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Football Tactics basics: The 4-4-2 formation explained

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7500 to Holte tactical guide: The 4-4-2 formation

As 7500 to Holte's resident tactics obsessive,  a guide to some of the formations and tactical concepts that I talk about each week may help. So this is the first of a series of tactical guides I'll be writing to explain some of those fundamentals.

This week we're starting with a guide to a formation, that English classic, the 4-4-2. It's characterised by four defenders (two centre-backs in the middle, full-backs on the left and right sides), four midfielders (two central midfielders, two wingers on the left and right sides) and two strikers. This is the ‘open' or ‘flat' 4-4-2 in which the midfielders are not placed in a narrow diamond shape but spread out in a line.

The 4-4-2 formation

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The chief benefit of the 4-4-2 is its simplicity. It provides a solid basic structure with defensive depth and attacking numbers, with clearly marked roles. Many English players have grown up playing this formation their entire lives and define their position as a defender, midfielder or striker due to its influence.

Without the ball, the four defenders and four midfielders can put eight men in front of the opposition, covering the entire width of the field. If the defence pushes up high with the midfield, the opposition can be strangled in their own half by a wall of players. With the ball, there are always options out wide and a strong presence up front to provide attacking options via long balls or crosses.

The real danger of the 4-4-2 is a pair of strikers who understand each other's game. The common example is a ‘big man-little man' combo, where a big striker is the target man for long balls and crosses, ready to knock the ball behind the defence or down into the box for his partner to latch onto. Christian Benteke and Gabby Abgonlahor have played this way for Aston Villa this season. But such combinations can exist between many different types of strikers. The best example in recent years was under Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in Andy Cole and the former Villa man Dwight Yorke - two good strikers who became terrifying when put together and drove United to their 1998-99 Treble.


The downside of the 4-4-2 is that its rigid positions can lead to a side being swamped by more flexible opponents. The obvious potential weakness is that by playing with two strikers you can be outnumbered in midfield. While one striker may be tasked with dropping back to help out, many strikers are not disciplined enough to do so effectively. If the wingers also prefer playing out by the sidelines of the pitch, the central midfielders can quickly be isolated against teams playing three or even four central midfielders.

That rigidity is caused by the 4-4-2's three lines of players which can allow opposition players to find pockets of space ‘between the lines', especially defence and midfield. A well-disciplined team will compress the space between defence and midfield so as to avoid this, but a poorly organized 4-4-2 can leave huge amounts of space in front of the defence and if the midfield cannot close down the passing lanes, teams can be ripped apart by opposition players lurking in those spaces.

Martin O'Neill´s Aston Villa

The example that most Villa fans will remember is under Martin O'Neill from 2007-2010. The key components of his 4-4-2 were the strikers and the wingers. Up front, Gabby Abgonlahor was paired with a big target man in the form of either John Carew or Emile Heskey. Width was provided by the team's standout performer Ashley Young and James Milner or Stewart Downing.

O'Neill also used powerful aerial centre-backs, either the outstanding Martin Laursen and Olof Mellberg or James Collins and Richard Dunne. The key central midfielders of his tenure were Gareth Barry and Stiliyan Petrov, with Milner also sometimes playing in the middle.

This video of a 5-1 win against  Bolton shows the shape of the Villa attack, balls flying in from the wings towards John Carew, supported by Gabby Abgonlahor. The reason this team was elevated beyond a typical 4-4-2 was the quality and versatility of Ashley Young and James Milner. Starting on the left wing, Ashley Young could cross with either foot, or cut in and score and was given complete freedom to switch wings as he wished -a winger on both sides of the pitch and a third striker at the same time. Milner was even more flexible, a winger, a third striker and a fine central midfielder as well.

Young and Milner's versatility led an overwhelming Villa counter-attack which overrode the possible defensive weaknesses  of the formation itself and O'Neill's lack of a really good defensive midfielder or top full-backs - except occasionally such as the 7-1 loss to Chelsea.

The 4-4-2 and Villa right now

The 4-4-2 is very relevant at Villa right now due to Tim Sherwood taking over. Paul Lambert rarely used it, but it became strongly linked with Sherwood during his time at Tottenham when he brought Emmanuel Adebayor back into the team as a target man striker and got him scoring goals via this formation - though he insisted that "I don't know what you are saying about 4-4-2" when it was blamed for an FA Cup loss to Arsenal.

During his time at Villa we've seen this type of open 4-4-2  a few times - first in the glorious 4-0 win over Sunderland (which I analysed here if you want to relive it) but also in the losses against Swansea and Manchester United (analysis here and here for the more morbid). Sherwood has looked to use Benteke and Abgonlahor as a big man-little man pair and the pace of N'Zogbia and Sinclair on the wings, with the full-backs also given freedom to come up the field, especially Bacuna.

Against Sunderland it was hugely successful, their defenders unable to cope with the pace of the attack. However Swansea and Manchester United both used their superior numbers in midfield to dominate the game. Since then Sherwood has experimented instead with the ‘diamond' in midfield. We're unlikely to see the flat 4-4-2 again until Abgonlahor is fully fit, to reform the crucial striking partnership, but while good strikers and wingers are available, the 4-4-2 will always be an option when the side needs goals fast.

More articles in the 7500toHolte Football Tactics Basics series can be found here:

The 4-2-3-1 formation explained

The 4-3-3 formation explained

The 3-5-2 formation explained

The full-back position explained.