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The History, Future and Reasoning Behind the 4-4-2

After the 2010 World Cup in South Africa the 4-4-2 formation began to be questioned. Does it provide flexibility? Is it sound going forward and while defending? Is it weak compared to modern continental formations? After England’s exit from the European Championships these questions have been raised again. This post looks at the history of the 4-4-2 and what the future may hold for it.

The 4-4-2 was arguably first put into action in 1966 when the 4-2-4 was being perfected by the Hungarians and Brazilians. Alf Ramsey had toyed with the idea during a friendly against Poland, and experimented with Ipswich prior to that. The set up was a narrow 4-4-2, often known as the “Wingless Wonders”; the shape was closer to A.C Milan’s standard 4-4-2 diamond than a flat 4-4-2 that can be found throughout British leagues. By withdrawing the two wide (outside) forwards into deep positions that occupied the central space it meant that the team would out number the opposition in midfield, this was good for a number of reasons:

  • 4 v 2 in midfield meant it was easier to keep hold of possession
  • It offered a more stable defensive unit, an outside forward would now be faced against two defensive players rather than one
  • More fluidity was involved; the midfield players could move forward or retreat back depending on the situation

England obviously went on to win that World Cup in 1966 on home soil and the 4-4-2 gradually became more used at club level. Brazil however, would continue to use the 4-2-4 and go on to win the next World Cup against Italy 4-1 in Mexico.

Eventually it became widely used in the UK, and its dominance in Europe became apparent: Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa all used the 4-4-2 to secure European success. In the late 1980’s the 4-4-2 had made its way to Italy, with Arrigo Sacchi and Milan. Sacchi had inherited a technically gifted side, with a passion to succeed. Milan won Serie A for the first time in nine years in Sacchi’s first year as manager, and went on to become one of the most successful teams of all time.

As the years progressed so did opposition tactics which meant the 4-4-2 also went through changes. The possession heavy reasons for its creation in the 60’s were now no longer the reasons for its use. The 4-4-2 became heavily used with both man marking and zonal marking systems. It could be used as a defensive tactic, holding a deep line with every player behind the ball if need be, or the line could be high and played in a pressing manner forcing the opposition to give the ball away (like Sacchi’s Milan). One of the key ideas in use in the modern 4-4-2 is that every player is linked with another creating pairings all across the pitch. The picture below shows the pairings involved, each player can therefore cover the other easily, or be used as a passing option.



The second picture above highlights some of the passing options available to players in the 4-4-2 system. Due to the two banks of four there are plenty options that can be utilised, as the team move forward the wingers will be found in more advanced positions and the full back could also push up higher, making more choices available. The forwards also can move out of position to drop deep or move out wide, covering more space, they must however be linked to keep the pairing constant. The 4-4-2 does however have weaknesses. The picture below highlights some positions that opposition teams can strengthen to take advantage of the space the 4-4-2 leaves.


As there are the two banks of four players, there are large gaps between the defence and midfield, and the midfield and the attack. A team playing with attack minded midfielder, a trequartista, can easily take advantage of the space and with time on the ball can find a pass or shot that will change the game. The space between midfielders and attacking players can be taken up by an opposition defensive midfielder, providing more cover and stability and another obstacle for the attacking players to overcome.

In the 1990’s and 2000’s the 4-4-2 became the standard formation for almost all British teams. The pairings continue to exist, however in different forms. Classic pairings such as the stopper/cover in defence and the big man/small in attack were common, however in the present day they are becoming increasingly rare in the top flight as more teams look to be able to play the ball out from the back, and have neglected the poacher striker for a player that can contribute to goals and creative play.

Continental football has been changing in recent years. The 4-5-1 as made famous by Jose Mourinho has led to an increase of teams shaping up in this manner, or in a 4-3-3 formation which can be very similar. During the mid to late 00’s Spanish teams used two holding midfielders which allowed for two advanced wingers, an attacking midfielder and a lone striker and in more recent years Italian teams have been set up with three centre backs. Adapting to these formations makes it easier to play against the classic 4-4-2, the defensive systems of 3 at the back are able to cope with the two strikers while gaining an extra man in midfield. This extra man is also gained by teams that play 4-5-1; a striker is replaced with a midfielder. The 4-5-1 is even more fluid than the 4-4-2 in that it can quickly become a 4-3-3 , 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 whenever need be.


The 4-4-2 may be a classic English formation but teams and managers need to understand that although it has many benefits and advantages, the more modern and continental formations will be able to outnumber and out play it. Foreign managers such as Mourinho, Benitez, Mancini and Villas Boas have used continental formations with varying degrees of success in the Premier League, but Harry Rednapp and Alan Pardew are some of a few British managers that seem to be aware of the importance of changing shape. Martinez at Wigan was even successful when implementing a 3-4-3 formation against teams playing 4-4-2. The bigger clubs have started to change, now the rest of English football needs to follow suit.

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