Having supposedly died out halfway through the last decade, the 4-4-2 formation has enjoyed a surprising renaissance this season.
England’s unthinking attachment to the shape first introduced by Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’ in 1966 (pictured) took a battering when José Mourinho swaggered into English football in 2004 and promptly won back-to-back Premier League titles with a counter-attacking 4-3-3 at Chelsea. The 2006 World Cup, meanwhile, was dominated by teams playing in a 4-2-3-1 to such an extent that hosts Germany were the only side playing in a 4-4-2 to achieve anything of note in the tournament.
Against a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1, teams playing 4-4-2 conceded a numerical advantage in the middle of the pitch and couldn’t bring their full-backs into the game because of the presence in their territory of the opposition’s wingers. The great teams from the tail-end of the decade favoured innovative strikerless systems, such as Manchester United’s 4-3-3/4-2-4-0 in 2007-2008 or Barcelona’s fluid 4-3-3 from the season after. The 4-4-2, it was said, had become obsolete.
This season, though, it’s started to make a comeback. Fulham have defied all expectations to reach the final of the Europa League playing in a disciplined 4-4-2, while Louis van Gaal’s equally well-drilled Bayern Munich will confront Inter in the Champions League final in a 4-2-4/4-2-3-1 hybrid that, in flying wide players, combative midfielders and predatory strikers, bears all the hallmarks of the classic 4-4-2 of yesteryear.
Blackburn coach Sam Allardyce may be of the opinion that the 4-4-2 is an “antiquated” formation that is unworkable in the modern game, but it is in the Premier League that the 4-4-2 resurgence has been most pronounced. Of the teams outside the Big Four that have met or exceeded expectations this term – namely Fulham, Tottenham, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Stoke – two-striker formations have been the order of the day, as demonstrated by the following average position diagrams from their recent home matches (starting players circled; images pinched from ESPN Soccernet):
Fulham average positions, 0-0 v Wolverhampton Wanderers (17 April 2010):
[Squad numbers: 1. Mark Schwarzer; 6. Chris Baird, 18. Aaron Hughes, 26. Chris Smalling, 3. Paul Konchesky; 16. Damien Duff, 13. Danny Murphy, 20. Dickson Etuhu, 29. Simon Davies; 11. Zoltán Gera, 25. Bobby Zamora]
Tottenham Hotspur average positions, 1-0 v Bolton Wanderers (1 May 2010):
[Squad numbers: 1. Heurelho Gomes; 4. Younes Kaboul, 20. Michael Dawson, 26. Ledley King, 32. Benoît Assou-Ekotto; 5. David Bentley, 6. Tom Huddlestone, 14. Luka Modrić, 3. Gareth Bale; 9. Roman Pavlyuchenko, 18. Jermain Defoe]
Manchester City average positions, 3-1 v Aston Villa (May 1 2010):
[Squad numbers: 38. Márton Fülöp; 5. Pablo Zabaleta, 28. Kolo Touré, 33. Vincent Kompany, 3. Wayne Bridge; 11. Adam Johnson, 34. Nigel de Jong, 24. Patrick Vieira, 39. Craig Bellamy; 32. Carlos Tévez, 25. Emmanuel Adebayor]
Aston Villa average positions, 1-0 v Birmingham City (25 April 2010):
[Squad numbers: 1. Brad Friedel; 24. Carlos Cuéllar, 29. James Collins, 5. Richard Dunne, 25. Stephen Warnock; 6. Stewart Downing, 19. Stiliyan Petrov, 8. James Milner, 7. Ashley Young; 11. Gabriel Agbonlahor, 10. John Carew]
Birmingham City average positions, 2-1 v Burnley (1 May 2010):
[Squad numbers: 25. Joe Hart; 21. Stuart Parnaby, 14. Roger Johnson, 6. Liam Ridgewell, 27. Grégory Vignal; 7. Sebastian Larsson, 12. Barry Ferguson (obscured by substitute, 17. Míchel), 4. Lee Bowyer; 16. James McFadden; 10. Cameron Jerome, 11. Christian Benítez]
Stoke City average positions, 0-0 v Everton (1 May 2010):
[Squad numbers: 27. Asmir Begović; 28. Andy Wilkinson, 17. Ryan Shawcross, 4. Robert Huth, 3. Danny Higginbotham; 24. Rory Delap, 6. Glenn Whelan, 18. Dean Whitehead, 26, Matthew Etherington; 11. Mamady Sidibe, 10. Ricardo Fuller]
There is obviously not an enormous difference between a 4-4-2 and a 4-4-1-1, which Fulham tend to use, and 4-2-3-1 is probably a closer approximation of Manchester City’s actual shape, while Tottenham push their wide players much further forward than any of the other teams and Aston Villa could be said to line up in a 4-1-3-2. Nonetheless, all six sides have deployed a pair of central midfielders, a pair of genuine wide players and a pair of central forwards in the majority of their Premier League games and all, without exception, have enjoyed seasons that rank among the best in their recent history.
“The back four gives you the best possibilities, I think, of covering the width of the field defensively. It also gives you great options to get [the full-backs] forward,” said Fulham coach Roy Hodgson in a video on the UEFA Training Ground website in which he explains his preference for the 4-4-2.
“You need a centre forward. You need a point of reference. One of the major problems we saw in the  World Cup is that teams found it hard sometimes to play the ball forward because they did not have a point of reference up front. If you play with two of them, you’ve got the added advantage that whoever receives the ball has someone in close support at all times.
“[The central midfielders] protect the back four but are also going to be the catalyst for your attacks. The wide players are the ones you’re looking for to use [the] wide spaces and by playing 4-4-2 you’ve got twos all over the field. You’ve got two [on the left] supporting each other, you’ve got two [on the right] supporting each other, two [up front] supporting each other, two [in central midfield] and two [in central defence]. I would say that the back four is sacrosanct. Among the front six there are a lot more options.”
Jonathan Wilson recently wrote about Fulham’s tactical set-up and his conclusions largely ring true for the other five teams listed above – namely that there is no magic formula. Manchester City can call upon the brilliance of players like Carlos Tévez and Tottenham have one of the strongest squads in the division, but all six teams have founded their success upon hard work and defensive discipline. All feature in the Premier League’s defensive top 10 and boast statistics comparable to one-time title challengers Arsenal when it comes to goals conceded.
It’s difficult to say why the 4-4-2 has returned to prominence in such fashion, particularly when modern thinking assumes one-striker formations with specialist defensive midfielders represent an irreversible step forward in the game’s tactical evolution. Improved fitness surely plays a part, particularly as the two central midfielders will frequently come up against three opposition players. The trend can also partly be explained by the popularity of ‘inside-out’ wingers (such as Ashley Young and Stewart Downing of Aston Villa), whose inclination to cut inside naturally brings them into the centre of midfield, and more defensively minded forwards (such as Tévez and Fulham’s Bobby Zamora), who play much more of a team role than the goal-hanging centre forwards of old.
Despite the 4-4-2’s resurgence, it is notable that the Premier League’s top three have all adopted less orthodox formations, with Chelsea flitting between 4-3-1-2, 4-3-2-1 and, in recent weeks, an unbelievably attacking 4-3-3; Manchester United often falling back on a sturdy 4-5-1 for high-profile matches; and Arsenal persisting with a new 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 system that has flickered to life in direct correlation with the availability of their injury-blighted key players. An old-fashioned 4-4-2 might not be enough to cut the mustard over the course of an entire Premier League title race, but Fulham and co have demonstrated that it need not be the barrier to success that it is often blithely assumed to be.