Last week, HT Goal discussed the evolution of the role of goalkeeping in football, a process driven by a tactical preference of coaches to retain possession, press higher up and keep the ball on the ground; a quest for an aesthetically superior brand of the game. While that development is still on, this season across Europe a sort of counter-revolution has occurred, one more traditional than futuristic.
Through teams such as Leicester City, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and to an extent, Liverpool, European football is witnessing the unexpected rebirth of a formation that was in a metaphorical hearse, being driven to its final resting place, to be laid, reminisced and eventually forgotten. For all its simplicity, the 4-4-2 formation was deemed atavistic and has taken an unfair load of criticism for the perpetual decline of English football.
As Jonathan Wilson, in his seminal work on the history of football tactics ‘Inverting the Pyramid’, writes, as football passed through the periods of coffee-table football of Austria in 1920s and 30s, Muscovite planning of 40s, Hungary of 50s and later Total Football, the preference for deploying multiple strikers waned. But England hung on. Though the influx of foreign coaches in the Premier League like Arsene Wenger brought about changes in the league in the late 90s, it was only after the ascent of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona that English clubs dropped the formation without remorse.
It was a natural step. As Wilson explained, the evolution of football formation has been fairly linear. First attempts at organisation was a sort of pyramid with six or seven players up front and tapering to one or two centre-backs. With time, the number of men up front reduced, with coaches emphasising on defence and later populating the midfield. The results were the rise of false nines, decline of target men, and in Guardiola’s Barcelona, a striker-less formation.
In that context, what we have seen this season is an anomaly. The 4-4-2 was not meant to be successful or even prominent in an age of ball retention and high pressing. Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester, however, have won the Premier League using it, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid have outfoxed Bayern Munich to reach the Champions League final, Juergen Klopp, who has used the formation in a few instances, has guided Liverpool to Europa League final while Marcelino García Toral’s Villarreal are braced for a return to Champions League football.
Dutchman Ronald Koeman, a former Ajax and Barcelona player, and the suave Spanish coach Quique Sánchez Flores too have deployed their men at Southamption and Watford in the formation this term. Clearly this was not one-off as was largely the case when Carlo Ancelotti used it when in charge at Chelsea. The 4-4-2 formation has knocked hard on its casket from inside, and announced its intention to stay put.
Having said that, not all of the 4-4-2s mentioned above are the same. As Wilson, while making sense of Ancelotti’s preference to it in 2009, says in The Guardian, ‘formations are neutral; it is their application that gives them positive or negative qualities’. The 4-4-2 is neither attacking nor defensive. It also has its variations. For instance, Ancelotti’s 4-4-2 was not a recall of the classic English and Scottish idea, but a more modern interpretation of it, called ‘the diamond’ (see the illustration).
When Simeone deployed his boys in the formation against Guardiola’s Bayern, it was in a more compact and dynamic structure, a set-up that interchanged between 4-4-2 and 4-1-4-1. Against Everton, Klopp set Liverpool in another variant of the formation, a 4-4-1-1, that merged the fluidity and pressing of modern German style with the tempo of 4-4-2.
“I think as long as you’ve got the same mentality, the same game plan, you all stick to it and you’re on the same wavelength, then it doesn’t matter if you’re playing 4-4-2, 4-3-3,” said Adam Lallana recently on Liverpool’s tactics.
What we are seeing is not an abrupt atavistic phenomenon but the result of a realisation that 4-4-2 is an idea, and like all ideas, can be interpreted differently.