By Tim Palmer
Another quarter final exit for England, and with it, the debate reignites about their tactics. This time, it’s Roy Hodgson’s 4-4-2 that has caused the most discussion.
The 4-4-2 has always been a sore point in tactical discussion – many managers see it as outdated and unsuited to the rigors of modern football, which focuses upon short passing and possession play far more than has ever been the case in the past. Johan Cruyff is not a fan: he attacked it after the World Cup in South Africa, suggesting “the numbers don’t match up”, while Jose Mourinho vetoed the formation in Gianluca Vialli’s The Italian Job, pointing out that there is little the flat line of four in midfield can do to counter a midfield triangle. A triangle, as it is said, will always beat a line – and a diamond too, so it seems.
It’s not only England that has received criticism for using the 4-4-2 – Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland played a similar sort of system, and they were knocked out of the group stage, bottom of the group and with the worst goal difference. The situation was similar after the 2010 World Cup, where England again came under fire for the rigidity in their shape, where football seemed to be heading the other way to a new wave of 4-2-3-1.
However, to identify England’s problems as pertaining only to their formation is to ignore what Hodgson’s aims where in lining his side up in what seems like such a prehistoric formation: basically, he wanted men behind the ball in two lines of four, looking to soak up pressure. It was a reactive approach, borne out of a lack of preparation and partly due to the failings of the English players, and while this tactical strategy has rarely been criticized, Hodgson’s use of the 4-4-2 formation has been. This is unusual, when considering that his side could as easily be termed a 4-4-1-1, with one centre forward dropping another in a similar vein to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. That was certainly the case when Ashley Young was shifted centrally, with the winger nearly always floating deep behind a more genuine striker.
You could even suggest it was a 4-2-3-1, which on the face of it seems a ludicrous labeling. Yet Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea were often termed with lining up in that formation, despite having a near-identical strategy of lining up in two banks of four, so evident in their victorious Champions League campaign. On the face of it, Hodgson’s use of 4-4-2 seems outmoded, but it’s not the numbers that sent England home, as Rafa Benitez testified in his column for The Independent. On the face of it, 4-4-2 seems doomed, but that’s if you term a team playing in that style – indeed, with Mezut Ozil pressing high up the pitch in the defensive phase, almost as a second striker, Germany could be termed as playing 4-4-2, and one could hardly make the argument that the Germans are underperforming at these Euros.
Notation of formations has always been a notoriously difficult area to grasp in football, which leads to misconceptions about style of play. Hodgson and Trappatoni weren’t using 4-4-2 to compete in the ‘possession battle’, indeed, not since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan conquered Europe has a side succeeded at the top level with a proactive and truly genuine 4-4-2: even Ferguson’s United, as the manager himself affirms, play with one striker rather than the commonly assumed two. Generally, the two banks of four approach is intended to counter, rather than control.
Hodgson wasn’t lining his side up in a 4-4-2 merely to preserve the dying echoes of the formation; instead, he was giving his players the structure in which to play his defensive, reactive style of football.
Where, then, do the problems lie for England? This has already been well documented, from discussions about the technical quality of the players to debate about England’s true position in international football. One thing’s for sure: it’s not the formation that’s the problem, more so, its definition.
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