Soccer has gone through many changes over the years, big hair has disappeared, the back pass has been outlawed, and players’ shorts have, thankfully, got a lot longer. However, a couple of things have remained the same, like Alex Ferguson endlessly checking his watch during a game, and Manchester United playing 4-4-2.
Soccer formations have changed a lot over the years as the tactics and styles of soccer have evolved. In the early days defense did not really seem to be on the minds of most coaches, and this was reflected in the all-out-attacking formations of the teams. In the first international game, Scotland versus England on the 30 November 1872, Scotland played 2-2-6 formations with 6 forwards, while England played with 8 forwards in a 1-1-8 formation.
Yet, with so much emphasis given to attack the game still managed to finish in a 0-0 draw. Formations then went from 2-3-5 pyramid formations in the 1880s, to WM’s in the 1920s’, to 4-2-4 in the 1950’s. But by the late 1980’s it seemed 4-4-2 was the way to go.
Implemented under Arrigo Sacchi and continued by Fabio Capello, AC Milan dominated Europe with 4-4-2, wining three European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, and three UEFA Super Cups between 1988 and 1995. The formation was the default for many of the top teams in the 1990’s, and no team has been more indentified with the 4-4-2 formation over the years than Manchester United. It has been the tactical template for the red devils for the last 26 years, and in that time they have won 30 major trophies including 12 EPL Championships, 5 FA Cups, and 2 European Cups. United has long had a tradition of attacking with players flying down the wings and getting crosses into the box. Stellar names like Giggs, Beckham, Kanchelskis, and Cristaino Ronaldo have occupied the winger role that Sir Alex Ferguson has loved over the years, and the tradition has been kept alive recently with the likes of Nani, Valencia and Ashley Young.
But overseas and elsewhere in the EPL the 4-4-2 formation has gradually been phased out by the top teams. At the 2010 World Cup, 27 of the 32 teams were employing the 4-2-3-1. The reason being that 4-2-3-1 seems to beat 4-4-2, tactically speaking anyway. As Jose Mourinho explained:
If I have a triangle in midfield I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with (French midfielder Claude) Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things’.
It seems obvious that a three-man central midfield should always get the better of a two-man central midfield. In a two-man central midfield you require at least one box-to-box midfielder, who can tackle, pass, and shoot - in other words the full Monty - a player like Bryan Robson, Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard. But such midfielders are a dying breed. The modern game is all about specialists; there are holding midfielders, passing midfielders, creative number 10 midfielders, each with their own role and specific area in the pitch in which to operate. The lack of complete midfielders may be one of the reasons teams have stopped using 4-4-2.
So are 4-4-2’s and wingers’ days numbered? It would seem so, indeed even United this season appear to have abandoned the system switching to a diamond in midfield, and it has paid dividends with the red devils the leading scorers in the EPL this season. Many view Ferguson switch to the diamond as a reflection of the way the modern game is evolving, and a reaction to United’s recent failures in Europe, especially against Barcelona. But it should be noted that in United’s two Champions League final defeats to Barcelona they did not actually play 4-4-2 and rarely do in Europe’s premier competition. Also a side playing 4-4-2 with wingers pushed up high and one striker in the hole are effectively playing 4-2-3-1. So given that many 4-4-2’s are effectively 4-2-3-1, does it really matter what we call it. Indeed, during the course of a game a team’s formation is constantly changing; a team may be 4-5-1 when defending, and 4-3-3 when attacking.
The modern game requires versatility and adaptability, and any team that sticks to a rigid formation, be it 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, will soon find themselves in trouble. Ferguson recently told reporters:
In fact, United actually switched back to a 4-4-2 recently with explosive result, winning 2-3 away to Chelsea with many pundits put it down to their width. After the game Ferguson said he had made the switch back after hearing an 80-year-old grandmother from Rochdale called Margaret bemoaning his use of the diamond formation on the club’s in-house television channel.
I think the level of the game in England and Europe is such a high level now that making yourself unpredictable is going to be a strength. Teams will have to think if we are going to play two wide players or the diamond because we have players capable of doing both things. Players like Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley can play very well in the type of matches the diamond offers. And of course in Nani, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, I’ve got really good wide players also. It is difficult – we have had some success playing with the diamond. The history of the club is always to play with wide players, particularly at Old Trafford, so I have a decision to make.
So 4-4-2 looks like it's here to stay, though it may not always look the way we have been used to seeing it over the years. However, what does seem certain is that as long as there are players like Nani, Valencia, and Ashley Young with skill and pace who are willing to take on players and get a cross in the box, and Grandmas like Margaret from Rochdale, 4-4-2 will still have a place at Manchester United.