Tactical Analysis: What explains the rise, fall and rise again of the 4-4-2 in the Premier League?

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Since the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea in 2004, the 4-4-2 has been out of favor in England’s top flight. It hung on for a few more years, most notably in Tottenham Hotspur’s 2009/10 campaign when Spurs finished fourth while playing an extremely conventional 4-4-2 with two orthodox wingers, a target man up top, and a poacher playing alongside the target man. But there hasn’t been a title contender that played a strict 4-4-2 since Mourinho’s arrival–until this year. One of the most interesting developments in 2013 has been the return of 4-4-2, as Jonathan Wilson noted in his year in review piece for The Guardian. As it stands right now, the league leaders in Italy, France, and England all use a two striker system and Atletico Madrid, level with Barcelona on points at the summit of La Liga, has also favored such a system–so that’s the league leader or joint league leader in four of Europe’s five biggest leagues. It’s safe to say the two striker system is back. (It will be interesting to see how the four Bundesliga sides in the Champions League last 16 handle these teams that favor two strikers up top.) But in this piece we’re going to focus primarily on the Premier League and the three different types of 4-4-2 on display in 2013.
 
Conventional 4-4-2

The first variation is familiar to any casual observer of English football–the orthodox 4-4-2 of yesteryear that is still favored at times by Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis as well as England manager Roy Hodgson. This approach emphasizes using two banks of four to defend, two orthodox wingers who stay fairly wide and cross the ball, and two strikers up top who receive service from the wide men and sometimes provide service for an on-rushing midfielder. These strikers tend to be complementary with one target man and one poacher–think Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe at Spurs in 2009/10 or, Marouane Chamakh and Cameron Jerome at Palace.4-4-2 / 4-2-4The second variation is what has, at times, taken the Premier League by storm–Manuel Pelligrini’s take on 4-4-2 currently being used at Manchester City. Pelligrini’s system thrives on three things: Two strikers with more universal skill sets than are typically expected of strikers, two advanced creators who don’t need to be in the hole to thrive, and two central midfielders who most of the time stay deep and shield the back line. In many ways, his 4-4-2 could just as easily be described as 4-2-4. In the past, players like Giuseppe Rossi, Nilmar, Santi Cazorla, and Isco thrived in this unique system and now the Chilean genius has taken it to England where his City has finally displayed the attacking verve that the squad’s talent always promised but seldom delivered under Roberto Mancini. David Silva and Samir Nasri are creators comfortable operating from wider positions but also able to drift centrally when needed. Jesus Navas provides width and pace when that is called for. Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, James Milner, and Javi Garcia have proven capable midfielders. In fact, Toure and Fernandinho have probably been the best central midfield duo in the Premier League this season.
Most importantly, the striker combination of Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero has been deadly up top. Negredo has looked like a billionaire’s version of Emmanuel Adebayor—a big body target man with a great work rate, exceptional technical ability, and impressive range across the attacking third. Meanwhile Aguero has somewhat quietly had a season nearly as good as Luis Suarez who, incidentally, is the only striker in the world who rivals Aguero’s combination of quickness, finishing ability, and cleverness. This system tends to thrive on defined roles that are understood more as guidelines than hard-and-fast laws. Aguero tends to lead the line, but can drift outside or drop deep when needed. Negredo usually drops deeper to receive the ball, but can also be found lurking in the box, playing off Aguero. Nasri and Silva usually stay in slightly tucked in wide positions but are also free to make unmarked runs into the box, as Silva did when scoring against Arsenal in City’s masterclass home win over the Gunners. You could describe the approach used by City’s front four as total football with a seatbelt. It’s never quite as free-wheeling as the greatest Cruyff-inspired teams, but it’s less rigid than most the alternatives.4-4-2 / 4-3-3The third variation, favored by Alan Pardew and, seemingly, by new Spurs boss Tim Sherwood, is different in several important ways. First, where Pelligrini’s approach relies heavily on players with more universal skill sets, Pardew and Sherwood’s 4-4-2 uses more defined roles. This means that it’s easier to use at clubs with slimmer wallets than that of Sheikh Mansour. Second, Pardew and Sherwood’s approach explicitly avoids the tucked in number 10 players in favor of keeping that central attacking zone open for the midfield players to make runs forward. Third, where Pelligrini’s system could also be described as 4-2-4, Pardew and Sherwood’s approach, somewhat counterintuitively, tends to be 4-4-2 when defending and 4-3-3 when in possession. This approach is perhaps the most intriguing as it is almost certainly more adaptable to other clubs than Pelligrini’s approach, which is extremely dependent on having highly skilled players who tend to come with high price tags.

Here’s how this third approach to 4-4-2 tends to work in practice. The squad is announced and the front six tends to include two recognizable central midfielders who tend to be more box-to-box players than strictly defensive midfielders, as is often true in a traditional 4-4-2. There are also two complementary strikers paired up top, as in the traditional 4-4-2. The two wide midfielders are where it gets interesting. Usually one of the midfielders is a creative winger who likes to jump up and join the attack—at Newcastle this is Yoann Gouffran, Hatem Ben Arfa, or Loic Remy. At Spurs it has been Aaron Lennon but it’s not hard to imagine Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli, or Andros Townsend being used in the same way. Opposite that wide player is a less adventurous midfielder who is able to operate in a wide role but who is also intelligent enough to drift into a central midfield role. At Newcastle this is routinely Moussa Sissoko although before his arrival Jonas Gutierrez also did well in this role. At Spurs it has been played most capably by Christian Eriksen, but one can easily imagine Gylfi Sigurdsson, Lewis Holtby, or the versatile Chadli slotting into this role. The net result is that one wide man drifts forward and forms an attacking trio while the other drifts inward and forms a midfield trio.

There are two main benefits to this approach. First, it allows the team to defend with the famed “two banks of four” that is still preferred by many managers, despite the movement away from a conventional 4-4-2. Second, by keeping the central attacking zone largely vacant, it allows the box-to-box midfielders space to surge forward and join the attack. Yohan Cabaye and Sissoko have done this very well for Newcastle and both Paulinho and Mousa Dembele did it quite well for Spurs in their 3-0 win over Stoke with Paulinho providing a sumptuous flick to set up Roberto Soldado and Dembele grabbing a second half goal with a fizzing shot fired from just outside the box. It’s significant that both sides feature strong midfield players who love to get forward and join the attack but who tend to lack the technical skill and creative genius needed to regularly play as a number ten. All four players mentioned above need to make their runs from deep to be at their best. If their managers played the conventional 4-2-3-1 or even Pelligrini’s version of 4-4-2, that space wouldn’t be available to them because it would be filled by a more conventional number 10. By keeping that space mostly vacant, this system creates the space that box-to-box midfield players need to be at their best. It’s no coincidence that Paulinho and Dembele have both had their best performances of the year in this new system being used by Sherwood.

What will the return of the 4-4-2 mean in the Premier League in 2014? 

The Pulis and Allardyce approach is likely to stick around if only because of its pragmatism and because it’s easier to find big bodied strikers like Kenwyne Jones and pacey wingers like Matt Jarvis who tend to do well in this system. In England especially those players are available en masse and the traditional 4-4-2 is a good way to utilize them. Teams that use it will never be consistent trophy winners but they’re also unlikely to get relegated.
Pelligrini’s approach, meanwhile, is likely to remain unique to Manchester City. Playing it effectively requires a unique manager and, realistically, three high-level strikers, four world-class number tens who can play wide roles, and probably three capable holding midfielders. As it stands, Manchester City and Chelsea are probably the only Premier League clubs that can afford such players. And as long as a certain Portuguese pragmatist is in the Chelsea dugout, it’s unlikely that the Blues will opt for such an open, attack-driven approach. (It’s also worth noting that both Oscar and Juan Mata tend to struggle when forced to play the wide role required by Pelligrini’s approach.)
The system that offers the most intrigue going forward, then, has to be the Pardew/Sherwood 4-4-2. It’s likely too light in midfield to appeal to Brendan Rodgers, but it’s not hard to imagine Liverpool thriving in such a system. Line up with Gerrard and Henderson in midfield, play Coutinho and Sterling as the wide men and go with Sturridge and Suarez up top. Coutinho would tuck in, Sterling would move forward and you’d have your 4-3-3. It’s also very easy to imagine Lucas slotting into midfield and Victor Moses playing the wide attacking role. If Liverpool wishes to maintain two strikers up top without opting for the 3-5-2, this type of 4-4-2 would be the way to do it. It also would likely help bring the best out in Gerrard and Henderson, both of whom would have the freedom to make surging runs forward from their deeper midfield roles.
The system could also do nicely for Southampton, with a lineup of Lallana, Wanyama, Schneiderlin, Rodriguez in midfield and Osvaldo and Lambert up top. Lallana would tuck in and Rodriguez would move forward. Struggling Sunderland could also adapt this approach to their squad—play Craig Gardner and Lee Cattermole in midfield, play Ki on one wing, Fabio Borini or Emmanuel Giaccherini on the other and have Altidore and Fletcher up top. Seb Larsson could likely be deployed in both wide midfield roles depending on the need for that particular game.
The advantage to this approach is that it gives clubs with more limited resources the ability to play a versatile formation that allows them to stay organized in defense, multiple in attack, and to get the best out of their box-to-box midfielders who perhaps aren’t on the level of the creative geniuses that can be easily found at larger clubs. The two clubs that have used it thus far are ample proof of the fact–Newcastle and Spurs, two sides with ambitions that tend to outstrip their resources. For similar clubs–decent sized but not as financially well off as City, Chelsea or even Arsenal–such as Liverpool, Everton, Southampton, or Aston Villa this approach could work quite well.

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