We were supposed to have moved on from this. 4-4-2, we were told, was like an infantile habit that had to be grown out of, left behind and stored next to the Mike Bassett DVD in the loft. For there were more sophisticated pleasures to be found in the realm of tiki-taka, false nines and split centre backs. Manchester City on Sunday produced the most complete performance by any team this season with a midfield of Jesus Navas, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Samir Nasri. In terms of the structure of a midfield, that’s about as traditional as you could imagine. So have we been lied to when we were told that 4-4-2 was anachronistic, inflexible and unsuccessful? Maybe not.
There is no formation in football that guarantees success. Sunday was a perfect example. Both teams played 4-4-2 (4-4-1-1), and whilst Man City flourished in that formation, Man Utd struggled. That Man City’s players suited the formation best would be the first conclusion we could make (more on why they were better suited later). So of course the players who make up a formation are important. But whether they engross or bore you, tactics, strategy, formation, call it what you will, are crucial. The way a team can make up for a less talented group is through good shape, discipline and intelligence. Greece’s European Championship win in 2004, Porto’s Champions League triumph in that same year and Celtic’s defeat of Barcelona last year are just three of many examples of this. In short, a discussion of tactics is one worth having.
An objection anticipated; both Manchester teams played with a forward (Aguero and Rooney) playing just behind the main striker (Welbeck and Negredo), and at times in the game rotated. Therefore neither side could be said to be playing 4-4-2. But, our main focus should be on the midfield four since this is where most criticism of the formation stems from. A typical and most definitely valid criticism is that a central midfield two is too easily outnumbered when playing against a three. No matter how good a midfield two may be, it can be hard to win the ball back off the opposition if they have a spare man in that area of the pitch.
The success of Barcelona and Spain is the best example of the benefits of playing a three, and the main reason why 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 is so popular at the moment is the success of those two institutions. On Sunday however, both teams matched up like for like so to claim that Man United were outnumbered in the midfield would be false. They were ‘driven back’, to use the phrase Gary Neville used in his post-game analysis for Sky.
This brings us to why Manchester City’s midfield four suited the formation better than Man United’s. If a team wants to play with two in central midfield they are asking them to do a lot of running. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho covered the ground a lot more quickly and effectively than Micheal Carrick and Marouane Fellaini did. In fact, Fellaini only made one block and one interception in the whole game. Michael Carrick has been United’s most consistent performer over the last two seasons, but would be helped by having someone to do the running and closing off of space that he can’t do. Darren Fletcher used to do a sterling job in this role, but his career had been put on hold due to health problems.
Moreover, Manchester City’s wide players produced far better performances than United’s did. I would argue that to counteract the lack of numbers in the middle, at least one of the wide men needs to play quite narrow in order to make a flat four work. Playing with two genuine wingers like Young and Valencia perpetuated the problem of the sheer workload Carrick and Fellaini were being asked to perform. Samir Nasri, on the other hand, would tuck in not only to help his two central midfielders but to link up with his two forwards in those spaces between the lines. Somewhat surprisingly, he covered more ground than any other player. Conversely, Ashley Young stuck too rigidly to his position on the left and was on the fringes of the game before being substituted after 52 minutes. So the types of wide player you employ are important as well, in making a midfield four work.
The types of wide player you employ are important in making a midfield four work
The main conclusion that can be made about deploying a four in midfield is that it puts great faith in the strength of the individuals in your team. In other words, the formation seems to work well all the while you have a better quality of midfielder than the opposition. Between 1998 and 2004 Arsenal and Man Utd shared seven titles between them playing with a traditional 4-4-2. The two midfield partnerships were Keane/Scholes and Vieira/Petit (later Gilberto Silva) respectively. They were so much better than their opposite numbers that they didn’t need to have a numerical advantage in the middle of the pitch.
Since then, with more English teams qualifying for Europe and adapting their games accordingly, there’s more of an emphasis on the collective than the dominant individual. The nature of the Premier League has changed too and changed midfield structures with it. First there was Mourinho’s Makalele-Essien-Lampard axis at Chelsea. Then Rafa Benitez’s trio of Mascherano-Alonso-Gerrard at Liverpool. Then Mancini’s De Jong-Barry-Toure midfield three in Man City’s title winning year. All of these emerged to challenge the old guard, along with the shining examples of Spain’s national team and Barcelona.
A flat midfield four can obviously work, but I would argue it requires wide players willing to play quite narrow (many wide players today are what would formerly have referred to as number 10s). It also requires the faith that your two midfielders are better individually than the opposition’s two. David Moyes must have believed this to be the case, but that faith now looks blind and misguided.