Football Tactics: 4-4-2 defensive formation
Overview of the 4-4-2 defensive formation
The 4-4-2 defensive formation is a version of 4-4-2 that is popular with the so-called lesser teams, who cannot compete with the big hitters in terms of technical ability so they rely on defensive discipline and high work-rate to match up with higher quality opponents.
This system has four defenders; two centre-backs and two full-backs. In midfield, there is two wingers – usually pacy ones – on the sides of two central midfielders, while two strikers complete the system up front.
How it works
For long periods of the game, the team has to defend so they conform to a compact shape deep in their half to contain the opposition’s threat, then play on the counter.
The back-four usually drop deep and the midfielders align themselves just in front of the defence to form two flat banks of four, which can be packed deep in the defensive-third, with the two strikers leading the pressing for the ball.
When they get the ball, they have to attack on the break, sometimes with pacy wide midfielders looking to run in behind the opposition full-backs or the two centre-forwards operating as transitional players getting on the end of balls floated behind the centre-backs.
The strength in this system is in the defensive unit because a side set up in this shape is difficult to break down, especially if they have industrious midfielders and disciplined defenders.
If the players avoid individual mistakes, it takes real quality from the opposition to create chances because they would need to either move the ball very quickly from side to side to shift the eight-man unit from one flank to the other before they can quickly penetrate with one-touch passes through the gaps that emerge. Otherwise, it requires special fleet-footed players like Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria or Raheem Sterling to breakdown the defence with great dribbling skills.
Offensively, this system can be equally potent because most teams playing against a side that takes this approach tend to attack in numbers and hold a high defensive line. That means there is a lot of space to exploit during quick transitions.
The two biggest drawbacks for this kind of formation is that it requires a lot of hard work from players and since play will usually be in the defensive half, there is little margin for error.
Bigger teams usually break down sides that conform to this shape in the latter periods of games, mainly because of tiredness from the players who cover a lot of ground pressing for the ball throughout the game.
Which teams have used the 4-4-2 defensive formation successfully?
The best and most recent example is Crystal Palace in the second-half of the 2013/14 season when Tony Pulis took over. Pulis went on to win the manager of the year award for his work after hauling the Eagles from serious relegation trouble by recording wins against top sides like Chelsea and Everton.
Players like Damien Delaney and Scott Dann played key roles in organising the back-four and keeping the defensive line in appropriate positions, while full-backs like Joel Ward and sometimes Adrian Mariappa kept the defensive line tight to shut down the channels, thereby denying clever players from the opposition the chance to make clever runs through that back four.
Captain Mile Jedinak played an integral role in central midfield both defensively, in double-pivoting with either Joe Ledley or Kagisho Dikgacoi, and offensively in spreading the ball to the wide midfielders.
Yannick Bolasie and Jason Puncheon were the most important players during quick changeovers because they tracked back with the opposition full-backs while quickly making runs forward to exploit the spaces in the wide areas on the break.