Welcome to the newest weekly (aka whenever I can be arsed) series here at 4-5-2,
Talking Tactics. Here we will espouse our tactical nous for your benefit. For those Spurs fans who read this site, I apologize in advance. Some of this information may be a little to high-level for you to grasp, so for every formation just assume that everyone runs about, the defenders defend, the midfielders try to do a little of everything, and forwards spectacularly fail to score. Also a note for the wise asses, there are different ways to play each formation, and I am going into detail about how I was taught to play the formation. If you have a problem with this, write up your own tactics article, or leave some comments below about your experience with the formation.
Today we will be talking about a classic formation, the 4-4-2. To many people, the 4-4-2 is becoming more outdated every year as 5 man midfields are the flavor of the decade. As the USMNT has shown however, the 4-4-2 can still be used to great effect given the right players. This has also been considered the classic England formation, but given the fact England does didily squat in international competitions, they are not the greatest example of the 4-4-2.
Starting at the back of the formation, the 4-4-2 relies on a traditional back 4. Two centerbacks, and a left and right fullback compose a defensive line that has to be extremely disciplined. Normally the back line plays what is known as a flat back which prevents a sneaky forward from slipping in behind one of the outside fullbacks. At younger levels a diamond backline is more common, with a sweeper and stopper replacing the center backs. This allows the sweeper to cover more area on thru balls, and is particularly useful if most of the defense is slower than the forwards. The center backs should always be trying to stay close to each other, often 10-15 yards away. Obviously this is not always ideal, but the more compact your center fullbacks are, the better communication and defensive posture there will be.
The midfield of the 4-4-2 is arguably the most critical part of the formation, and will go a long way towards determining the success or failure of the team. For examples see the USMNT over the past 5 years or so. Because there is only 4 men in the center of the pitch, it is important for the midfielders to be willing to track back, a lot. The 2 center midfielders have a lot of responsibility, and most often one will need to sit back when attacking, while the other midfielder gallavants forward in hopes of creating a goal. This is one problem that particularly plagued the US in several matches. Too often both central midfielders would roam forward in the attack, and an ensuing counterattack would expose the backline. One of the midfielders should be trying to form a loose triangle with the two centerbacks by being about 15 yards ahead of them, and acting as the initial line of defense on any counter attack.
When defending in your own half, both central midfielders should help to form a square with the central defenders to form a box that has about 10 yards between each player. As the ball moves across the pitch, each midfielder is responsible for stepping to their part of the field, with the outside midfielders covering the flanks. Communication is extremely important here because the center mids should be passing players off as they run across the pitch. The second the midfielders start running clear across the pitch to cover a players is when problems start. This will leave openings in front of the defense that a player like Arjen Robben can exploit to great effect. The center midfielders should also take care to not drop too deep. If they keep falling back, the players will eventually come into contact with the backline, and that is when goalkeepers start going crazy. The midfielders need to be stepping to the player with the ball to force them into a mistake. Giving a player too much time and space is a recipe for disaster, see Clark, Ricardo for more information on that.
The final aspect of the 4-4-2 is the forwards. The biggest benefit of the 4-4-2 is that the two forwards support each other, which allows the midfield time to join the attack more so than a 4-5-1, which requires a forward to consistently hold the ball. Back to forwards though, it is usually a good idea to have two different types of forwards starting. Usually this manifests with a speedier forward whose pace can stretch the defense, and a taller and stronger forward who has the ability to play with his back to goal, and hold the ball up while players get into position. The few months when the USMNT had this combination they were extremely successful. Although both forwards can be speedy or hold up players, the team will have some limitations up top, and the midfield may have to play more of a role in the attack if this happens. Like the backline, it is important for the forwards to stay close to each other, often within 10 yards of each other. This allows the forwards to support each other, meaning they are not relying solely on the midfield to move the ball down the field. Another benefit is that the forwards can take advantage of any opportunities the defense gives them, and the midfield can catch up whenever they can be arsed.
That is a quick look at the 4-4-2. There are some more advanced concepts that can be covered in the formation, but those will have to wait for another article.