the middle of the park may switch to a 4-4-2 shape and more direct playing style. This requires them to bypass the midfield and play longer balls into the final third, where they can build off the two strikers and subsequently create overloads on the flanks.
The Bottom Line
Throughout history, the 4-4-2 formation has been used by teams across the globe, both at domestic and international level.
Despite losing a little lustre since its development in the 1950s, it remains highly popular from a defensive perspective, particularly as it’s incredibly easy to organise and offers two clear banks of four that the opposition has to play through during attacking phases.
It also helps underdogs and lower half sides to adopt a more direct playing style and bypass the midfield, where their opposition may have superior players and look to create central overloads while dominating the ball.
Given the overwhelming popularity of the 4-3-3 shape and the increased emphasis on adopting defensive blocks that are both horizontally and vertically compact, we may even see 4-4-2 develop more attacking relevance once again in the future.
After all, this is leaving plenty of space in wide areas for players to provide outlets and create significant overloads, while high defensive lines can also be exploited by two strikers working in tandem.