The 4-4-2 Chronicles

It’s one of the oldest football formations around and has seen a resurgence of some kind in the past few years with teams like Leicester and Atletico Madrid having success using it. I’m of course talking about the 4-4-2 formation. Growing up as an English football fan the formation for me symbolises safety and familiarity. I’m not saying it’s the most successful tactic, although it’s had some incredible moments over the decades and many teams have seen great success using some kind of 4-4-2. But when things were going wrong and teams needed to strip back to basics, this always seemed to be the go to formation. I think Mike Bassett summed it up perfectly here;

Over the past week or so, I’ve seen many people confused or have the wrong idea about making the 4-4-2 work on Football Manager. That’s what’s prompted me to write this article. I’ll be focusing on the 4-4-2, the narrow diamond and the wide diamond throughout this article.

Picking a formation in Football Manager can be a daunting task at times, do you go with the unknown and try a 343 and be a bit adventurous or do you stick to the good old 442. The reason why so many people use 442 is because it’s familiar and always a safe bet for any side to use, it’s also very flexible and allows you to change into other systems during a match if you need to shake things up a bit. Another reason why the 442 is so popular is because of the balance between defending and scoring, you can create a very solid 442 that is tight at the back but lethal when going forward.

Understanding The Basic Principles

It’s vital that whatever formation you use that you learn what the strengths and weaknesses are as this can be a deciding factor in what kind of style you are trying to create at the club. By understanding the strengths and weakness it should allow you to eliminate a few of the available roles for certain positions depending on how passive or aggressive you want to be in the set up. Not only that but it’ll allow you to quickly identify the issues you might face when playing certain formations.

For example if you use the flat 4-4-2 and come across a formation that uses an attacking midfielder, then you’ll know you need to make sure he is picked up by the midfield or he’ll have lots of unguarded space to play in just in front of your back four. I know it sounds really simple but something like making one of the midfielders man mark or making them less attacking to deal with the threat can be the difference between a good or a bad result.

One of the key factors that I like to consider with any tactic I use, is to learn where I give up space and know why it happens. Giving up space isn’t always a bad thing you can use that as an advantage. But understanding why I give space up is crucial because it helps me understand where I will likely be the most vulnerable. Not only that but it helps me determine if it’s a real cause for concern or are the benefits for giving up the space outweighing the negatives.

So understanding every aspect of the formation you use is vital, especially when you take the roles and duties into account. Most people (well it seems most when viewing social media/forums) seem to talk about roles and duties in isolation without really seeing the bigger picture and how it all links together.

Then on the top of this we have the actual brand of football we are trying to create to consider as well. So there is a lot to think about. The role and duty allocation is normally where I see a lot of people’s visions for their footballing identity fall short because the roles or duties just don’t match the vision. I see people saying they want to utilise the wingers and create overlaps down the wings with the focus on getting early balls into the box.

Then when I see the setup, they’ve used a playmaker in the middle who detracts from wing play because playmakers actively seek the ball. I also then see they’ll use strikers who drop deep which doesn’t help when focusing on getting the ball into the box early. As the wingers would have no-one to aim for, or if they did, it would just be one solitary striker as the other would be too deep.

It all sounds so easy and simple but these are the mistakes people tend to make who are struggling with the game or finding consistency. I’m not mocking these people but I do want to try to help them see the bigger picture. I don’t want to focus on any particular style of play, instead I want to focus on the simple stuff that some of us might have forgotten over the years or we might take for granted nowadays. Let’s take a look at the different areas of the pitch we’ll be using and discuss the basics.

Defence

If you take a look at most common footballing shapes, you’ll see that most defend in some kind of 4-4-something. That’s because defending in two banks of four is easy because it provides two solid banks, which is a good structural base to use and gives good defensive depth. It also means that the eight players can cover the width of the field between them, making it hard for the opposition, especially if you couple this with a high defensive line. You can suffocate the opposition and give them little room to play in.

The fullbacks are one of the main strengths of this shape as you can have many different types of full backs in this shape. Some of them are; overlapping fullbacks who are very offensive minded and provide a very attacking option to the team.. Another way is to make them mark the opponent’s forwards or wingers. These players have to be dependable and willing to give up any kind of offensive play as they will be very defensive minded so don’t expect them to contribute on attacks as often as they normally do, because you’d be prioritising safety over everything else.

A third way to get them to work would be to have them work with the wingers (not overlapping though) and get forward to get crosses into the box at every chance possible for your strikers. The fourth way is more of a mixture between attacking and defending, the settings of this specific way really depends on how neutral you want to be, a good idea would to be to not over do it on the player instructions as that is more neutral.

One thing to keep an eye on when viewing this formation in the match engine is to make sure your defence isn’t sat too deep watching the game and basically spectating. As this can cause players to either switch off or allows a gap to appear between the defence and midfield making it harder to work as a unit. So if you feel this is happening in your game then try to do something about it by either pushing the defensive line up or using different roles or duties.

Ideally the full backs should be supporting and joining the midfield regardless of what type of football you are playing. This will then allow the wide midfield players to bomb forward and make runs down the flanks. This is a very important part of the 4-4-2 because it uses width and the wide men need to provide the support to the strikers. If this doesn’t happen then the game can be a struggle. If you don’t really want to utilise wide play then the 4-4-2 probably isn’t the formation you should be using.

Sweeper/Stopper/Cover

A sweeper can be used in any formation or system but is mainly used for a back three rather than a back four and is mainly used in real life by the Italians. But you can use it in a 4-4-2 if you wish.  For this type of system to work you need the sweeper to be very good for the level that he is currently playing at. If he is not then it simply will not work how it should and be more of weakness that a strength.

A sweeper in the DC position on FM isn’t allowed,so if you did use one it would be behind a central defender on the formation screen rather than in-line with him. I’ve still no idea why you can’t have a sweeper role in line with the other defenders though. I know it’s been feature requested a few times so maybe one day, we can finally get this added.

The stopper/cover combo is probably one of the more popular ways to utilise the central defenders but there is a downside to using this. If you use this combo and you face a team with a striker who drops off or an attacking midfielder who pushed us this can make your defence vulnerable at times due to the stopper pushing up to deal with the threat or dropping off to follow the deep striker. This will then mean a gap appears between both your centre backs so you have to be visually aware of late runners or through balls because they can really expose you. I personally favour the stopper/cover combo against long strikers for this very reason.

The Sweeper and Stopper systems are very similar and from a positional sense can look the exact same, but it’s what they do that makes them different. You have the sweeper where he’ll push up/drop deeper and mop up any balls that the defenders in front of him cannot deal with. The role does what the name “sweeper” suggest and sweeps up any mistakes your front defenders might make. Whereas the stopper system uses his marking to either mark a striker or a central attacking midfielder of the opposing team. Plus he is expected to play quick and early balls to your midfield to start early counter attacks.

Libero/Ball-Playing Defender

One of the more prominent roles we’ve seen emerge or for a better word, become more mainstream, is that of the ball-playing defender. As more and more teams like to play out from the back then a ball-playing defender is brilliant for that. He links the defence to the midfield without the need of a midfielder dropping deep. Having a player who can play out from the back and dictate play from the defence also comes with risks, especially if that player gives away the ball in defensive areas. So be sure to have the right player in the role as it needs to be someone you can trust.

While the ball-playing defender is enjoying a more prominent rise in recent years, the libero is just about extinct. However it’s one of my personal favourite roles and something I often use, even in a 4-4-2. It’s probably one of the most demanding roles in the whole of Football Manager and requires a specific kind of player. He acts a bit like a ball-playing defender but is a lot more aggressive and encouraged to join the midfield frequently.

Using a libero will leave you exposed if he is caught out of position or can’t retreat back to his position quickly enough after support an attack. Nonetheless, it can still be useful for wanting someone to play out from the back and step up into the midfield add an extra player from the back in attacking situations.

No matter how you set up the defence though you’ll want to make sure that the midfield complement the roles and duties you used.

Midfield

The midfield of a 4-4-2 formation can be very variable; you can play a flat four midfielders which is very stable and safe. You can use two wingers, one attacking midfielder and one defensive/wide midfielder which are a common thing on Football Manager to do.You can also use two wingers and two defensive midfielders if you wanted to as well. There are also lots of other ways like using a flat three midfielders with one defensive midfielder behind them.

One of the best things about the midfield in a 4-4-2 for me is that unlike a lot of one striker formations, you don’t need to slow the wing play down. Your wingers can be really aggressive because you already have two players in the front of them looking to get into the box meaning you don’t need to wait for support from the central players. This is a major plus because it means you can attack much quickly and capitalise on any kind of opposition defensive line dysfunction. Quick attacks tend to catch the opposition out of position and still retreating to recovery positions.

This coupled with constant width provided by the full backs and wide midfielders can really stretch teams in the wide areas. It can stretch defensive lines and cause gaps to appear as the opposition try to counter the attacking threat. It’s one of the reasons I’m also a big fan of overlapping fullbacks as it allows me to overload the channels.

In a 4-4-2 formation, it is common to have one defensive minded midfielder and another whose job is to get forward and join the strikers in the penalty area. The defensive midfielder is charged with breaking up opposition attacks, and when the team is on the back foot, act as an extra member of the defence. Most good teams have a player capable of screening the defence, acting as an insurance policy should the team surrender possession. All top teams regardless of the formation they use tend to have someone in this role and its normally one of the most important parts of a manager’s tactical plan.

The defensive minded midfielders job is to break up play and distribute the ball up field as quick as possible or hold onto the ball and wait until a clear-cut pass arises, however holding onto the ball for too long can cause problems especially if he loses possession from dwelling on the ball. Remember though that using one of these in this shape can take something away from the tactic in an attacking sense especially in terms of support from the centre. It’s about finding the right balance between defending and attacking so keep a close eye on the game and the stats so you have a real understanding of how the game is actually going.

The other midfielder still has defensive responsibilities, especially when his team does not have possession. But it is key that he gets forward to support the strikers when the team have the ball, otherwise there is a risk that the front men would lack support, particularly if the wingers are not of the required quality.

More attack-minded managers may opt to have two midfielders who go forward, particularly against weaker teams, but it is considered the norm to field one more defensively minded player. If a manager is looking to surprise the opposition, he may tell his midfielders to take turns in going forward.

Whatever you combination you use for the central midfielders though, they’ll be a key part of the tactic and the shape will demand a lot from them. So be sure to watch games and see how they interact with the rest of the team both in attacking and defensive phases. You should be looking at players who have a real work ethic about them and will work hard. If not you might find that you are very vulnerable.

Wingers/Wide/Defensive Midfielders

The wide men are vital for providing support to the strikers and will be one of the main sources of your attacking threat. If not then maybe you might be best using a different shape as the 4-4-2 (a flat one obviously) is width dependant. They will provide crosses, runs from deep, run at the defence, cut inside and even score goals depending on what you use and the settings they have.

You have many varied roles to choose from and player instructions that can make the roles even more varied and custom tailored to suit your needs. As you’ll likely not have much support from the central players in terms to continually supporting through the centre this means you have to be aware of how your wide men are playing and what they are doing in a game. If someone is playing badly then don’t stand by and watch it happening either sub them or try a different role. If you use the analysis tab you should be able to see why they might be doing poor.

A popular trend we see in world football at the moment is wide playmakers who instead of wingers rush to the by-line, focus on creating from the wide areas. It allows for the central players to be more involved as the creative player is out wide instead of the usual central area. This opens up a whole different take on the tactic and offers something that is different to the normal. It can be great to utilise wide playmakers if you find that the central area is overcrowded and a typical central playmaker wouldn’t have much time on the ball.

The supply and support that your midfield offer will determine what type of striker combination you use. (If you build the tactic from back to front, which is how most should be created)

Strikers

During the 90’s it was great seeing how the different teams utilised their front two. Two of the absolute best for me was Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke!! They were great, I still often find myself watching these older type games and still being impressed with how they complimented each other. It wasn’t just Manchester United’s front two that impressed me, it was the full backs, wingers and the strikers. They had the best midfield duo in the league for me, who were tireless and could be as attacking/defensive as needed.

The team in general was pretty amazing for me as a neutral. It was a well oiled side that knew how to create, support and score goals. It was simplicity at its best. I’m sure behind the scenes it was more complex but watching the matches, it just looks effortless and so basic while being very elegant. It was a things of beauty.

It’s how it should be on Football Manager, don’t overcomplicate the game for yourself when there’s no need. Focus on the players providing the support, look at who is creating the chances and know who is expected to score the goals.

As for the strikers in a 442 formation you have a lot of options and variable partnerships you could use. It is common in this system to have one striker playing high up the field capable of holding the ball up and laying it off to his partner. The player furthest up the field is often a big target man, with the physical strength to hold off defenders and bring his team mates into play or someone more pacey who can push the defensive line high up the pitch making it harder for them to pick up the striker who dropped off the front

It isn’t a hard and fast rule though, the front two does not have to comprise a big man and another striker running off him. Often teams choose to deploy a withdrawn striker, capable of playing in the ‘hole’ (the area behind the main striker) and using his creative skills to set up those around him, primarily his strike partner. If you opt to field a creative player in the ‘hole,’ the formation transforms into a 4-4-1-1.

Whichever front two combination you choose to field, the player who is not a big target man or a withdrawn creative player, is likely to be a goalscorer, with the nous to sniff out and score chances in and around the penalty area.

You can play anything really as it depends on how you’ve set up elsewhere on the pitch and were the support will come from. But the above are some of the more popular ways to play. So the next time you set up and attempt to use a 4-4-2 remember to decide how you want to play and try to choose the roles that compliment this way of playing.

There are many types of 442 and variations of the system though so what I’ll do is outline them below and give a brief overview of their strengths and weakness. I won’t go into great detail about every single variation or every aspect of each tactic as that would take forever. I will highlight a few main points from each version though.

A Flat 442

This is the more neutral focused 442 that concentrates on the defending and attacking ability of your team, this is a very good starting point for any side to see what you’re team is capable of. This type of formation should produce a fair amount of goals as well as keeping it very tight at the back if set up correctly. The wingers in this formation are vital for providing crosses into the box for your strikers. A lot of people also like to play one attacking midfielder and one defensive midfielder to make it a lot more balanced.

Strengths
  • Plenty of width and general wide play from the wingers
  • Two solid banks of 4
  • Cover down the flanks
  • Doubling up down the flanks both in defensive phases and attacking phases of play
  • The 4-4-2 can change into many different tactics which can add different kinds of aggression to your play

Quite some time ago I was creating Arsenal’s Invincible tactic and I did a little bit of analysis about how it all functioned. This is no longer online but I still have the analysis so will use that here to show how versatile and how different it can play depending on the roles and duties used. Remember this is just one specific way of playing the 4-4-2 and there are many variations and combination of roles that will make it play even more differently to this example.

Romero who is playing the Bergkamp role has the ball and is very deep, which is a good thing. If we look at the players around him we have the Ljungberg role cutting inside and looking to run between the two Arsenal players. We then have Henry moving into a more central role but cutting in from the left. We also have Pires who is going to run into the space that Henry creates while Cole, stays wide on the outside and overlaps. Oh and the roaming playmaker playing the Vieira role is also going to push on. This original image is a bit like the Invincible s and the movement is quite similar in some aspects but not perfect.

This is a little later in the move and while the movement is still good it’s not quite how I expected. Ljungberg has continued his run and is just about to get into the box. His movement and runs are exactly what I expect from the role and so far, from what I see, he is doing perfectly fine. So I’m pleased with what I’m seeing of his contribution.

The Henry role though, I think he may have come central a little bit too early. So I believe this role still needs a lot of work and isn’t functioning correctly just yet. However he is showing signs of the type of movement needed by starting out wide and cutting inside.

Bergkamp, I’m happy with him so far and he is dropping off the front and creating in the type of areas I expect. However overall I’m still not happy with the role and think he is too much of a goal threat. But we’ll discuss that in a lot more detail in the next article.

The wide playmaker, Pires, is cutting inside and offering the narrowness I need and expect. But I don’t think he’s pushing forward as much as I want. But I did mention this at the very start of the series and say he might need changing to an attack duty instead of a support. Then he should be more attack minded and look to push on that bit more.

The rest of the players in this move are as I’d expect but maybe the Vieira role could be more advanced too? Although he did pass the ball to Henry so this will factor into why he is still deep.

This is another move later in the game. Henry is centrally again but this move did start on the far right so it’s expected he’d be more central due to the quick switch of sides. Pires is just about to get the ball and pass into the path of Cole who is bombing forward. This is very like the Invincible side. I still feel Pires isn’t doing enough once he lays the ball back off though.

Once Pires passes the ball to Cole he drops off and hangs back on making his run. This is 100% down to the duty he has. If it was an attack one, I’d expect him to push on to where the green star is. This would be a lot more dangerous and more like the style we are creating and something that I am looking to change for the next season.

So we’ve seen glimpses of what I expect from the style I’m creating but it’s not at a level that is acceptable. The key to getting this style working lies with the two strikers, the wide playmaker and the left back. The rest already works like I want so the focus going forward is on these four players.

Weakness
  • You can get out numbered in the centre
  • No real DMC cover
  • Vulnerable to quick counter attacking tactics that can focus on direct balls behind the two MC’s
  • Strikers can get isolated from the other 8 outfield players at times
  • Strikers can also be found too far apart and not able to link up cohesive at times

The Defensive Aspects

Lets take a look at a game I played a while back against Bristol City as it highlights some of the issues with the 4-4-2.

Straight from Bristol’s kick off you can see my sides shape and already see some issues that could be problematic as the game goes on;

Already I can see issues here and it could be quite a big one as the game goes on. The amount of space the Bristol City player has to play in is cause for concern. We can see the central midfielder who is on a defensive duty shifting across as he is gravitating towards the player with the ball. I’ll have to see more of the game other than the opening five seconds to get a better understanding of what’s going on. But for now it’s note number one in the note pad.

This screenshot is a few seconds later and highlights the issues with a two-man midfield against a three-man one. My more defensive minded midfielder has to mark two players. There is no immediate threat here but it is an issue and one I should see often throughout the game due to suffering the numbers disadvantage in midfield.

An intelligent ball or a quick change of play here and I could be in serious trouble and on the back foot. It’s enough to cause concern but at the same time its one I have to accept that might happen often unless I make the roaming playmaker more restrained or change shape. It’s one of the downsides of using a two-man midfield when the opposition have greater numbers centrally, you can be found chasing players at times as it relies on your own player making the correct call at the time.

What it comes down to here is risk vs reward and whether you think its worth it or not. Personally I like to play dangerous and take risks as it can help with my attacking as you’ll see when we focus on that bit later. But I’m also aware of how open I can be. It’s another reason why you need to understand how your formation works and what its strengths and weaknesses actually are.

There’s an awful lot going on in this next screenshot;

Firstly you can see on the near side my wide playmaker, roaming playmaker and defensive minded midfielder all in the circled area. This is from a throw-in but just look at the Bristol City player circled a bit further up. Now if he receives the ball he has options: He can either drive forward with the ball or try to feed a ball to one of the runners either between both centre backs or the centre back and fullback. It also means my centre back has a choice to make: Does he go towards the goal or stay and pick the runner-up? Being FM you can guess what happens here right?

He dwells on the ball luckily for me but my centreback charges him down and by some miracle has positioned himself so the free attacker behind him isn’t an option as the player on the ball can’t see him. This means he has to pass into the space between both centre backs and on this occasion it doesn’t cause me trouble. However this is a massive issue and is so far number one on the list I’m doing while watching this game back.

Although I’m not sure how much of this is down to actually defending the throw-in so I need to determine if this happens often and if I can actually influence defending from throw-ins which I’m not sure I can. If that’s the case then a bug report will be filed. However I need to make sure it isn’t the settings I’m using first to ensure its not a human error.

The next thing I notice is this;

That’s the oppositions wingback running back to his position as he thinks his side have lost the ball. However they haven’t and due to my side coming across to cover naturally it means he has time to turn direction and is unmarked. This isn’t really an issue and I’m happy with how my side are set up. Until this happens…

The opposition quickly shift the ball across to the other side. Fast switches in play like this cause any formation problems and players get caught out of position. Is there much I can do about these situations? I’m not 100% sure there is but I could try to make the players go out wide rather than forcing them infield like I currently do. This is something I will make a note of but in FM terms, I don’t think this is a major issue unless it happens for the full 90 minutes.

As you can see here, when the wingback does receive the ball my team have been caught out in the quick change of play and my side have a lot of work to do to catch back up.

I have 6 players all scrambling trying to deal with the threat or get back into position. It’s something that can be quite costly at times yet almost impossible to defend against.

Diamond

The 442 diamond normally consists of a flat back four, two central midfielder, a defensive midfielder, an attacking midfielder and 2 strikers. This set-up is very dependant on your fullbacks as they will be responsible for getting forward at every opportunity available because you have no wingers. So at times if the fullbacks are struggling to get forward you might find your strikers could get isolated for periods in the game. The wings can be a problem area at times, especially if you’re playing against two very good wingers as they will have lots of space and time on the ball. If you do use this formation ensure that your fullbacks are good going forward but extremely good at defending duties too.

Strengths

  • Numbers in the centre and the protection of a DMC
  • Can become really compact and tight defensively
  • Plenty of attacking intent especially with the AMC
  • Rampaging full backs to provide the width

Attacking Intent

The centre of the pitch has lots of players in it using this shape. So you have it well covered and can have a many different options and pivots based on the roles and duties you selected. The player in the hole behind the strikers has one of the most important roles in the side. He is the main link between the midfield and strikers, so he has a lot of onus on him to make the side tick.

In this screenshot he had just won the ball deep in his own half and is now looking to spring an attack.

The attacking midfielder drives forward the whole pitch is opening up centrally. My advanced forward has come short to offer support and be the short option. While the other striker is making a run into the box and getting free from his marker. Then we have the rampaging late option who is one of the central midfielders making a late dash into the final third. Due to his late run it means he is in free space. This is one of the reasons why I love using support roles, for these deeper, late runs that players make. If he was higher up the pitch it wouldn’t work as one of the opposition’s players would have more than likely picked him up and marked him by this point.

Once the attacking midfielder passes to the advanced forward, the forward turns and passes to his right. The pass is into space so the central midfielder is running onto the ball and takes a shot. Sadly it just goes past the post but it was a great little move that showed the attacking intent of the attacking midfielder. Not only that but it highlights how this shape can create space and how it offers support in different ways.

Weakness

  • A possible lack of midfield width at times
  • Risk of the central midfielders being pulled out of position
  • Vulnerable to counter attacks
  • Requires superman type players for certain positions i.e full backs
  • Full backs can be isolated by the opposition
  • Overloads down the flanks
  • High energy expenditure

Those are some of the cons and probably the main ones that you have when using this shape. I thought I’d now show you bits of analysis highlighting some of these issues and showing you visuals, rather than just words.

Lack of Width

Width is probably the first thing people notice about this tactic and the space it gives up down the wings. This is always an issue but doesn’t mean you still can’t be successful, but we’ll get into that in the next one. However here are some images to highlight the issue further.

This is taken from a side using the same shape that I do. But you can see the space we give up and if this was against opposition using wide players at either midfield or attacking midfield slots then you can see just how problematic that might be.

Central Players Pulled Apart or Pulled Deep

Another risk is seeing the central players get pulled wide to cover all the vacated space down the wings. When this happens you then become vulnerable through the middle. So the roles you select here are vital, too much movement and the players will always drift wide to cover the danger. Too little movement and the players will be rather static in the middle. It’s a fine line finding the right balance for this trio of players.

Variety is a good thing though, don’t have all three players doing the same things and then you lessen the risk of all of them being pulled wide at the same time. Which would be a catastrophic turn of events if they all left the central area at the exact same time.

Depending on the roles and duties that you do decide on though, you could see the players being pulled very deep into your own half which again can be a bad thing. The midfielders are your link to the attacking trio of players. If they get pulled deep then you’ll see a distinct lack of connection between your middle three and the front three. They’ll be cut off from each other and rather than playing as a cohesive unit, you will see them playing as two different units. There needs to always be a link between the midfield and the front three no matter what.

In this screenshot, it kind of shows both scenarios with the exception that the Trequartista is also one of the players who has dropped very deep. Even if we recover the ball here in this scenario (which we don’t btw) then we’d struggle to get it to the strikers without a long ball to them and their outnumbered 3v2.

All four of the midfielders got sucked into the right side of the pitch (from the opposition’s attacking view), this basically leaves the centre free and gives the oppositions lots of free clear space. Fortunately for me they’re also using the narrow diamond so don’t capitalise on it. But a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 etc would likely rip me to bits here with this kind of play. Any kind of fast play which quickly changes the focus to the other flank or more central areas, then the diamond really struggles to cope and players can’t recover quickly enough.

Susceptible to Counter Attacks

When you play with an aggressive formation and especially with one that lacks width, then you are always leaving yourself open to be hit on counter attacks due to committing men forward in attacks.

This is me attacking a vastly inferior side and imposing myself on them. I have lots of players deep in the opposition’s half. But look how quickly this changes when the opposition win the ball back on the edge of their own area.

Straight away when I lose the ball I’m on the back foot because I have six players all behind the ball. Four of those six players have no real chance of making the ground up realistically. Whatever happens during the rest of this move doesn’t really matter because either way my side gets stretched and run ragged. If someone steps up to deal with the danger, then considering I only have four players able to cover who are ball side, then this means their position they should be covering becomes exposed.

That’s still the same move. It’s a good job I’m playing a rubbish team here because the opposition player hit the ball straight to my player which was fortunate. However it could have been very different against a half decent side. He could have passed to either of the two players were the jagged line goes. Then when they get the ball they could run with it and my centrebacks would be in real trouble. They’d be carved open because if the ball went to either player, they could easily play the other one in with a simple ball and there isn’t much I could do about it. That’s the downside of a lack of cover in the wide areas and is the main downside of over committing men forward.

Overloads On The Flanks

There is nothing worse than seeing your fullback get isolated and having the opposition’s players double up on him time and time again. There are ways to limit this which we will talk about in a later article. However it’s frustrating to see it happening against teams who use full backs and wide players.

Here we have the player circled who is going to feed the ball to his own fullback and then continue his run inwards to get between the fullback and defender. There are many different ways teams double up on players, it could have gone the other way and seen him make his run down the outside of the flank instead. So be aware of the different types of doubling up sides do.

There’s an awful lot going on in the next phase of play of the same move. There’s actually a few issues going on here.

  • The central midfielders (mine) have been drawn wide to help cover the wing.
  • This means that the player marked with 1 is free and should be being marked by the central midfielder.
  • My central defenders then have to deal with two players and a free player. So there outnumbered no matter what here.

This is very problematic. Once one player is out of position then someone has to cover for him, then someone for them etc. It’s the domino effect. One weak link or one player caught out of position and it all falls apart. And all this started because of one simple move, the fullback being exposed and isolated due to the numbers advantage of the AI.

It doesn’t really matter what mentality, roles, duties, team instructions or personal instructions you use when using this shape, you’ll still see these issues happening because they’re the cons of the system we used. However that isn’t the end of the world and using team instructions or player instructions might lessen the frequency they happen but can never stop them happening. And while it’s true this can happen in any shape you use, it happens more in the narrow diamond than most others due to the reasons we’ve discussed throughout the article.

While this might be problematic we have to remember we also have our own strengths that make us a threat to sides. It then becomes a trade-off of what you think is acceptable and if the benefits of the pros outweigh the cons and so on.

Diamond Wide

Unlike the diamond one above, this setup does have wingers and is a good system to use if you want to use overlapping full backs (these are explained further down). The vital part of this formation is the attacking midfielder’s position and the defensive midfielder. The attacking midfielder will have both attacking and defensive duties; if he does not track players back when your side is not in possession of the ball then you will have a huge gap in middle of the park. This can cause big problems as your defensive midfielder will then move forward to try to win the ball and if he doesn’t win it your defence will have all sorts of problems to deal with.

The wide diamond borrows some of the best traits from the flat 442 and from the narrow diamond. Outside of Argentina we don’t see much of this shape being used really but for me it’s still one of the classics that I have fond memories of using.

Strengths

  • Plenty of width and general wide play from the wingers
  • Cover down the flanks
  • Able to create overlaps in attacking phases of play
  • Has a DMC for protection to the back four

Weakness

  • Lack of central players can mean lots of space in the centre for the opposition to really grab hold of the game.
  • Struggle to play any kind of possession game due to lack of central players
  • Can sometimes be very one-dimensional play
  • Strikers and the AMC can find themselves isolated if the wide players can’t provide the required support

The attacking midfielder does drop deep if you set the role up correctly, like I have above. This then also means that if you win the ball back quickly like I did, then you have no-one in the immediate space centrally. It’s basically free space. If the attacking midfielder has chosen not to track back then there would still be this space but it would be closer to my own half. Not only that but then my defensive midfielder, would be tasked with defending the whole centre of the pitch on his own which is just unrealistic.

From an attacking sense this looks really good. I have the wingers high up the pitch, the attacking midfielder is making a late run into the box to support the strikers. And the fullbacks are in support too. However if I lose the ball here, then apart from the defensive midfield the middle is really exposed. Even if the fullbacks were less attacking, the central area would still be an issue.

It’s a problem and at the same time it isn’t. What we have here is risk vs reward, do I play it more safe and try to cover the middle? Or do I be very attacking and look to take the advantage of using two strikers, an attacking midfielder and two wingers? Giving up central space is expected but as long as the attack minded players carry out the instructions I gave them, then its fine.

Being aware of the weakness and why it happens is the key to everything. The same with the strengths that a formation has. It helps you understand the how and why something works. That’s why above I’ve probably focused on the weaknesses more than the strengths because everyone likes to attack and know the good points already. Or at the very least have a good idea what they are.

Hopefully people can find something useful in this wall of text (sorry about that, it’s just it works better as one article imo rather than a series) and begin to understand the basics of the 442 and some of  its variations. Even if you’re not using a 442, the points I’ve been making throughout the article also apply to other formations.

17 thoughts on “The 4-4-2 Chronicles”

  1. So great to read these analyses, Cleon 😀 Can’t believe all this quality content can be found in one place. Thank you!

  2. This is some real good content, once again Cleon!
    I’ve never used a 442 before but few days ago i’ve started a new save and will use a flat 442. So i’m glad you did this!

    You mentioned how important work ethic is for those 2 central midfielders, and i believe that work rate and teamwork can be really important there?

    Tks

  3. Another amazing piece of information Cleon, thanks!

    So I assume that using a flat 442 is always a good idea to use your more defensive midfielder to man mark other teams AMC’s? Is it a thing that you frequently do, even if they play with lone striker? Thank you.

    1. Thanks 🙂
      I don’t specifically man mark anyone as a general rule unless someone is causing me a real headache. I’d rather use PI’s or even a role change to try and combat the AMC. Even a higher d-line if I thought we’d be okay using it, as it would close the gap and space than the AMC plays in.

  4. I’m always happy when you post things like this!

    Can I ask you what is your opinion on using IWB role in a classic 442?
    Thanks

    1. Really depends what you’re aiming for really. They work with most set ups. However seeing as wingplay is the main feature for using a 442, I don’t see the point (personally) for using a 442 if you plan on using IWB’s, surely a different formation would be a better base.

  5. This article came in the perfect time, because i’m trying to create a flat 442! 🙂 So this is pretty amazing.

    Mind if I ask you couple of things?

    Having a WP(s) with a FB(a) behind may seem a little risky because WP cuts inside, but having a solid defensive midfielder on the same side can it work? Because I like the fact of having a player running all the way behind the WP

    You mentioned that falt 442 has his weakness and we have to accept that. Do you think it’s normal that other teams have good amounts of shots when they play with more bodies in midfield, like 4-2-3-1,4-3-3, etc? Do you change anything against those systems or you just accept the fact that you can’t do much?

    Thank you for your time Cleon!

  6. Thanks and sure 🙂

    It’s not risky having a WP and a FB on the same side, even if the WP cuts inside. He’ll be creating space for the over lapping fullback to run into. The WP will still revert to the wing when defending or when he loses the ball so you still have 2 players covering the wings.

    I don’t kind giving up space and I don’t mind giving up shots, so long as none of it is threatening or causing much issues.So I don’t panic when I am out numbered in midfield as I know this will happen against various formations. I don’t really change much aside from mentality I use based on how the game is going.

    Rather than concentrating on the opposition, I like to focus on the things my side and players do well. If they do all the things I expect well, then I’ll get a result 90% of the time so it doesn’t really matter what the opposition may or may not be doing for me 🙂

  7. Playing a flat 4-4-2, and having a WM on attack on the MR position. My problem is that I don’t want him to cross the ball so often! In the pre-season he had 180 crosses in 10 matches. I changed his role to WM from Winger because the latter has cross more often as a part of it. So I gave the WM the cross less often PI but there was no significant change.
    I support him with a CM on Support (MCR) who has Run wide with the Ball and Roam from position PI’s and a DLF (STCR) on Support but he keeps on making a lot of crosses. Can I avoid all those crosses or should I accept it and use a Winger after all?

    1. If you don’t want him to cross, use a role that is different like a playmaker. If not, they’ll cross as they’ll still be some form of a winger.

      1. Yes, thought of that but I have a wide playmaker from the other side of the pitch (ML). So I thought I will give some sort of width to the team. I finally kind of understand the way I want to play and kind of understand the advantages and limitations of certain formations. Maybe it is time to try something else than a 4-4-2! This is a big step for me…

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