4-4-2 is a formation that defines Sunday league football, and up until around ten years ago it also defined the Premier League.
It’s the formation made famous by Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning side of 1999. With four at the back acting as a wall, two midfielders that worked tirelessly up and down the field, two pacey wingers getting crosses into the box and most importantly two strikers up front causing havoc.
This disappeared at the same time one Jose Mourinho came to the Premier League. Didier Drogba played a huge role in this shift of mindset. One big target man up front, who could not only hold up the ball and wait on support but could also bully defences in the same way that two strikers could.
Craig Bellamy noted this during his Monday Night Football debut on Sky Sports last month:
“I’d probably say in 2005, after Jose Mourinho and Didier Drogba came in. It changed the game.
“He went 4-3-3 with a big, strong target man and even a manager said to me at the time that to be a striker you have to be 6ft4, strong and able to go in behind. Everything I wasn’t!”
And of course, this formula worked. Mourinho and Drogba went on to win the League, and almost every trophy after that. With this, clubs started to change their own systems and opt for a different formation.
Cue 4-3-2-1. The most popular formation in the modern Premier League era. Managers like this formation because it allows them to have two holding midfielders, providing protection to the back four whilst the attacking players do their thing further up the field; thus eliminating the two wingers having to work up and down the field for 90 minutes.
However, whilst this formation may work for some teams, it doesn’t for others. Take Arsenal for instance. They are the prime example of when this formation works. Whilst Francis Coquelin, Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere et cetera sit back and protect the back four, their front three attacking players both score goals and provide assists for their lone striker Olivier Giroud. It is clear this works for Arsenal, with the London club conceding just 21 goals and scoring 37 this season.
A club that typifies when this doesn’t work is Manchester United; the reason, they don’t have a target man like Drogba or Giroud. Another reason why it fails at United is their lack of attacking wingers. Instead of having three attacking midfielders, they have a natural number 10 out on one wing, a centre forward on the other and a central midfielder in the number 10 role.
However, the 4-4-2 formation has not gone completely out of fashion. It has been revitalised and brought back in by the league leaders Leicester City and newly promoted Watford.
And it’s clear that what was once a very successful formation hasn’t lost its effectiveness. the league standings will tell you that alone.
However, there are other statistics that highlight this also. The partnerships of Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez for Watford and Leicester respectively have created more chances than any other partnership in the Premier League. The Watford pair have created 28 chances and the Leicester duo are a close second with 23.
The physicality of the two men up front is something that many defenders don’t know how to deal with anymore; and after Watford’s 3-0 win over Liverpool this season, Deeney highlighted that.
“We bullied them,” Deeney told Talksport.
“They didn’t fancy the fight. We dominated. Skrtel went off, didn’t fancy it. We’re not scared of anybody.
“I’m surprised that the other clubs are not clicking on. It’s been nearly six months now and teams are still trying to put two centre halves against me and Iggy.
“Defences don’t like that nowadays, it’s all pretty passing football, they all want to play like Barcelona.
“We’re old fashioned. We’ll bully you, we’ll run in behind, we’ll do the flick ons, and put a shift in going the other way as well.”
They do bully teams. Between Deeney and Ighalo, the pair have won on average 48% of their duels up front, according to Squawka.
But the success of this formation is not only down to the strikers, credit must also be attributed to the hard work put in by the rest of the players around them such as Ben Watson and Etienne Capoue.
Their teammates work tirelessly around them and as a result the strikers are rewarding their side with goals. Deeney may call it ‘old fashioned’ but it’s effective, and the Premier League table tells that alone.
A full list of Premier League teams’ favoured formations:
Arsenal ‒ 4-2-3-1
Aston Villa ‒ 4-2-3-1
Bournemouth ‒ 4-4-1-1
Chelsea ‒ 4-2-3-1
Crystal Palace ‒ 4-2-3-1
Everton ‒ 4-2-3-1
Leicester City ‒ 4-4-2
Liverpool ‒ 4-3-3
Manchester City ‒ 4-2-3-1
Manchester United ‒ 4-2-3-1
Newcastle United ‒ 4-4-2
Norwich City ‒ 4-4-1-1
Southampton ‒ 4-2-3-1
Stoke City ‒ 4-2-3-1
Sunderland ‒ 4-1-4-1
Swansea City ‒ 4-2-3-1
Tottenham Hotspur ‒ 4-2-3-1
Watford ‒ 4-4-2
West Brom ‒ 4-4-2
West Ham ‒ 4-1-4-1
Most popular formations:
4-2-3-1 ‒ 11 clubs
4-4-2 ‒ 4 clubs
4-4-1-1 ‒ 2 clubs
4-1-4-1 ‒ 2 clubs
4-3-3 ‒ 1 club
Enda Coll, Pundit Arena