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How England 4-4-2 has fallen apart

The semi-finalists of Euro 2012 have one thing in common – employing a 4-3-3 formation that affords an extra central midfielder. It has not only become a trend but more of a blueprint for success in modern football. Yet a mere two months to prepare for the Euros, Roy Hodgson could not help but fall back to his comfort zone by employing the 4-4-2 formation which he has used in West Bromwich Albion, also a formation that most England players are familiar with.

While undoing Fabio Capello’s hard work in importing the 4-3-3 or semi 4-5-1 to England in the last two years, Hodgson could have done better to reduce the risk of backfiring from the reverse of tactics as his 4-4-2 never looked commanding.

The main attacking threat of the 4-4-2 formation comes from the flanks. Wingers and overlapping fullbacks conspire on the flanks and deliver to the two forwards up front. A combination of energy and technique from the side players is vital for duly carrying out defending and attacking duties. The pair of central midfielders must also be energetic and marauding as their main responsibility lies in protecting the back four as well as transiting defence to attack. When opponents may well field three central midfielders nowadays, the ability to hold on to possession is also desired.

The 03/04 team of Arsenal, famously dubbed ‘The Invincibles’, was an exemplary illustration of the 4-4-2 formation. Lauren and Ashley Cole looked tireless and consistent going up and down while Ljungberg and Pires kept their opposing full backs on their toes all the time. Vieira and Gilberto Silva were not only strong shields in the middle of the park but they were able to contribute in attacking moves as well. The strike force of Bergkamp and Henry was just exceptionally complementary.

As Arsene Wenger failed to find proper players to fulfil the 4-4-2 formation, he has turned to the more popular 4-3-3 in recent seasons. However it was England that stayed with 4-4-2. In order to make up for the disadvantage in central midfield compared to 4-3-3, there are of course tactical remedies, such as 1) playing a no. 9.5 striker to drop back; 2) employing defensive wingers; 3) using the central midfield pair to make extra runs and cover the deficit; 4) playing a higher up defensive line.

It's not their fault of being old

It was evident Hodgson did ask a striker to drop back, although Rooney seemed to have roam away quite often to attack. The England manager fielded the defensive James Milner and also asked Ashley Young to help Ashley Cole with defensive duties but sacrificed significantly in attack. Yet with Parker and Gerrard both not in their prime days of career, England technically gave in to the -1 man advantage in midfield. A high defensive line was not always practised either as Terry and Lescott are never known to be quick. With this squad selection, the 4-4-2 simply doesn’t work, except for the time against Sweden when Theo Walcott provided an impetus after coming off the bench to unleash the attack from the sidelines.

The pair who may possess the secret ingredients for England's success

Perhaps even Hodgson himself was not convinced that his midfield duo were capable of winning the midfield battle, attacking wingers like Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Downing could only be left on the bench while nine players defended in their own half, giving away a lot of ground. This then leads us to another question – central midfield candidates.

If Hodgson was going for a hardworking and tenacious pair, why was Phil Jones not used for a single second to relieve some of the tired legs? The way to minimise physical exertion is to keep possession and while regulars in the Capello era Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry were injured, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, who ran the central midfield successfully in Manutd’s 4-4-2, were not even approached nor considered, but the ever-looking-confused Henderson was instead called up.

Cesare Prandelli also had 23 players in his squad but he was able to find out the shortfalls of Italy’s performance and rectify them by altering formations and the selection of players. England, on the other hand, may be disillusioned by their 1st place finish in group stage and hence failed to acknowledge the inadequacy of their formation. Should they win the penalty shootout (don’t get me started on how obviously they played for the shootout), Mesut Ozil would just be, if not more severe, tearing the England defence apart humiliatingly.

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