With greater pressures for teams to do well and not lose, has the traditional 4-4-2 formation been replaced with something more attacking?
This year's Champions league and the recent 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw a major shift in how tactics in football are evolving. The standard 4-4-2 with two wingers, two central midfielders and two attacking forwards, is no longer good enough on the World stage and clubs in Leagues all over Europe and in the Champions League especially, are finding better results with more open and free-form formations.
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa proved that a 4-4-2 formation isn't good enough to get to the latter stages of the tournament. The majority of successful teams this year used a fluid 4-2-3-1 attacking formation that provided width on the flanks, compact in the middle and can provide a decent goal threat with a talented playmaker behind the lone striker.
The two obvious examples at the World Cup were the Netherlands and Germany. It can be argued that Spain also used a similar system but with a midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso, with Villa, Torres and David Silva up front, it can be argued that Spain played a more fluid 4-3-3 system that reverted to a 4-5-1 when on the defensive.
Germany and the Netherlands however, used a more extensive system that provided width and an attacking danger as the likes of Thomas Muller and Arjen Robben would cut inside the area and attack the goal, a tactic that saw Muller win Top goal scorer. Up front, both teams had lethal centre forwards who knew how to hit the target in Miroslav Klose for Germany and Robin van Persie for the Netherlands.
However, the main issue that teams using different formations to the tried and tested 4-4-2 used by England and some of the other weaker teams in the competition, was the lack of options and possession the system offers. Without possession you lack goal scoring opportunities and the fact that England only managed 3 goals in the entire competition (Gerrard vs. USA, Defoe vs. Slovenia and Upson vs. Germany), not counting Lampard's disallowed effort, it seems the rest of the World agrees that a 4-4-2 can't get you very far.
In fact the only team to do well with a 4-4-2 formation, strangely enough was Uruguay, who played a much more rigid game then England, yet with that organisation, goals from Diego Forlan, player of the Tournament and Suarez's hand ball, the managed to get to the semi-finals before losing out and falling against Germany in the third place play off.
Now the advantages a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 system have over the two banks of players in a traditional flat-line 4-4-2, is the all important “creation of passing triangles” (Jonathan Wilson for Guardian and writer of the brilliant 'Inverting the Pyramid'). Triangles, if you don't all ready know, are the most important shape in Football and will always beat out the passing in a flat line.
As you can see from the three above diagrams, the triangle patterns in both the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations used by Holland/Germany and Spain respectively create a lot more passing options, which goes into creating more dangerous attacking options. The 4-4-2 on the other hand gives limited options for the strikers and attacking midfields and wide men. It also leaves a team quite unbalanced in terms of attacking and defensive balance. The greater passing options for a 4-4-2 come in a team’s own half, with each defender having two midfielders to pass the ball to whereas in the attacking half of the pitch, midfielders only have the two strikers up front, who can be left isolated without a link between attack and midfield.
This missing link was the key to the poor showing by England in the World Cup, especially when they have creative attacking midfielders in Joe Cole and Steven Gerrard who can happily fill that void. This however wasn’t a problem for the Dutch who had Wesley Sneider and Robben linking the attack in the middle or on the wing. Spain too had the perfect balance in midfield and attack with Xavi and Iniesta pushing forward to link up with the strikers and Xabi Alonso staying deep to cover the midfield in case the opposition break forward. A 4-4-2 system cannot really offer this sort of luxury and now this year club teams are seeing this clearer than ever before.
Barcelona have for a long time player the 4-3-3 system made famous by Johann Cruyff whilst he was Manager and is now implemented by the Spanish National team because the players are so used to the system. Arsenal too uses a system very similar to Barcelona, which gets the best out of players such as Cesc Fabregas and Sami Nasri (when he plays part of the midfield 3). Chelsea as well have three up front in Malouda, and Anelka playing on the wings with Drogba as a target man in the middle, with Frank Lampard linking midfield and attack as Essien keeps tight in front of the defence.
In fact the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations are finding popularity all over Europe this year, with 20 of the 32 teams in the Champions League using a variation of one of the two. But should this surprise us really? The Champions League is for the top teams around Europe and to get to that stage you need to win matches and score goals, which a possession based system will give you. Of course there are teams like Manchester United who do well with a 4-4-2 system, but as we saw last year in the Champions League, they crashed out to Bayern Munich who outplayed them at the Allianz Arena to eventually go through to the final. Similarly Fulham in the Europa league had a lot of success with a 4-4-2, knocking out Shaktar Doneskt, Juventus and Hamburg before being beaten to an Athletico Madrid side playing 4-5-1 and led by that man, Diego Forlan.
So has the 4-4-2 had its day? Well, yes and no. It’s still a great formation for teams to use, who perhaps don’t possess the type of creative players that can push forward from midfield and link up the attack effectively. It’s also a staple tactic to use away from home in the league or in Europe, as it allows you to get players behind the ball and leave two attackers up front to nick a goal. A bit like Michael Owen used to do.
Then again saying that, Michael Owen recently said himself the 4-4-2 has had its day, which is a shame considering it’s the only formation he himself can play. A message then, from a striker whose career is long since passed perhaps about a formation that has perhaps passed its time.