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What Ever Happened to 4-4-2?

A famous manager once said:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, England will be playing 4-4-f*****g-2”

But for youngsters out there willing to become professional footballers, the 4-4-2 formation may end up being a thing of the past by the time they get to playing.

The modern football team seem to have adopted this new style of play of a 4-2-3-1; 4 defenders, 2 holding midfielders, 3 attacking midfielders and wingers and a lone centre forward. And to be honest, I can see the appeal. You’ve got your solid back four, which will be covered by at least one of your holding midfielders should one of your centre backs go roaming; whilst the other holding midfielder can venture forward every now and again with the faith that the other will cover for him. The attacking midfielders still give you the width you need with a play-maker in the hole behind the centre forward – it works.

But it’s boring isn’t it? Next time you watch another game on TV and they show you how the teams are going to line up, I would say the majority of premiership teams will line up this way. But there are some quality footballers on show; majority of which are in that midfield 5.

I feel sorry for forwards. (And yes – being a centre forward myself does make me a little bias.) But in this day and age in football, there seems to be less demand for a striking partnership – meaning there’s only one spot in the squad’s starting XI in which the centre forward can fit in. And even then – he’s going to be playing up there on his own. Which – from experience – is hard work.

So why have we ditched the striking partnership? All you have to do is look back a couple of years in the footballing history books to see the likes of; Andy Cole and Peter Beardsley at Newcastle United, with a combined 55 goals in 42 games; Kevin Phillips and Nial Quinn at Sunderland, with a combined 44 goals in 38 games; the list goes on and on. We can go back even further too; Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush; Linekar and Beardsley; and my absolute favourite of the bunch Ian Wright and Mark Bright at Crystal Palace. So why why why oh why has football evolved that only one striker gets a shout in the starting XI?

I think there are two reasons:

1) The game has become a lot more technical than physical, meaning the need for talented, flicky, pansy midfielders has increased.
2) Everybody’s trying to emulate bloody Barcelona.

We’ll focus on number 1 first.

The beautiful game has become a lot less physical and a lot more technical. And it does make it more “beautiful” to watch. But the price you pay for beautiful football seems to be a centre forward. There isn’t a need anymore for a big man up top for a “flick on.” There isn’t a need for a big man and a small man up front to play off of each other; because the use of all of these technical footballers in midfield mean they can pass it around outside the opposition’s penalty area and then thread it through to the centre forward.

But the need for a forward is decreasing also because midfielders are scoring goals now. The top 3 goal scoring midfielders in the premiership are Frank Lampard, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. And this goes to show the evolution of midfield football; the top 3 goal scorers have all been playing in the last 2 seasons. Football is evolving, and it is now the age of the midfielder. Midfielders are scoring goals, so why do you need a striker?

But even this isn’t 100% of the time. I remember when Roberto Di Matteo was manager of Chelsea and his furthest forward player on the park was Eden Hazard. In which case there was no centre forward at all. Again – this isn’t the only case. Barcelona do it all the time. And that brings me nicely onto point number 2 … why the HELL does everyone INSIST on playing like Barcelona?

Barcelona play beautiful football. There’s no doubt about it. But is it not pathetic that the whole world licks Barcelona’s metaphorical ass because they play so much good football? “Barcelona this, Barcelona that.” Be’ave. If I was a football manager I would implement a style of play that was mine, that other people would want to emulate. But I would do it with the players and talent I had available to me.

I’m going to use England as an example. We have decided to adopt this 4-2-3-1 approach to playing, and I have also noticed an increasing amount of messing around with the football outside the opposition’s penalty area. And I think I can answer the question of “Why are England so crap nowadays?” … It’s because we believe we are better than we are. We believe we have the ability to try and play like Barcelona, pass the ball around and mess about with it. No. We cannot afford to do that – and we can’t actually do it. We give the ball away so much because we try and pass it around with no actual purpose at all. It seems to be passing for the sake of it. Steven Gerrard plays netball nowadays, and will never take the space in front of him. Gareth Barry, James Milner, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Michael Carrick are all available to play in the 4-2-3-1 formation; yet all of them run like they’re wearing concrete boots. We have the most pedestrian midfield in the world, and yet we still believe we have the ability to pass and move, pass and move, pass and move our way into the opposition’s goal.

Play to your strengths is what I’m trying to say here. Use what’s available to you and don’t over estimate your squad’s ability. I remember Gary Lineker tweeting “#prayforstrikers” and I tell you what, I am. They are a dying breed; and that is because of the increasing nature of technical football in the modern game. I suppose, for the game, it’s not a bad thing. It can bring some fantastic football to watch; but it’s a shame that the centre forward seems to be dying out. And to be honest, I’ll use that excuse next time someone asks me why I never became a professional footballer:

“Nah, they just wanted to play like Barcelona; apparently a prolific centre forward who scores goals to win games isn’t what’s needed right now.” 

(Not that I’m bitter.)

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