Basics of 4-4-2
The classic 4-4-2. It’s characterised by four defenders (two centre-backs in the middle, full-backs on the left and right sides), four midfielders (two central midfielders, two wingers on the left and right sides) and two strikers. This is the ‘open’ or ‘flat’ 4-4-2 in which the midfielders are not placed in a narrow diamond shape but spread out in a line.
The chief benefit of the 4-4-2 is its simplicity. It provides a solid basic structure with defensive depth and attacking numbers, with clearly marked roles. Many players have grown up playing this formation their entire lives and define their position as a defender, midfielder or striker due to its influence.
Without the ball, the four defenders and four midfielders can put eight men in front of the opposition, covering the entire width of the field. If the defence pushes up high with the midfield, the opposition can be strangled in their own half by a wall of players. With the ball, there are always options out wide and a strong presence up front to provide attacking options via long balls or crosses.
The real danger of the 4-4-2 is a pair of strikers who understand each other’s game. The common example is a ‘big man-little man’ combo, where a big striker is the target man for long balls and crosses, ready to knock the ball behind the defense or down into the box for his partner to latch onto. The best example in recent years was under Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke – two good strikers who became terrifying when put together and drove United to their 1998-99 Treble.
The downside of the 4-4-2 is that its rigid positions can lead to a side being swamped by more flexible opponents. The obvious potential weakness is that by playing with two strikers you can be outnumbered in midfield. While one striker may be tasked with dropping back to help out, many strikers are not disciplined enough to do so effectively. If the wingers also prefer playing out by the sidelines of the pitch, the central midfielders can quickly be isolated against teams playing three or even four central midfielders.
That rigidity is caused by the 4-4-2’s three lines of players which can allow opposition players to find pockets of space ‘between the lines’, especially defence and midfield. A well-disciplined team will compress the space between defence and midfield so as to avoid this, but a poorly organized 4-4-2 can leave huge amounts of space in front of the defence and if the midfield cannot close down the passing lanes, teams can be ripped apart by opposition players lurking in those spaces.