An outdated football formation?
England have been one of the surprise success stories of Euro 2012 so far, with Roy Hodgson’s side qualifying top of a group containing France, Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine. A notable difference that Hodgson has made has been to return the side to a variant of 4-4-2, but is the formation old-fashioned and out of date when it comes to the higher echelons of the game?
Fabio Capello preferred his England side to play with a 4-2-3-1 formation that could sometimes switch into a 4-3-3 when the team were attacking. The key to formations in the modern game is that they have to have a level of fluidity to them and 4-4-2 is well-known to be fairly slow to transition into any other formation with or without the ball.
The reasoning behind Hodgson’s switch has been simple, he took over the reins just a month before a major international tournament, there was simply no time to drill any sort of advanced coaching methods in such a short space of time when you are beginning to get to know your players. A system that introduces two banks of four makes you very difficult to break down and it is also very easy to teach in a just a few weeks. The majority of the players all would have played it at some point in their lives, with it being directly linked with the English game at all levels, and each and every player knows the job at hand.
Against both France and Ukraine, Hodgson dropped Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young into a slightly deeper lying roles to make it 4-4-1-1, but the overall effect is the same and the ethos very similar; it makes you difficult to play against but also means against different formation, such as 4-3-3, you can go long spells without the ball as there’s a 2 vs 3 match-up in central midfield.
England have had the 3rd lowest possesion stats out of the 16 teams at the tournament, averaging just 42% possession across their three games so far. Including the warm-up victories over Belgium and Norway, Hodgson’s side have not had more possession than their opponents in any of his five matches in charge. However, it’s proven somewhat effective as they’ve won four of those and drawn one, a great run of form considering the circumstances.
The weaknesses with the 4-4-2 formation have also been evidenced during England’s games at the tournament so far. With two settled and organised banks of four, there can be huge gaps to exploit between defence, midfield and attack, which is why the side have struggled to retain possession so often and also why opposing teams have peppered England’s goal with shots from distance. Ukraine had 16 shots to England’s nine while France had 21 attempts on goal to England’s five.
Of course, there hasn’t been an awful lot of through balls played in behind the England back four, but that’s because they’re playing so deep and inviting pressure onto them. It’s a risky tactic, allowing the opposition to have regular pops at your goal from distance as you’re essentially banking on them being off target. Italy’s midfield trio of Pirlo, De Rossi and Marchisio are likely to provide a sterner test in this regard and the England midfield will have to put far more pressure on the ball.
As you may be able to tell, this formation lives and dies by its central midfield partnership. Manchester United flourished in the 1990s because they had the likes of Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Bryan Robson and Paul Ince all playing there at various times while Arsenal achieved success with Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit. It requires the central midfielders to be as equally proficient in attack as they are in defence, and to play there in a 4-4-2 you have to be a well-rounded player.
The knock-on effect of this is that it places a heavy burden onto the wingers to perform. At times, the side will only have four attacking players compared to six defensive ones depending on the speed of the attack and transition. Arsenal relied on the goalscoring exploits of Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg while David Beckham and Ryan Giggs stretched the play with their dead-ball delivery and pace out wide for United.
So far, James Milner, while obviously performing a key defensive shield in front of Glen Johnson, has by and large disappointed, while Ashley Young has failed to spark into life, the opening 25 minutes against France aside. Theo Walcott’s match-winning performance against Sweden where he made one and scored one in a superb cameo proved that with the right player, though, the system can still flourish in a creative sense.
Looking at the Premier League last season, West Brom, Norwich, Liverpool, Tottenham (rarely) all used 4-4-2 at one point or another last season. It’s not outdated or out-moded just yet, but it does limit your options somewhat. In a tournament such as this, Greece showed in Euro 2004 that playing a defensive and limited system can work in your favour over the shorter format of six games but over the course of a full season, it’s likely to unravel somewhat.
The formation of 4-4-2 may not be over just yet, with hybrid systems aplenty springing up and it has shown with England so far with its 4-4-1-1 variant that it still has a part to play in the modern game. Its effectiveness has reduced, but when it comes to tournament football, the odd throwback will always prevail.
You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1