Disproving the myth of the ‘English 4-4-2’

Date published: Monday 21st December 2015 10:14

Do you still hate 4-4-2? Do you think it’s old-fashioned? Do you think it belongs in the past, along with coal mining, social aspiration and Brut 33?

There’s no doubt that, for some reason, for quite some time, this system has become synonymous with lumpen football stupidity. It was the football equivalent of writing in a big purple crayon, as opposed to the elegantly quilled pen of those playing 4-3-3, or better still 4-2-3-1, or maybe, the holy of holies, a 3-3-3-1 or perhaps even the always controversial and notoriously hard-to-play, 1-0.5-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1.5.

4-4-2 is regularly still called, by some, ’the English way’. Recently I watched Paul Merson on Soccer Saturday contorting his face as though inhaling ammonia through a dog’s bum when talking about “foreign” systems, as though they were thoroughly unpleasant and offensive, in comparison to the sweet perfume of a “good old English 4-4-2.” Maybe this is why so many dislike it; its supporters seem poorly informed and even a bit culturally xenophobic.

It reminded me of when, in the 1970s, Delia Smith would use garlic in a recipe on the TV. My mother, God rest her soul, would pull a similar face and say “I’m not eating that foreign muck’; blissfully unaware that the growing and eating of garlic was more English than drinking tea, of course.

To Merse and many others, 4-4-2 is utterly and unequivocally English, even when it’s played by decidedly non-English managers such as those resident at Leicester and Watford. They come over here playing their fancy foreign systems better than us and then they play our own systems better than us, Jeff. It’s a disgrace.

I can’t work out exactly why the Merse’s of the world cling onto a football team’s formation as though it is an act of national pride and identity. He is, presumably blissfully unaware that England won the World Cup not playing 4-4-2 but 4-3-3 or variants thereof. Ramsey’s Wingless Wonders, they were famously called. Famous to everyone except Merse, perhaps. And there was no more non-foreign manager than Sir Alf Ramsey. He was like a 1950s war movie version of an Englishman. But it’s not just Sir Alf, how about Terry Venables’ celebrated Christmas tree? There’s no more English manager than Telly Veg. Even Merse should remember him.

And I remember in the late 90s, Alan Hansen commenting at half time in an England game after, under Glenn Hoddle, they’d played 3-5-2 and looked all over the place. Hansen insisted that English players couldn’t play any other system than 4-4-2 and they had to revert back to this immediately to stop making themselves looking so useless. It was as though they were being asked to perform some complicated mathematical equation that was totally beyond them. But all that was really going on, was Hoddle hadn’t trained them well enough and they were not the right players to play it. It wasn’t evidence of the English genetic indisposition or inability to play any other way, any more than Delia’s garlic was foreign muck.

And obviously, many sides all over the world have used 4-4-2 and many English sides have played other systems too. There is absolutely nothing uniquely English about 4-4-2, and anyone who thinks it is has just invented it as an idea to satisfy some weird psychological need, or is just wilfully ignoring history.

Similarly, those who sneered at any manager who set his side up this way as being a dinosaur (and it was often those most obsessed with possession statistics, I noticed) had, for no good reason at all, other than perhaps some deep need to portray themselves as sophisticates, ignored the fact that 4-4-2 can be really effective and that teams routinely lost playing other systems, too. And that’s the key to any formation – you have to play it well, play it when appropriate and you have to have the right players to make it work.

Leicester and Watford are currently proving this very well. They may also be benefitting from the fact that some players haven’t had to play against it for a few seasons. There’s nothing more new than the oldest ideas.

But as much as the football xenophobes would like to point to their success as proof that’s how English clubs should play, and especially how the national side should because “it’s what we know best, Jeff” there’s no evidence that this is the case either. I suspect what those who say it mean is, “it’s the only system I understand, Jeff”.

Of course, what so many critics of 4-4-2 don’t acknowledge is that it can be played differently, with or without very wide men. Compact or flowing. Set up to defend or attack. When played well it’s rarely the two inflexible, rigid banks of four in and out of possession. In fact, it is the rigidity of the system that most often lets it down, so the clever tacticians know how to mitigate that. You also need your strikers to work really hard defensively. You can’t play it if they shrug and stare as the ball goes up the other end of the pitch. But then, all systems demand something specific of the players. No, something other than just the club being in England, Merse.

You’d be no fan of football at all if you couldn’t enjoy watching Leicester or Watford this year and their success has been achieved by playing 4-4-2 really bloody well. So is there still anyone clinging onto the outmoded faith in it being an old-fashioned English trait and at heart, a loser’s game? I hope not.

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