The Rebirth of 4-4-2

If Leicester City’s irresistible charge towards the title tells us anything, it is that 4-4-2 is back.

Despite Claudio Ranieri downplaying the chances of his team ending the season as champions, they are certainly in the driving seat now. A win against Arsenal will only further enhance their credentials, and would surely see them become favourites.

Playing a brand of football that the Premier League has rarely seen in the last decade, Ranieri and co have been propelled to the top of the table, a position even more extraordinary considering that just 12-months before they were battling relegation.

Their meteoric rise is not only a proverbial middle finger to the “big” clubs with their multi-millionaire and billionaire owners, but it is in stark contrast to everything that modern English football is meant to represent.

For years the media have vilified coaches and managers that have stuck with the 4-4-2 system, labelling it “old-fashioned”, “prehistoric”, and “outdated”. The Independent were not alone when they called for the England national team to ditch the formation and “play like the rest of the world” in 2010. A year later, the same paper ran a triumphant headline which read; “Capello finally admits 4-4-2 belongs in dark days and that 4-3-3- is the future”.

The performances by The Foxes this season have not only proved that the Davids can compete, and overcome the Goliaths, but it has also been a rude awakening to the overwhelming majority of the press (myself included) who had prematurely written off the 4-4-2 system.

Though Leicester’s success has undoubtedly been a surprise to everyone this season, the shift back to 4-4-2 has been a long time coming.

In Liverpool’s near title winning season under Brendan Rodgers in 2013-14, the Northern Irishman stumbled across a winning formula, and it is one that had Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge leading the line together.

(Some may argue that Rodgers played with three up front, with Raheem Sterling joining Suarez and Sturridge, but the reality is that Sterling was never an out-and-out striker)

Together, SAS were the most potent partnership that the Premier League had seen in recent years, and were it not for a truly woeful defence – something The Reds are still guilty of – Liverpool would have been crowned champions that season.

Although Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki are not on the same level as SAS, their manner of play does have its similarities. They harass defenders when they are on the ball, they are direct runners, they attack at pace, and they pose a constant counter attacking threat.

In 2013-14, with two up-front, Liverpool led the goalscoring charts for most counter attacks converted. This season, with two up-front, Leicester do similarly.

Tactical changes and the decline of once dominant formations are inevitable in football, but the belief that there will be constant evolution is misguided. It is true, as Jonathan Wilson states, that the pyramid will invert, but this inversion will not be the end of the story. From here football tactics will enter a cycle of ups and downs, favoured and disfavoured, as established systems get reinvented or refreshed to overcome the dominant tactic of the time.

Since the 2003/04 season – the year of Arsenal’s Invincibles – no team has won the league playing a 4-4-2. The arrival of Jose Mourinho in the Premier League brought with it a shift to 4-3-3, and later 4-5-1, made possible by the availability of Claude Makelele at defensive midfield, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff on the wings, and Didier Drogba as a lone striker.

This system worked impeccably as Drogba kept both opposing centre backs occupied and provided Chelsea with the opportunity to field an extra man in midfield. Under 4-3-3, in Mourinho’s first season in charge at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea strolled to the title, winning the league  by 12 points and keeping a record-breaking 25 clean sheets. A truly incredible achievement.

Faced by this evolution in tactics, and its dramatic success, teams were forced to adapt or copy. Gradually 4-4-2 was surpassed by 4-3-3, and more recently by 4-5-1, as the dominant formation in the Premier League.

On the opening weekend of the Premier League season in August 2004, 17 of the 20 teams played with two strikers, only Bolton Wanderers, Manchester United, and Crystal Palace did not. In contrast, the opening fixtures of this season saw only one of the 20 teams play with two strikers (Leicester City) though a handful of teams did play with three.

Mourinho’s tactical developments, followed by Pep Guardiola’s revolution in how to control and dictate a game, influenced the style of play of teams across the world. However, this fetishisation of possession-based football has now received a backlash with the resurgence of 4-4-2.

Tired of attempting to compete in the duel of “death by a thousand passes”, teams without the technical and passing abilities have reverted to formations with compact defences and midfields and lightning-fast counter attacks. Surrendering possession to the opposition, they sit and wait for the opportune moment to present itself, before taking advantage. Leicester are the perfect example of this.

Of course The Foxes are not the only advocates of 4-4-2 in the Premier League this season. Watford have also consistently used the formation and have silenced pre-season critics by achieving a mid-table position. Three of the current top five Premier League goalscorers play for these two teams, with Vardy (18), Odion Ighalo (14), and Riyad Mahrez (14) finding the back of the net a total of 46 times so far. And this comes despite the fact that Leicester and Watford have two of the worst average possession stats in the league, 43.7% and 45.9% respectively. Only West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland have worse this season.

Perhaps it is necessity that both teams play with two strikers. Or perhaps it is because both Leicester and Watford have recently been promoted from long spells in The Championship and are yet to be exposed to the Premier League’s one striker addiction. Whatever it may be, both clubs have defied the pre-season odds from the bookmakers who put them among the favourites to go down.

The 4-4-2 revival is not exclusive to the Premier League, and if anything, we are in fact behind the times.

On the continent it has been a tactic used successfully by a number of teams. Most notably Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side in La Liga. Using this tactic Simeone has been able to overcome both Real Madrid and Barcelona, winning silverware in every one of his full seasons in charge. In 2013/14 he was moments away from doing the double of La Liga and the Champions League.

Athletic Bilbao adopted a 4-4-2 in their early season humbling of Barcelona, the Italian national side has returned to it under the management of Antonio Conte, and in Germany the use of 4-4-2 propelled Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen into the Champions League.

Whilst many have predicted the death of 4-4-2 in recent years, Jonathan Wilson has always been more reserved. Though he does not completely commit 4-4-2 to the pages of history, he has however repeatedly expressed his belief that it has lost its place as the dominant football tactic in the game.

In 2008 Wilson correctly predicted the imminent downfall of 4-4-2 stating that “at the highest level, the paradigm has already shifted: 4-2-3-1 is king”.

Perhaps we are not quite witnessing a regicide currently, but the exploits of Leicester in the Premier League, along with Gladbach and Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, and the continued success of Atletico Madrid in La Liga – all of whom play a 4-4-2 – should force managers, analysts, and pundits alike to contemplate a new dawn.

The 4-4-2 has awoken from its lengthy slumber. And it seems to be back with a vengeance.

Recommended Further Reading:

The Secrets of the Italian 4-4-2 – A brilliant comparative analysis by Thore Haugstad focusing on Atletico Madrid’s and Leicester City’s usage of the 4-4-2.

How The Return of the 4-4-2 Formation Has Shaken the Premier League – Alex Keble looks at how and why the 4-4-2 has developed as a backlash to modern possession-obsessed football.

In an article for The Independent in December, Danny Higginbotham voiced his belief that the 4-4-2 was the best football formation.

Also in December, Sky Sports looked at why both Leicester and Watford were achieving so much success with the formation.

The Death and Rebirth of 4-4-2 – A These Football Times article

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