When Manchester United fans called for Louis van Gaal to adopt a 4-4-2 formation last season, van Gaal responded by saying that a 4-4-2 gives him a twitchy ass due to the imbalance of his squad. United had, at that point just beaten QPR 2-0 after van Gaal had switched his side from a largely ineffective 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond in the second half. But van Gaal was still not convinced by the benefits of the formation.
The 4-4-2 is a formation that divides opinion among English fans, while the term ‘two banks of four’ is generally used as a pejorative. Teams like Tony Pulis’ West Brom are regularly criticised for their negative football within the 4-4-2 structure, playing low-risk football with a back four that, most of the time, consists of four natural centre-backs, which doesn’t encourage the most thrilling link-up play on the wings.
The formation itself is seen as an antiquated system that restricts teams who want to dominate games with possession. The majority of teams across the world now apply a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, which allows teams to create those magical triangles to be able to pass easily between one another.
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4-4-2 is also, so say its detractors, a system that allows a skilful number ten to exploit the gap between the midfield and defence. The two central midfielders are expected to work extremely hard in both defence and attack which has the potential to create a large gap for a quality trequartista to turn, run and cause havoc for the remaining defenders.
When applied correctly, with the suitable blend of players, the 4-4-2 has brought about great success. The most recent example of this is Leicester City who are on the verge of winning a remarkable Premier League title playing with two in central midfield and two strikers. Leicester play with great energy all over the pitch and are able to adapt their style of play during a game.
Elsewhere, Atletico Madrid play with a 4-4-2 and won La Liga in 2014, while their opponents in the Champions League final of 2014, Real Madrid, also applied the formation under Carlo Ancelotti for parts of the 2013-14 season. Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, who dominated English football and found success in Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s, also played with a very traditional 4-4-2 formation.
England have also found success using a 4-4-2, most significantly the 1966 World Cup winning team (although it was more of an unorthodox 4-1-3-2). There was also that famous 5-1 thrashing of rivals Germany in 2001, the 2011 friendly victory over European and world champions Spain, and the Euro ’96 team who produced a superb performance beating Holland 4-1 and only just missed out on the final.
There have certainly been many disappointments amongst the success for England with the 4-4-2 and since Roy Hodgson took over in 2012, the formation has been used sparingly, with a 4-2-3-1 formation preferred during the Euro qualifiers and the shambles that was the 2014 World Cup.
When Hodgson announced his England squad last week, one name stood out: Leicester City’s Danny Drinkwater. In Drinkwater, Hodgson’s England have a midfielder who has excelled this season in a midfield two, covering an enormous amount of ground, putting in tackles, protecting his defence and contributing to the attack.
Hodgson also has an exciting array of attacking talent in his squad. Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy are the first and second leading scorers in the Premier League this season and could be a force to be reckoned with against teams who are used to defending against only one striker.
Vardy’s pace and work ethic mixed with Kane’s classy footballing ability is a mouth-watering combination. England would also be left with the injury-prone but often dangerous Daniel Sturridge and the much maligned, yet potential match-winner Wayne Rooney on the bench (a controversial view, but based on this season, Vardy and Kane are the in-form duo).
Danny Welbeck, Raheem Sterling, Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin could operate on the flanks providing great pace and the ability to beat a man. The midfield four could be completed by Danny Drinkwater and Dele Alli, who would provide contrasting options. Drinkwater can protect the defence and give some power to the midfield while the Tottenham youngster will provide that class that you need to potentially win a game. Alli is, without a doubt, the most exciting young midfielder in England today.
After the debacle of the 2014 World Cup, does Hodgson have the bottle to revert back to the taboo of English football? One has to say, probably not. England will, more than likely, line up in the 4-2-3-1 formation that has served them well in the qualification round for the Euros. These games were against lesser opposition and England were able to dominate the ball and the match. But up against stronger opposition, are England really capable of dominating the ball and the game?
A 4-4-2 would not necessarily provide satisfaction for the aesthetic football fan, but it could give the more accomplished teams an extra dimension to consider in their preparation that could work in England’s favour. It seems a shame to waste four excellent strikers in a system that only allows one of them to take the role of striker at any given time.
This may well be Roy’s final tournament as England manager. Why not take a risk? Don’t stick Vardy out on the left-side, use Danny Drinkwater as a midfield enforcer, be daring and give England fans something to look forward to! Perhaps it’s time for England to fall back in love with the 4-4-2.