4-4-2 Still Effective When Utilised Correctly

People tend to be rather sniffy over a direct 4-4-2, but Roberto Martinez yesterday showed that it still triumphs over possession and passing with no penetration.

Last Updated: 21/04/14 at 09:51 Post Comment

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As you get older you tend not to get so radically swayed by passing trends, sometimes because you're so out of touch that you don't even know there's a passing trend happening and sometimes because you've seen it all before. The downside of this is that you can be slow to change and adapt when necessary, but the upside is that you don't keep getting into bed with silly, faddish obsessions.

Football is not exempt from this. Obviously it's a game that can be played in many different ways but for some reason specific tactical approaches and formations fall in and out of fashion

For some time now playing 4-4-2 has been synonymous with brutal long ball football. With the recent success of Barcelona, this hardened into a concrete philosophy. Only leaden-footed football Neanderthals played 4-4-2. Any other set-up was better. No self-respecting hipster would condone it. It's flat, predictable and easy to beat, right?

No. Wrong. Barcelona didn't play it because it wouldn't have been appropriate for their players. Real Madrid have occasionally deployed it, as have Atletico Madrid. These are not dumb sides. 4-4-2 can work, and the idea it couldn't was always utter rubbish propagated by people who were too quickly prone to fashionable trends, or those who for think intricate passing football is innately superior as an art-form. The wiser head knows football always makes fools of those who claim the supremacy of any orthodoxy.

The original intent behind 4-4-2 was to use it as part of a high pressing game. That's how its oft-cited originator Victor Maslov deployed it. Poor coaches forgot this and simply let the keeper boot it long for a big man to knock down and that was pretty much all there was to it. More than any other system of play, 4-4-2 got a bad rap not because it is innately ineffective but because it was used badly by some very poor managers and poor teams.

In Britain 4-4-2 became hardened into an inflexible, linear approach and it was rightly attacked, England's national side often embodying the worst aspects of it as a system. They would be over-run in midfield and quickly resorted to booting it long for a big man to knock down, easy for better international defenders to deal with. For some reason we largely stuck with it for over 35 years regardless of results, opposition or what players we had available. Until quite recently it was commonplace to hear Alan Hansen et al advocating reverting to 4-4-2 after some failed experiment with an alternative because 'it's what the players know best.' This only seemed to underline how dated it was.

However, in the hands of a knowledgeable coach and players who know what they're doing, 4-4-2 is a direct, threatening, thrilling way to play. Many of the best goals you'll ever see have been scored this way. There is still nothing to beat a well-aimed, perfectly weighted long ball being pulled down by the striker, who lays it off for a runner to belt it in or better still, the big man turns the defender, Didier Drogba-style, and puts it in the top corner. It makes a mockery out of all the other more intricate, cerebral tactics and that is one of its main delights. It reduces football to something much more simple and celebrates physicality.

On Sunday, Roberto Martinez used it to crush the hapless Moyes and unmotivated, miserable, malfunctioning, verging on moronic Manchester United. Everton used the long ball and counter attack, ceding the majority of possession, yet their victory did not for a single moment look in doubt. This was partly because Moyes has shockingly and shamefully ruined United but also because it allowed Everton to play to their strengths while exploiting United's many, many weaknesses.

Martinez is a sophisticated coach using what is all too often thought of as an unsophisticated approach, but he picks tactics to play against specific teams. In exactly the same way, Brendan Rodgers sets his sides up in markedly different ways depending on resources available and opposition. The key here is flexibility. If you just pick and system and stick to it regardless of whether it works or not, then it is that decision which should be criticised, not the system per se. In this way 4-4-2 unfairly became emblematic of failure and unprogressive thinking.

"We passed the ball really well," was Moyes' post-match summation of the defeat. "We kept the ball, had great control of the game. What we couldn't do was make enough chances. We had a great control."

In the same way that the amount of chords in a song doesn't indicate how good the song is, the amount of passes you perform or how much possession you have doesn't always indicate how good you are nor how well you played. United dominated possession against Everton to very little effect. The more passes you make doesn't inevitably mean you're a better side. This shouldn't be a lesson anyone needs to learn and yet it would seem the over-reliance on shallow appreciation of statistical analysis has suggested such numbers tell the whole or most of the story.

Pointless, ineffectual possession has, in recent years, not been criticised nearly enough but it deserves to be every bit as much as aimless hoofing has been excoriated. The endless sideways and backwards passing culture, oft portrayed as the saviour of the beautiful game, all too often descends into tedious, unexciting messing around. It's dull, dead-end football which looks good in stats but bad on the pitch.

Martinez and others should now have proven to the doubters, and those who blindly follow the loudest voices, that 4-4-2 and direct football has a rightful place in any manager's armoury.

Johnny now writes superb northern crime novels. We love them. Check them out here: www.johnnicholsonwriter.com

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