By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jan 14, 2018) US Soccer Players – Coaching soccer starts with formations. Take, for instance, the classic 4-4-2. Out of favor starting in the early 2000s, it has made a strong comeback. Considered a classic formation, the 4-4-2 didn’t come into fashion until the 1990s and has captivated managers, players, and fans ever since.
In order for this formation to work, the coach needs the use of hard working midfielders looking to aid the defense and attack. The need for a holding midfielder, a central player who moves forward and two who each use the wings to push forward are the winning ingredients to this formation.
The AC Milan sides of the 1990s coached by Arrigo Sacchi and his predecessor Fabio Capello typified this approach. The tactics became favored by Italian clubs at that time. Milan, in the process, won three European Cups and the InterContinental Cup twice. The formation remained popular until the 2000s. At AC Milan, the midfield duo of Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Donadoni did a lot of the work that helped the team achieve such success. These often-unheralded stars are now managers who use different formations, not so much out of a dislike for it but necessity based on player personnel.
There was a turning point in 2000 when the winners of the English, Spanish, and Italian leagues — as well as the Champions League — did not use the 4-4-2. By then, many considered the formation outdated.
Fast forward a few years and the formation is back in favor. The three clubs who have used it to great effect in recent years are Leicester City, Atletico Madrid, and to a limited degree Real Madrid. The way these three teams have used the 4-4-2 shows how dynamic this formation can be and how it can make players across a starting lineup better.
Claudio Ranieri’s effective use of it in 2016 led Leicester to an improbable Premier League title. These days, the formation is largely seen to favor teams that lack talent. It allows teams to play a strong defense, then use midfield passing and counterattacking to score. Ranieri, taking a page from his countryman Sacchi, prioritized defense and used the formation to his advantage. Midfielders N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez did lots of the work, chasing balls, winning tackles, and moving the ball forward for Jamie Vardy.
At the 2016 European Championship, Iceland and Portugal used the system to their benefit. Iceland getting as far as the quarterfinals after knocking out England and Portugal winning the whole thing. Even Barcelona started using it at the start of the 2017-18 season under coach Ernesto Valverde. Tottenham has been using it, in some form, to limited success this season.
Spurs have used in it in a diamond-shaped formation as opposed to covering the width of the field. Mauricio Pochettino prefers the 3-4-1-2 or 4-2-3-1 systems. Injuries forced the move to a 4-4-2 in the first-leg of the recent Carabao Cup semifinal against Chelsea.
The biggest issue with implementing a 4-4-2 is getting its defenders to commit themselves higher up and take part in the high-energy midfield needed to get the attack going. This past Sunday saw Tottenham, using the 4-4-2, lose 1-0 against Manchester United, who has also been using the same formation under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
It has seen much greater success at Atletico Madrid. Under coach Diego Simeone, Atletico has become a title contender domestically and in Europe. Simeone uses a strong defense and a high work rate to compete with the likes of Barca and Real in La Liga and the Champions League. After effectively winning the ball in the midfield, the players use great speed to put together a devastating attack. It provides them a low-risk way of countering opponents with better talent while maintaining its compact nature. That turned into a league title in 2014 and runners-up last season. Atleti also lost the all-Spanish 2016 Champions League final to Real Madrid in a shootout.
Unlike Leicester, Atletico has been more consistent over the past few years and challenged some of Europe’s best clubs in the process. As a result, the use of the 4-4-2 doesn’t look to fade anytime soon. It allows teams to punch above their weight. It also gives teams with strong players to impose their game on an opponent.
Whether on the club or National Team level, the 4-4-2 is one of those classic formations that may have gone out of style for a while but made a comeback in a very big way. As the 4-4-2 continues to spread, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if another Leicester or Atletico were to emerge in the very near future.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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Logo courtesy of Leicester City