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The Tactics Board – 4-4-2 Preview for MUFC in 2012

This has been the standard formation in England for several decades. This formation blasted onto the scene in England with Alf Ramsey’s 1966 England team. The 4-4-2 became the mainstay for English football for 40 years, with most teams playing this formation to the exclusion of almost every other formation. For the next 40 years, almost every team that won the league title in England used a 4-4-2. This formation also caught on in much of Europe, but it fell out of favor in Europe in the early 2000s. Most European teams started switching to a 4-3-3, or eventually a 4-2-3-1, but the 4-4-2 remained dominant in English football.

Positions & Skills-

Defensive Line-

This formation’s back-line is similar to the back-line of many other formations that use a flat back 4. It consists of 2 center-backs, who sit deep and are completely devoted to defense with no real attacking assignments. The center-backs need great stamina, the ability to organize the defensive line, and great defensive skills. There are 2 fullbacks, one on each side of the center-backs, and they are responsible for defending the area wide of the center-backs. But, unlike the center-backs, they also have attacking tasks. When the team has prolonged periods of possession, the fullbacks are tasked with getting forward to support the wingers, helping to control possession and move the ball laterally, while also making overlapping runs past the wingers to overload the opposing defense.


The midfield is anchored by 2 box-to-box (B2B) midfielders in the middle, whose jobs range from shielding and defending in front of the center-back pairing to getting forward on the attack to provide late runs into the penalty area. Their responsibilities are split 50/50 between attacking and defending. Most teams that use the 4-4-2 have matched a good passing central midfielder with a more physical ball-winning central midfielder. The tackler is responsible for winning the ball back and having more of a defensive focus while the passing central midfielder takes more responsibility for contributing to the offensive build-up. However, unlike other formations, both of these central midfielders are responsible for putting in good effort and work on both sides of the ball. The central midfielders need to have tactical intelligence, to help organize the teams attacking phase. They need to be strong and confident with the ball, able to make short passes to move the ball laterally to the wingers and ahead to the two strikers. They must also be defensively proficient, able to deal with strong midfielders and not afraid to put in a strong tackle to break up a building attack. They also need to be positionally proficient, which tends to lead to a high number of interceptions. The central midfielders are also often responsible for organize the defensive pressing.

On each side of the center midfielders are 2 traditional wingers, both of whom have the offensive objectives of providing attacking width and accurate crosses into the box. They get forward down the touchline to run at the oppositions fullbacks, meaning they must have good pace, acceleration, decent dribbling ability and the confidence to run at the fullbacks. They should also have good crossing ability, able to put in strong and accurate crosses into the box from near the byline, for the 2 forwards to attack. Defensively, their job is to quickly track back and assist the fullbacks in dealing with the opponent’s wingers; they also are responsible for keeping an eye on the opponent’s fullbacks when they try to get forward.


Cole & Yorke - Pefect Strike Partners

Unlike most current formations which depend on a lone striker, the 4-4-2 has 2 strikers leading the line. Often, a 4-4-2 is built on a great striker partnership, such as Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole. But there are several different options for the 2 strikers. Some teams play with a tall target man, playing besides a smaller, agile striker. Other teams will play with one striker that is constantly trying to get behind the defensive line while the other striker will play deeper. The 2 strikers are responsible for converting the team’s possession into goals. Often, one of the strikers needs to be a good header of the ball who can get on the end of the crosses that the wingers will put into the box. Additionally, one of them needs to be good with the ball at his feet, able to create spaces and a decent shooter from distance. On defense, the 2 strikers need to pressure the opposition’s defensive line when they have the ball. The strikers need to ensure that the opponent’s center-backs don’t have too much time on the ball, preventing any dangerous passes from the opponent’s back line.

4-4-2 Tactics & Strategy-

There are certain tactical requirements necessary for 4-4-2 to function well. One key to the 4-4-2 is to ensure the space between the backline and the front line stays short, often within 30-40 yards. This restricts the space between the lines for the opposition to operate in. While playing close together, it makes it easier for the defense to regain possession. The short space also allows the team to transition quickly to the attack, and makes short passes easier.

4-4-2 on the Attack

When playing against a team with a back line of 4, the 2 strikers will line up against 2 center-backs. This 2v2 means that the defense has no back-up if one of the center-backs makes a mistake. Most formations with a lone striker will allow the defense to always have a free man in the back-line to cover any players that get away from their marker.

This formation has good width, with the wingers and fullbacks used to stretch the opposing defense from touchline to touchline. When the fullbacks come forward to assist the wingers, you get chances for overload (2v1) chances out wide. The central midfielders often get forward to contribute on the attack. One of the central midfielders will often stay deep, while the other will often make late runs into the box in hopes of getting through unmarked. These late runs into the box can be dangerous goal scoring opportunities.

4-4-2 defending

Defensively, the main component of this formation is two banks of 4 defenders. This means that the team will often have 8 outfield players in the final third of the pitch, leaving little open space for the opposition to operate in. The backline will consist of the center-backs and the fullbacks, with all 4 often standing inside their own penalty area. The center-backs are responsible for zonal marking the area in front of the net, often covering the opponent’s strikers. The full-backs mark the areas out wide of the center-backs, often covering the opponent’s wide players. The second bank of 4 will be the 2 central midfielders and both wingers. The wingers often drop back to assist the fullbacks in dealing with the oppositions wide players. They also will cover the opposition’s fullbacks if they come forward. The central midfielders act as a screen in front of their own center-backs, trying to shut down the space between the lines. The two strikers are needed to pressure the opposition’s defensive line when they have the ball, pressing them to hurry their passes.

Player Pairing in the middle

A strategic plus with this formation is the rigid pairing in the “spine” of the formation, with the players supporting each other. The center-backs are paired together, supporting each other. Ahead of the center-backs, the central midfielders are paired together. They support each other, but also support the center-backs behind them and the strikers who are paired ahead of them. Defensively, this means that should a player have problems they will have somebody nearby to assist him to shut down the threat. Offensively, there is always a passing option close by, to go with other passing options further afield.

For all the advantages that the 4-4-2 can afford your team, there are several problems that can arise from it. When trying to control possession, there are some problems that this formation can cause. One of the main problems is that the three separate lines will often play straight across, and this makes it difficult to form the passing triangles that are needed to control possession and beat a compact defense. This formation can work well against a team defending deep, that is willing to concede possession, but against a team that is pressing high up the field, you will struggle to control possession.

Another major problem can happen if the lines start to get too far apart. If the distance between the back and front line get more than 40 yards, gaps and spaces will start to open up between the lines.  Defensively, with 3 lines fairly straight across, when gaps open between the lines there are no defenders to cover the space. That leads to attackers in dangerous positions with no defender nearby to pick them up. Offensively, this formation works well to stretch a defense out laterally, but the need for the three lines to stay close together means that it doesn’t work well to stretch out a defense length-wise.

However, the biggest problem is when confronting an opponent who plays a formation with 3 central midfielders, such as 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1. The opponent will have 3 players in the central midfield, against 2 in this formation. This will cause problems on offense and defense. With 3 central midfielders against 2, the opposition will have no problem shutting down attacks through the middle of the pitch due to an extra man in that area. After regaining possession, they have an easier time controlling possession with that extra man. The only solution to this problem is to pull one of the strikers back to help in the midfield, but this pulls him away from the goal and reduces his effectiveness.

4-4-2 Advantages & Disadvantages-


+Defensively, each player often has a nearby player helping in their assignment

+Short distance between the back-line and the front line leaves little space for the opposition to operate in.

+The short distance makes it easy to regain possession

+Frequent short passes are easy

+2 Strikers makes quick counter-attacks easier

+Often 2 strikers against 2 center-backs in the penalty area.

+Attacking width and quality crossing chances


+The 3 lines often line up straight, making it difficult to form passing triangles.

+With 2 central midfielders, it’s easy to get overwhelmed in the central midfield.

+If the lines get too spread out, it’s easy for the opponent to operate between the lines.

+Easy to get caught on the counter attack when fullbacks press forward.


The 4-4-2 and Manchester United-

Manchester United plays the 4-4-2 slightly different than most teams. United’s best strike partnership in this formation is to pair Wayne Rooney with Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez. Rooney is able to combine his strength, creativity, and close control with Chicharito’s pace, aerial ability and excellent movement off the ball. Chicharito is a great option to play alongside Wayne Rooney, but he isn’t the only option. Danny Welbeck functions well in this formation, but for different reasons. He is dangerous on the ball, and he will drop deep at times to get time on the ball and move at defenders. While he doesn’t have the speed of Chicharito, his movement on, and off, the ball make him hard for defenses to cover, as evident repeatedly last season and at Euro 2012. Another option is Dimitar Berbatov. He played well alongside Rooney in this formation in 2009/2010, but his play style is too similar to Wayne Rooney now to allow them to play together well in this formation.

Manchester United 4-4-2 Lineup

United has the kind of quality wingers necessary to succeed in a 4-4-2. The best option on the right wing would be Antonio Valencia, who plays the type of wingers that we’ve seen for the last 40 years. He was the Red Devil’s Player of the Season last year, after scoring 6 goals and 14 assists in 37 appearances. The best option on the left wing would be Nani, who has the necessary speed and crossing skills. He can also attack into the box, instead of just staying out near the touchline. He can cut inside, and link-up with the two strikers inside the box. Another option on the wing is Ashley Young. He has the same type of attacking skills in the box that Nani has, but his pace and crossing skills aren’t as sharp as Nani, which means that he struggles when he stays out near the touchline. Additionally, both Nani and Ashley Young can play on the right wing. When wingers like Nani and Ashley Young cut inside to attack into the box, it is left up to the full-backs to get forward and provide the width for the attack.

In the central midfield, Manchester United doesn’t have the type of midfielder usually required in a 4-4-2. Most teams prefer to link a passing midfielder with a tough ball-winning midfielder, but the Red Devils have a problem. United has passing midfielders, but are short on the type of physical ball-winning midfielders that they are normally paired with.

Due to this lack of physical box-to-box midfielders, United’s best option in 2011/2012 in the central midfield was to play two passing midfielders together. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes played well together as deep-lying playmakers, but this was mostly in a 4-4-1-1 instead of a 4-4-2. They are effective sitting deep, controlling possession, but they are slow to make runs into the box and this often leaves a gap in the middle of the pitch between the central midfielders and the strikers, which will often stall out an attack. In addition, playing two passers in the central midfielders leaves the midfield vulnerable on defense, as Manchester City showed last year, when Scholes and Carrick struggled to deal with the power and strength of Yaya Toure.

Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes both function best as a deep lying playmaker, but they need somebody to make more attacking runs forward to link-up with the 2 strikers. There is an option to play a more attacking midfielder alongside Carrick or Scholes, such as Kagawa, but then you leave the central midfield too weak defensively.

The best option this season is to play Michael Carrick, or Paul Scholes, alongside Phil Jones. In December of last season, Fergie played Phil Jones in the central midfield alongside Michael Carrick (before Scholes returned from retirement), and this partnership worked well in most of the games. Jones occasionally gets too aggressive with his forward runs, but his engine, work rate, and physicality is needed in this formation. Aside from strong forward runs, he also provides solid defense in the central midfield to help shield the center-backs.

There are other choices in the central midfield aside from Scholes and Carrick. The other passing central midfielder the Red Devils have is Tom Cleverley. There are also some good passing young midfielders who could make an impact this year, such as Davide Petrucci and Nick Powell. Powell played as an attacking midfielder for Crewe Alexandra, but Fergie has used him in a deeper position in the summer tour and he played well. The only ball-winning midfielders currently on the roster for Manchester United is Darren Fletcher, who is still dealing with an illness that caused him to miss over half of last season, Ryan Tunnicliffe, a 19-year old Academy product who spent last season with Championship side Peterborough United, and Anderson, who was acquired as an attacking midfield but played well at the start of last season as the physical midfielder alongside Tom Cleverley.

Phil Jones

The central midfield is an issue in this formation, especially if Fergie refuses to play Phil Jones in the central midfield. If he instead chooses to use him as a right-back or centerback, the central midfield in the 4-4-2 will struggle. Another option is to play Anderson alongside the passer. His attacking instincts are stronger than Phil Jones, but his defense isn’t as strong and he struggles with injuries. Unfortunately, this is an imperfect option. Right now, it seems that United just doesn’t have the right type of midfielders for the middle of the pitch in a 4-4-2.

Manchester United’s back line plays fairly standard to how most teams play a 4-4-2. The main difference is at the left-back position. When the left-winger cuts inside and plays into the box, the left-back is relied on to get forward and stretch the opposing defense and provide crosses into the box. Unfortunately, Patrice Evra seems to have lost some of his pace in the past couple years and having him make frequent attacking runs risks leaving a vulnerable gap behind him on which the opposition can play into during a quick counter-attack. Fergie seems to be looking for another left-back, but the only other options currently available are Tyler Blackett, an 18-year old full-back who went on the summer tour, and Robbie Brady, an Irish U-21 left winger who has played at left back on loan last season and in the summer tour. The job at right-back seems to be Rafael da Silva’s to lose, but Smalling and Jones are other quality options at full-back.


Sir Alex Ferguson has been a big fan of the 4-4-2 and has used it for most of his managing career, and it has brought United considerable success. With the quality strikers that Manchester United has, this formation allows Sir Alex Ferguson to get a pair of them on the field at the same time. Instead of playing Wayne Rooney as a lone striker, this formation allows him to play Rooney alongside Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez. Manchester United also has several quality wingers that operate well in a 4-4-2. Antonio Valencia is a prototypical winger, while Nani and Ashley Young also have the skills and abilities to function well out wide in a 4-4-2.

Unfortunately, there are 2 positions for this formation that Manchester United has problems filling. The main position is the central midfielders. Currently, most of Manchester United’s midfielders are attacking midfielders (Shinji Kagawa, Ryan Giggs). These players are great on the attack, but they struggle defensively.

What United needs is a true physical box-to-box midfielder; A player who can put in strong defensive work, and help protect the passing central midfielder (Scholes, Carrick, Cleverley). But this player can’t just be a defensive midfielder. This player must make strong offensive contributions. Physical runs forward, the ability to play short passes on the edge of the box and long-range shots are still necessary skills for the midfielder. Currently, United’s best options are Darren Fletcher, who missed a good part of last season and still hasn’t returned to game form, and Phil Jones, a player whose primary position is center-back.

In addition to central midfielders, the other weak spot is at full-back. When the full-backs get forward on the attack, they leave a gap behind them that the opposition can easily attack into. With the central midfielders assisting in the attack, there is nobody to provide cover for the fullbacks when the opposing team wins the ball. The full-backs need to have great stamina, and be quick to recover when the ball is turned over. Unfortunately, Patrice Evra doesn’t have the pace and stamina he had a few years ago and he’s been caught out of position several times. Rafael has the pace and stamina, but his frequent dangerous forward runs often leave a troublesome gap to protect.

Manchester United has the strikers and wingers to excel in this formation, but their central midfield weakness makes this an unlikely formation to use. Ryan Giggs and Shinji Kagawa would struggle to play well as central midfielders in a 4-4-2. The main problem this formation deals the Red Devils is being out numbered in the central midfield. Most teams now play with 3 players in the central midfield, and it’s impossible for United to shut them down with only 2 players, especially with the lack of physical midfielders.

I suspect that Sir Alex Ferguson will still use this formation, but I would expect it will be limited to league games against teams at the bottom of the table or league cup games. This formation, and the weaknesses it carries with it, will become less important for the Red Devils as the game continues to change.

By RangeRooney

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