What is it about the 4-4-2 that we like trashing? If it’s not Mike Bassett binning it for a Christmas pudding, it’s the mainstream media laying into it unapologetically, or Alan Smith in his cyberspace FIFA commentary booth patronisingly admiring the seemingly bold and revolutionary step of putting two men up top. It never used to be like this.
In England, we think we own and invented the 4-4-2. The truth is we didn’t even do it best. Somehow, in the space of about ten years – two-ish World Cups: that’s nothing – we went from needing a sit down upon seeing any Premier League manager regularly employ a different shape, to silently mouthing “Sunday league” upon seeing it on a team sheet. It seems strange to think now of partners across the pitch: Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen, Scholes and Keane. Now, midfields are minefields and strikers are lone wolves.
And all because, well partly because, Pep Guardiola played in triangles. The key message for all positions was the same. From the keeper to the furthest man up the field, everything passes. You all pass. Preferably in triangles, until the defenders Spain produce are ball-playing, the defensive midfielders deep-lying playmakers, and 4-6-0, a Frankensteinian idea, becomes a thing. Everything, everyone, every position, passes.
Splitting a pitch into specific sections for players to roam means that defenders have to mark on the lines between these players. For pass/move maestros like Xavi, Pep ten years before him, and Johann Cruyff before that, defenders not knowing whether they’re coming or going makes for chaos, but more importantly, space to exploit. The pioneers played it right, and tiki-taka is not just a meaningless, piss-taking, passing puzzle; players like Iniesta are still unstoppable forces in these pockets of space. And the glory years of the system were so beautiful on the eye that the world took a leaf out of its book: a phrase about imitation and flattery comes to mind.
But tribute acts aren’t nominated for the Mercury Prize. If Pedro made space for Messi to sprint onto, Messi would do the rest, emphatically. But not everyone has a Messi (in fact, all but one side on the planet do). So here’s a hypothesis: did Atletico Madrid’s style of football replace Barcelona’s, because counter-attacking into vast expanses of pitch is easier than the tiny areas between defenders?
It would be great to say yes and leave it at that, but the answer is far more complicated and obviously varies from one side to the next. To those that saw Atletico more than a handful of times last season against Champions League giants, they don’t always sit back and absorb pressure, funnily enough; they had an average of 49% possession last season: not quite the 30 or so that we associate them with. Leicester City often played sublime attacking football last year. Watford’s two best players last campaign were arguably the two strikers: so, why not play them together? And look at France in the Euros, using Giroud and Griezmann together centrally.
The bigger picture that links all examples though is the work-rate and pressing game. France, again for example, opted to field the battery-powered likes of Matuidi, Pogba, Sissoko and Kanté, over a Payet or Cabaye type centrally. So sure, Barca cut open opponents by forcing them into defensive no man’s land, but managers have started pressing, and as a result, a lot of midfielders take on multiple roles. Take Koke (Kanté’s too obvious to mention). Koke’s a positionally sound footballer who always does the job that needs to be done. Whether it’s intercepting from a deep midfield position, or leading the counter, it’s any manager’s dream. Imagine how much it pleases Diego Simeone of all men.
That’s the kind of player you need in any formation, but particularly a 4-4-2. Tiki-taka is designed to make your opponents run rings around you until the concentration drops, and that’s when the ball also drops, behind the backline for a winger to latch onto. With Atletico’s 4-4-2, you do the running. This is the genius of how they have outplayed the likes of Barcelona: a 4-4-2 is seemingly exposed in the middle of the park, but if the two central midfielders drop back a little when defending – shift Griezmann into a CAM role temporarily – it’s a 4-2-3-1 without the ball. It’s why Okazaki is too knackered to ever play a full ninety. It’s not totally the formation that works but the compactness with which it’s employed.
It’s not necessarily an Emperor’s new clothes situation though. Leicester really are playing two up front, it’s not a big conspiracy. But football is evolving; this 4-4-2, or 4-4-1-1, or a 4-2-3-1 in defence, or whatever you want to call it, is just the next species in the chain, much to the disgust of hipsters who don’t want flat lines of players that don’t accommodate a regista. The near-future belongs to the likes of Renato Sanches, Paul Pogba: players that run themselves into the ground and have the flair to switch a game. Whereas the luxury number 10s of football, the Özils, Silvas, Matas (okay, number 11s, 21s, 8s, whatever), are the new mockees, for their lack of pace and “lazy attitude”. We’re slightly ahead of Europe on the mocking front. England have praised workhorses who fit nicely into a flat midfield for donkeys’ years.
It’s a strange turn if 4-4-2 becomes cool again. But just like tiki-taka, everything passes.