The 4-4-2 formation with a flat back four (meaning the same shape in midfield), has its origins in Great Britain and is an easy formation to both learn and use, with Alex Ferguson of Manchester United and Arsène Wenger of Arsenal both becoming successful using this formation with their teams during the 1990s and 2000’s.
The basic features of the formation aren’t very flexible (at least positionally speaking), but it offers a quite stable defensive shape. The distribution of the players is even throughout the field, which results in short distances and relatively short running lanes as the defense moves up and down the pitch.
The space in front of the defenders is well-filled by two defensive midfielders (also known as the “double six“), just like the wings with wide midfielders (wingers) directly in front of the fullbacks.
The defensive midfielders can sometimes have difficulties establishing contact with the center forwards further up the pitch. On top of that, they must cover its entire length, which means a lot of running work.
This formation works well in wide areas, whereas the positioning in terms of depth on the pitch is limited to just three rows. This leads to less variability in the structure of game design (triangulation).
From the back four the game can be built up through the center or out in wide positions. For a successful build-up, though, it is necessary to quickly get the ball to one of the two forwards, who can then make the next play, and have the midfielders advance accordingly.
Possession play is more difficult in this formation than others as triangle passing is limited. Therefore, we can see longer balls being played and sometimes being more efficient. A great demonstration of that, is Vincius’ goal against Liverpool in the first hand of UCL quarter final after a great pass from Toni Kroos.
If the ball doesn’t get to a forward quickly when a 4-4-2 formation is deployed, wide midfielders and fullbacks can work together to shift pressure to the wings. The two strikers operate in the center (close together to keep the opposing defenders in the center) or, depending on the situation, divert to the wing. In lower divisions this system is often used with long balls (“kick and rush”) from the defense to attack.
It might not be the prettiest form of offense to watch, but it can be highly effective at the same time.
The 4-4-2 formation offers a balanced distribution of players on the pitch, which functions especially well in terms of defense. If every player performs his task well it’s possible to defend very compactly. Doubling-up on the wings allows for expansion in the defense as well as offense.
The two strikers (often as a combination of one who is good in the air and another who is fast and a good dribbler) provide support in the offense and can work off each other, in order to increase the pressure on the opposing defense.
Two perfect examples of this kind of strike partnership in the Premier League were Thierry Henry – Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal) and Dwight Yorke – Andy Cole (Manchester United) or currently Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr. (Real Madrid). With two at the front it is possible to steer the opposition’s build up play and put their defense under pressure early.
Overall this system can be learned intuitively and offers a good basic formation to enable pressing situations (including pressing in midfield).
The staggering of three rows isn’t ideal for the offense (if they don’t have incredibly strong individual capabilities). Long distances between the defensive midfielders and the strikers are felt especially when transitioning after winning possession.
When playing against a formation with a strong midfield (and possibly three central midfielders) all players must be mobilized in order not to be beaten in the central area of the pitch. It’s important to keep an eye on the how the strikers and midfielders work together in order to close any gaps that are beginning to open up.
This weakness can only be compensated for by an extremely strong lineup in midfield. One example of this in Manchester United’s glory days was its incredible midfield four (from left to right) Ryan Giggs – Paul Scholes – Roy Keane – David Beckham.
The 4-4-2 provides a great entry-level system in a game of 11 v. 11 because the fundamental performances of the back four, midfielders, and offense (a game with two strikers) can be taught. You don’t have to spend a lot of effort on tactical intricacies at this point, and instead can concentrate on crucial content matter and coaching individual players.
Variation: 4-4-2 Diamond Midfield
The 4-4-2 diamond requires different practices and is more fitting for combination play and domination in midfield, in which the wings are largely unattended, or this space is only taken up by advancing fullbacks (an example would be formerly Ashley Cole at Arsenal). This formation requires substantially higher demands on the tactical variability and the individual capabilities of players than the 4-4-2 with a flat back four, which is why it is suitable for experienced teams with a higher standard of play.