In many circles the 4-4-2 is seen as this vestige of soccer's primeval past. An English anachronism that emphasizes speed and braun over skill. There is a perception that any side that employs a 4-4-2 is tactically naive, and can't possibly compete at the highest level.
However for the first time I can remember in Houllier's reign, Aston Villa reverted back to the 4-4-2 in last week's draw against Everton. While it was not an outstanding performance and we were all hoping that Villa could leave Goodison with all three points, a draw was a decent result and was probably a fair representation of the run of play. It appears this week we can expect Villa to return to the 4-2-3-1 they have employed the majority of the season.
The 4-4-2 does get a bad rap for a number of reasons. Most of the top club sides employ a 4-2-3-1, 4-5-1, or a 4-3-3 where two of the forwards drop back to make a 4-5-1 when the opposition has possession. The majority of the sides in last year's World Cup also employed these similar systems. This system definitely has it's strengths. Against a 4-4-2 you have numerical superiority in the midfield. The fullbacks can make overlapping runs and one of the deeper lying midfielders can provide cover. A side can also employ two defensive minded midfielders to shield their back four.
The one argument you always her in favor of the 4-2-3-1 and against the 4-4-2 is the numerical superiority in midfield. It is true that in this match-up, the side employing the 4-4-2 is out-manned in the midfield. In their recent friendly with Argentina, the United States employed a 5 man midfield in an attempt to try and not be dominated in possession and win balls. What happened was that they even with parity in numbers, the American midfield was still completely overrun. In fact having the extra midfielder worked against the US. Each side had half their outfield players in the middle third of the park. The technically superior Argentinians were able to play short passes the US was hapless to stop them. When the US midfielders did manage to get the ball the midfield was so congested Argentina has very little ground to cover to close on the US and win the ball back. This probably sounds familiar to us Villians. I'd be willing to bet you are nodding your heads in agreement.
In the second half when the US switched to a 4-4-2 it stetched the field vertically for the US. It enabled the US to play more direct, made Argentina cover more space to close down the Amercians when the US had possession, and created more space for the Americans to run with pace instead of trying to play short passes themselves with their midfield bunched together. Again if this sounds familiar to an Aston Villa fan, just nod your head.
I am not advocating that Villa revert to the 4-4-2 permanently. They have looked great playing the 4-2-3-1 at times, most notably against Bolton a few weeks ago. it enables them to play Ashley Yound and Marc Albrighton at the same time. Darren Bent also plays better as a lone front man as he likes to roam around and find gaps in opposing defenses, a strike partner might get in his way, and he isn't the type of forward to create chances for a partner. I also think as they have become more comfortable playing this system they do have the technical skill to keep posession, play shorter passes, and create chances that way.
What I would like to see Villa do is be more willing to go to the 4-4-2. There have been plenty of times where the midfield has been overrun and they should have tried to play more direct. With Barry Bannon on loan there is nobody else in the squad who can make that killer pass to unlock a defense. Jean Makoun has had his moments in between stupid fouls, but he is still more of a defensive minded player who can help in attack than he is a playmaker. I wouldn't mind seeing Emile Heskey paired with Bent in a 4-4-2. Heskey is versatile enough to help defend set pieces, and help the midfield when Villa are not in posession.
Every system or formation has its advantages and disadvantages. I don't think Villa need to or should revert to the 4-4-2 full time, but I'd like them to have that club in the bag if the need arises.