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Is 4-4-2 making a comeback?


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From yesterday's guardian


The Question: Is 4-4-2 making a comeback?


Chelsea and Manchester United both employed variations on 4-4-2 in the Community Shield — are we set for a resurgence of the traditionalists' favourite formation?


So much for the inevitable march of progress. As we come to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the two sides rated by the bookmakers as the best in England raised the curtain on the new season by lining up against each other in variations of 4-4-2.


Chelsea, admittedly, tried to make it look as though they were still playing with a lone striker by fielding an anonymous Nicolas Anelka alongside Didier Drogba, but still, this was discernibly a diamond midfield. United's system was rather more fluid, with Wayne Rooney dropping off Dimitar Berbatov and Nani, on the left, given a more attacking brief than Park Ji-sung, who tucked in on the right, while keeping half an eye on Ashley Cole's forward darts.


The pundits who have told us incessantly that they like to see a team paying "two up top" must be delighted, as must those who have hailed Carlo Ancelotti's switch away from the 4-1-2-3 that they have used almost since Jose Mourinho's arrival (although he too started off with the diamond he had used in winning the Champions League with Porto) as a turn towards attacking football.


But let's get this clear, for this is one of the prime fallacies in discussions of tactics: 4-4-2 is neither more nor less attacking than 4-1-2-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1 or any of the other variants of 4-5-1. Formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them positive or negative qualities.



The move to the single forward

United's abandonment of what others called 4-4-2 (Sir Alex Ferguson claims never to have used it, and the deployment of Eric Cantona, Dwight Yorke and Teddy Sheringham as deep-lying second strikers certainly meant that they were never as constrained by the three rigid bands as most other English sides) was prompted by Manchester United's 3-2 defeat to Real Madrid in 2000. Although United were not as outplayed as many would later claim – and were undone as much by bad defending as anything else – the defeat was seemingly enough to convince Ferguson of the need to dismantle the old formation, to find a way of introducing less predictable talents, dribblers who could beat their man without the need for acceleration room, rather than chargers and crossers.


To do that, though, necessitated a defensive platform, and so began the shift towards 4-2-3-1, which went through its uneasy teething with Juan Sebastián Verón, and reached its glorious culmination two seasons ago with a shape that, with Rooney and Carlos Tevez drifting, and Cristiano Ronaldo swooping in from the right, threatened at times to do away with a conventional centre-forward altogether. The move to a single forward, in other words, was attacking in origin.


What makes the misconception all the more frustrating is that English football seemed to have learned the lesson that football is a holistic game and that fewer attackers does not necessarily mean less attacking or more defenders more defending during the 1990 World Cup. John Barnes and Chris Waddle, asked why they struggled to reproduce their domestic form at international level, invariably replied by pointing out that England's 4-4-2 demanded they hold the shape; they could never exercise their attacking talents with quite the freedom they had with Liverpool or Marseille.


Given Bobby Robson constructed fluid sides at club level, the rigidity of his England was probably, at least in part, the result of the lack of time available to players at international level to develop a mutual understanding. Then Robson, ahead of the second group game, terrified that England would be torn apart by Holland as they had been at Euro 88, introduced Mark Wright as a third centre-back. With a sound defensive platform, the midfield and full-backs were suddenly liberated: the shift to an ostensibly more defensive shape actually made England a more fluent attacking side.


"I can play for Liverpool," Barnes told Pete Davies in All Played Out, "and it's like the continentals – they'll have someone in that zone, but not necessarily the same person. So Alan Hansen can go past me, and I'll take his position. But here [in a 4-4-2], if Chris comes off the line, or I come off the line, and no one goes into that position, if the full-back doesn't come, then the marker's free. With the sweeper [system], the full-back can go, and the sweeper can cover; or the marker can cover and the sweeper can mark – you're not caught short anywhere."



The logic, or lack of it, behind reverting to 4-4-2

So what will the switch back to 4-4-2 mean in practice? The art of tactics – and this again is a point that is often misconstrued – is the art of shifting the battle to where you want it to be fought. It is not that one formation is necessarily better than another. That said, over the 140 years or so of football history there has been a general trend of moving to fewer and fewer forwards, because more men in defence and midfield means it is easier to regain the ball, and tends to provide for more options once a team has it.


Other than accommodating Anelka (and as Guus Hiddink showed, he could be used to the right of an asymmetric 4-3-3 if he really had to be included), it is, frankly, hard to see the logic behind Chelsea's switch. At United, having lost Ronaldo and Tevez, two fluid, multi-functional players, a return to something more traditional makes sense as a retrenchment, a short-term protection against change. You do wonder, though, whether Ferguson would have gone back to a nominal 4-4-2 had he still had as his assistant Carlos Queiroz, who arguably pioneered playing no strikers with his Portugal youth sides in the early 90s and then was key in United's move to 4-2-3-1 earlier in this decade.


There are two areas where the classic 4-4-2 logically struggles against 4-3-3. Firstly, in the middle of midfield, where the 4-3-3 has three players against two and so, given equality of ability of player, should be able to dominate possession. The way Park played narrow for United on Sunday suggested he may be used as a counter against that. Chelsea, meanwhile, with a diamond, effectively have four central midfielders anyway; or, given how far forward Frank Lampard played and that Florent Malouda was tugging left, at least two and two halves. The two are Mikel Jon Obi and Michael Essien, so that shouldn't be too much of an issue.


The other problem, though, may be rather more serious. Wingers, recently, have had to take on increased defensive responsibility to check the forward sallies of full-backs (who became increasingly attacking as they got used to having space when 4-4-2 met 4-4-2). Park excelled in that role last season, as, at times, did Rooney, most notably away to Porto in the Champions league quarter-final when he stifled Aly Cissokho.


With two central strikers, rather than two wide men pushed high on the full-backs, that becomes far harder to do. In the first half on Sunday, Nani had the beating of Branko Ivanovic, partly because he was coming at him from deep, and so was already moving at pace when he met a putative challenge – which is an advantage 4-4-2 has over 4-3-3 – and partly because he was supported by the surges of Patrice Evra, who was unchecked by Chelsea's narrow midfield.


However good a full-back may be defensively, there is little he can do once such a situation has developed; Ancelotti's solution was to bring on José Bosingwa in the second half, and his capacity to take the attack to United, forcing Nani to defend, had stifled some of his attacking threat even before he suffered the dislocated shoulder.


Their battle was similar to the confrontation between Ronaldo, playing on the left, and Essien, playing at right-back, in the 2008 Champions League final. Then, Ronaldo had the better of the first half-hour, until Essien began to drive at and beyond him, setting up Lampard's equaliser as his drive was half-blocked, and going on to have the better of the contest for the rest of the game.


On the other side, Malouda did little to trouble John O'Shea, but Cole twice burst past Park towards the end of the first half – understandably given he was also bolstering the right side of midfield and thus dealing in part with Malouda – to set up chances for Drogba, who headed over, and Anelka, who shot wide.



The Michael Owen factor

With the same starting XI, United could switch easily to a 4-3-3. In fact, given the asymmetry of their midfield, their formation on Sunday, at least in the first half, was almost halfway between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, and was thus not dissimilar to how England played at Euro 96, with Steve McManaman pushing forward on the left, while Teddy Sheringham dropped off Alan Shearer.


However the signing of Michael Owen, who cannot play as a lone striker, suggests Ferguson is considering 4-4-2, at least for certain games. Provided United are confident of dominating possession, there is no reason why that won't work, at least against lesser teams.


Owen and Berbatov are a logical partnership, while Owen and Rooney, although they never had a great relationship with England – only once has one ever scored from an assist by the other – do have a compatibility: teams defend high against Rooney to restrict his space, and preferred to defend deep against Owen so he couldn't use his pace to exploit the space behind them. If that pace really is as diminished as it seemed in his later days at Newcastle,it may not be so relevant, but teams anyway defend deeper now than they did in his heyday thanks to the liberalisation of the offside law.


Chelsea's diamond, meanwhile, seems far less flexible – although of course they do have the players to revert to the 4-1-2-3 of old if required – and it is hard to see how they would deal with a side featuring two attacking full-backs. Given how well Malouda ended last season, it's easy to see why Ferguson opted for the more defensive O'Shea, but it would have been fascinating to have seen Fabio unleashed earlier than the 76th minute. Equally the fact that both Drogba and Anelka play high, while Berbatov and Rooney like to drop deep, suggests United will have the greater fluidity.


Given Arsenal will pick a front three from Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie and Eduardo, with Cesc Fábregas pulling the strings, they should be significantly the most fluid side in the Premier League; which, if – and it is a big if – they can sort out their problems at the back of the midfield and in central defence, could make them surprising challengers. Liverpool fans, similarly, can look at their 4-2-3-1 and draw encouragement from its modernity, even if it is hard to see how the passing of Xabi Alonso can be compensated for.


What that means for the rest of the season depends really on how flexible each proves to be; although given the dominance that the Big Four (or Five) still exerts over not merely the Premier League but also the majority of Europe – diminishing as it may be as the effects of Real Madrid's spending, the falling pound and the 50% tax band kick in – it could be some time before the effects of the tactical reversion are felt.


"Football," said Viktor Maslov, the Dynamo Kyiv coach who pioneered pressing and so can be hailed as the father of the modern game, "is like an aeroplane. As velocities increase, so does air resistance, and so you have to make the head more stream-lined." For 40 years he has been right: a return to 4-4-2 feels rather like evolution has paused for breath.

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