Undoubtedly the two surprise packages of the Premier League this season have been Leicester and Watford; the one thing that these two teams have in common is that they both use a 4-4-2 formation, which is no coincidence.
Indeed since the 2010 World Cup, where England were hammered 4-1 by Germany whilst using a 4-4-2 formation, 4-4-2 hasn’t enjoyed the popularity it once had, with most teams preferring to play with one up front.
That fall of 4-4-2 coincided with the rise of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team and Spain’s World Cup winning team; the success that these two teams had completely changed the style of elite level football (and has filtered down through the levels) with their emphasis on possession being adopted by several teams as a result.
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In our own Premier League, we have seen the likes of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis criticised for their style of play due to the fact they don’t encourage possession-based football.
In recent years, the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 have been the preferred formations for most European teams, opting to play with one central striker and playing with an extra man in midfield. The purpose of this was all orientated towards dominating possession in midfield, teams aimed to fill the midfield with bodies to give them the best chance of winning the battle for possession.
As a result, we have seen a change in what defines the modern day striker; nowadays we are seeing fewer players in the mould of Michael Owen or Robbie Keane with teams preferring more physically imposing players such as Didier Drogba or Emmanuel Adebayor who can hold up the ball on their own with little support.
The modern day striker is now expected to have a complete skill set with pace, strength, technical ability and clinical finishing all expected from the modern day front man to essentially combine what you would get from two forwards into one.
However, when we look at two of the Premier League’s best forwards this season, Jamie Vardy and Odion Ighalo, we see that they are not in the mould of the modern striker as described, yet are thriving in the Premier League this season.
That is because they are both playing in 4-4-2 formations and are reaping the rewards of being able to play with a strike partner. So why has 4-4-2 been so successful this year?
Well firstly, there is no doubt that playing with two up-front gives a team more of an attacking threat; modern day defenders are used to only having to mark one defender and it is obvious from watching teams defend against Deeney and Ighalo that Premier League defenders are uncomfortable defending against two strikers.
Playing with two forwards also allows the team to press higher and win the ball further up the pitch because they are able to press both centre-backs, as Jurgen Klopp alluded to following Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat to Watford - something you would not able to do when playing with one up front.
The biggest benefit of playing 4-4-2 is that it makes a team much more potent on the counter-attack. Possession is no longer being rewarded as it used to, especially in the Premier League; away victories for West Ham at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City, as well as the continued success of Leicester show that playing on the counter-attack is now the most potent form of playing football and lends itself nicely to playing a 4-4-2 formation.
The success of 4-4-2 this season has been due to the gradual changing of the style of play in the Premier League; patient possession is now being exposed - with Manchester United being the most obvious case - and the most dangerous teams are those that press aggressively and counter-attack with pace.
The success of Leicester and Watford this season could be the start of a trend of teams moving back towards 4-4-2 as the modern game becomes one where space is exploited on the counter attack rather than patient possession play and penetrating passes.