Over the past decade, people have fallen out of love with the humble 4-4-2 formation. It’s a shame really, as it’s a beautiful and effective tactic. Its beauty is also part of the reason why people tend to snub their noses at it, since it’s a rather straight-forward and simple tactic. Ranieri and his marauding Leicester City team are proving quite how effective a humble 4-4-2 formation can be. So here’s my take on a Leicester City-inspired 4-4-2-0.
Table of Contents
The basic formation, instruction and roles
Strikerless wouldn’t be strikerless if I actually fielded strikers so… I don’t. If you’re interested in my tactics that actually feature forwards, you should look around the community, as I do share the material around. This is Strikerless though, so a traditional strikerless approach, for as far as you can call an unorthodox approach like strikerless traditional in any regard. The formation is a plain 4-4-2 with the two forwards withdrawn into the attacking midfield stratum.
The aim of defence is to keep a solid straight line across the edge of the penalty area, perfect for playing the offside trap if you want to tweak the tactic. Central midfielders are tasked with winning possession, protecting the back four and supplying support to the front two. The wingers main task meanwhile is to supply crosses to the strikers from wide positions and of course the front two, one sometimes playing slightly forward of the other, are tasked with getting the goals.
The robust and simple 4-4-2 formation provides a team with a solid basic structure, which has both defensive depth and attacking numbers, with clearly marked roles. Without the ball, the four defenders and four midfielders can put eight men in front of the opposition, covering the entire width of the field. If the defence pushes up high with the midfield, the opposition can be strangled in their own half by a wall of players. With the ball, there are always options out wide and a strong presence up front to provide attacking options via long balls or crosses.
The real danger of the 4-4-2 is a pair of attack-minded players who understand each other’s game. The common example is a ‘big man-little man’ combo, where a big striker is the target man for long balls and crosses, ready to knock the ball behind the defence or down into the box for his partner to latch onto. In my tactic, I have gone for a runner and a creator dash targetman combo.
The downside of the 4-4-2 is that its rigid positions can lead to a side being swamped by more flexible opponents. That rigidity is caused by the 4-4-2’s three lines of players which can allow opposition players to find pockets of space ‘between the lines’, especially defence and midfield. A well-disciplined team will compress the space between defence and midfield so as to avoid this, but a poorly organized 4-4-2 can leave huge amounts of space in front of the defence and if the midfield cannot close down the passing lanes, teams can be ripped apart by opposition players lurking in those spaces.
To combat the vulnerability caused by rigid lines, you can attempt to change the player roles in such a way that players are looking to dive into gaps between the lines and basically offer some tactical flexibility. This can be achieved through careful pondering or just some good old-fashioned trial & error tinkering, as long as it works. To help with this, I have also looked at the fluidity, as it influences the amount of freedom a player is allowed and how the team members interact. As most followers of Strikerless know, I like my teams to act as cohesive units, collectively working towards a common goal. A Very Fluid approach seems a wise choice in that regard, especially when we also look into counterpressing. Combined with a high tempo, rarely any time-wasting and a fairly wide setup, our common goal is to aggressively hound and harass any opposing team, stretching play across the width of the field and not get as readily pulled out of position against opposition wingers who hug the touchline.
The days of the goalkeeper simply being someone who stops shots at the goal are long over. The modern goalkeeper must be able to play as well outside of the penalty area as he does inside it. I want a goal who is willing (and able!) to venture outside of the penalty area to intercept long through balls played between or over the full-back line. He must be able to clear the ball first time, or control it and try to maintain possession via a short pass or a long ball. Our team plays a fairly high defensive line, which means space opens up behind our defensive line, so it’s really a no-brainer why I have opted for the sweeper keeper role.
I want the team to try and win the ball back quickly and restrict the space which the opposition has to play with, in the same fashion as Ranieri lines up his team, which was based on the way Arrigo Sacchi lined up his Milan team. Sacchi wanted a maximum of 25 yards between his defenders and forwards and a high line that would compress the playable area of the pitch to his team’s advantage. Out of possession, the current Leicester displays similar tendencies, leaving little space for opponents to play centrally.
In my eyes, this implies a higher defensive line to compress the space the opposition have to work in, which is set to higher. Risky, but rewarding. No guts, no glory. I also want to implement elements of counter-pressing, so I have opted to close down more and use tighter marking, to encourage my players to get up close and personal with the opposition and try and cause bad decision making. My tackling is left at default so as being too conservative would not be consistent with winning the ball quickly and being too aggressive could cause too many injuries and bookings.
The central defenders are bog-standard defenders, no special tweaking required. Just two strong and fast men holding down the fort. Things do get interesting with the full-backs. As necessary, the full-backs will step to prevent players from turning with the ball in midfield or rifling in crosses from deep, which is the bane of many managers’ existence in FM16. Tweaking was required.
This forces the full-backs into a more narrow shape, restricting the space between the central defenders and the full-backs. It also means that if the full-back engages his opponent, he’ll have a covering central defender behind him at all times, leaving him less isolated. Should the opposing winger decide to cross from a deeper position, it means there are two extra bodies in the penalty area to deal with that cross. In a match, this positioning would look a bit like this.
The defensive line shuffles over to the side of the wide threat and snuffs out the danger, either by intercepting or tackling. Should the tackle miss, there is always a defender behind to provide the necessary cover. In similar fashion, should the ball find a central gap, the receiving attacker will often be met with a strong tackle.
In real life, Leicester squeeze the available attacking space and tend to leave opponents frustrated, even when the numbers would suggest that they should be outnumbered in the middle. By drawing the full-backs into more narrow positions, you prevent the crosses from finding space. As long as your central defenders manage to stay ahead and on top of their markers, you can cede domination of the wide areas in order to hit the opposition on the break.
In real life, Leicester’s wingers, who are direct and purposeful on the break, have been crucial. The star of the show so far is undoubtedly Mahrez, who has scored 14 goals and created 41 chances for his team-mates so far. Marc Albrighton’s contribution on the opposite flank shouldn’t be overlooked either. His impact on the team has been quite remarkable with his work ethic and hard pressing. To mimic their movement, I had to tweak the existing winger roles somewhat. We want wingers who perform offensively, scoring goals and creating chances, as well as harassing opposing players and tucking in a bit to help out the central midfielders.
Some minor tweaking was done to the default role. The harder tackling and tighter marking should help with the defensive positioning and closing down, whilst the roaming make the winger move into the box when space opens up. Let’s see the wingers in action.
The first action of that videoclip shows us both wingers in action. The left winger, Herrera, takes on his marker and skips past him, looking for an opportune moment to cross the ball. The right winger, Lecouna, has tucked inside nicely, making good use of the absence of actual strikers, which means the opposing defenders focus on the attacking midfielders and not on a winger drifting inside. The second goal is basically a reversed version of the first one, Herrera scoring off a Lecouna assist.
The third goal sees substitute winger Gonzalez providing a deep, angled pass over the top of the defence for shadow striker Figueroa to chase after and put away, much in similar fashion to what we see Mahrez do for some of Vardy’s goals this season. The final goal of the clip sees Lecouna take on his marker and opting for a low, driven cross instead of the regular floating cross. All in all, it showcases the offensive prowess of the wingers.
In terms of team instructions that help out, I will hit early crosses in the final third. With several passing outlets and the AI completely messing up defensive positioning whenever a cross enters the penalty area, this seems like a sure-fire way to get some goals. Roaming from position is also on, to encourage players to find space and make themselves available for a pass. With such a narrow formation, we do need to avoid being predictable and easy to mark. Run at defence seems like a fine option, especially when I need my wingers to beat their marker before they can flood the box with crosses.
On to the defensive part of their duties. The midfield appears unbalanced on paper, with three attacking roles and only a single defensive role. Our wingers cannot neglect their defensive duties, yet without sacrificing their offensice prowess. In real life, as the opposition builds out of the back, Leicester’s wingers Mahrez and Albrighton pinch in toward the middle, enticing wide play. Once the ball moves left or right, the near-side forward and winger can close down and win the ball back or force a long ball that their defenders can win. We’ve tried to mimic this movement, just have a look.
The first incident sees the opposition being frustrated at not being able to penetrate the defensive line and they lose the ball as left winger Herrera tucks inside and muscles his opponent off the ball. We have effectively ceded domination of the flanks, but since we packed the central area with bodies, we’re generally alright. When the central threat is under control, the team will shuffle wide to deal with the wide threat. The second incident shows a similar situation, the main difference being the winger who tucks inside. Instead of Herrera on the left, it’s Lecouna on the right.
The final incident shows how finely balanced the tactic is defensively. The defenders hold their position, the wingers tuck in and get involved and the central midfielders screen and assist where needed. Despite their attacking tendencies, the wingers form an extra layer of defence opposing teams have to peel loose in order to get inside our penalty area, which is just the way we intended it to be. Naturally, for our wingers, we have taken a page from the Uruguayan handbook @diegomendoza1969 and myself have written, you need players with some tenacity and grit here.
The next part of the midfield is the central pair, consisting of a Central Winger and a Ball-Winning Midfielder. In Leicester-terms, Drinkwater and Kanté. Now the main downside of the 4-4-2 system is the rigid lines. The roles I have selected should help us with that rigidity. The Central Winger’s distinguishable features lie in the fact that his goal is to drift out of the zone he is supposed to occupy by traditional standards, whereas the Ball-Winning Midfielder aggressively closes down anyone in front of the defensive line.
Whilst we want to generate plenty of movement, we also want to be weary about exposing our defence too much by having being dragged out of position. We need to get the balance right, which is a lot harder than one might think. I often struggle to find and maintain a balance between offence and defence measured by goals for as compared to goals against. Numbers up on attack, high in the front third of the pitch but numbers down in the middle third of the pitch when defending on transition, that is the ideal I strive for.
Offensive balance means that a team has not over committed players high up field going forward on attack during the run of play to expose it to quick transition if it loses the ball. Defensive balance means that a team has held shape and has committed enough players or the right players behind the ball as the team is attacking to slow transition in the event the ball is lost. Defensive balance promotes the freedom of movement of the attacking players during an attack but offensive balance does not likewise influence defensive balance.
I really need that balanced variety since my players are tasked with quite a bit. First of all, they have to protect the defence. In that regard, the role of the Ball-Winning Midfielder is the most obvious. It is the role that Kanté plays for Ranieri’s side in the Premier League. He is supposed to screen the defence, protecting the back four and allowing the wingers and the Central Winger to roam and link up with the attacking midfielders. Let’s just see him in action.
Running all over the shop, tackling, fouling, heading, screening and protecting that back four. He’s not exactly a pretty player, he is a no-nonsense, hard tackling, tough bastard who strikes fear into opposing players. When he plays, I rarely notice him yet when he is injured, the teams look lost. He’s the glue that binds the team together with his selfless running and impeccable work ethic. Holding position in front of defence, tenacious in his duels with opponents and not going for glory-passes but keeping the game simple and playing short passes towards team-mates, that’s his role within the team. He’s inconspicuous, both in an offensive and defensive sense, but he’s also indespensable. Let’s see him in action in an attacking sense.
His passing chart represents what you just saw; Close down the opposition, win the ball and pass towards a team-mate. Mostly short passes, barely any glory-passes unless the opportunity arises. Losing the ball in his position can lead to absolutely lethal counter-attacks, so he shouldn’t risk too much, but he also shouldn’t delay the flow of the game needlessly.
To achieve this passing chart, we did have to tweak the existing role somewhat.
The only tweaking we did was changing the passing style to a more direct style. Whilst he still goes for low-risk passes, he does try to play them forwards or sideways and not backwards. We have to maintain a fairly high tempo if we want to hit the opposition on the break and since he is the man winning the ball most of the time, we can’t have him dallying on the ball. A direct pass is not necessarily a risky one. He links defence to midfield and in some cases, he links the midfield to the forward line.
Our Central Winger, Danny Drinkwater in Ranieri’s tactics, is mostly an offensive player. However, this does not mean he is absolved from any and all defensive duties. With only two men in central midfield, both have to chip in defensively to get the job done, even when then wingers tuck in to help out. The Central Wingers defensive contribution mostly consists of harassing defensive midfielders and midfielders near the halfway line or further near the opposing teams penalty area. Let’s watch him in action.
In the video above, Marinelli is our Central Winger. He usually stays out of tackles, though he does track back if necessary to help out. What you see him doing most of the time is running towards opposing players, who are then forced to play the ball back or just hoof it forward blindly. Technically, these actions are not registered by the game as an interception or anything. In tennis-terms, you would call these forced errors. By pressuring the opposition, you cause them to miss a pass or lose possession indirectly. It’s not a statistic the game recognises, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.
In an attacking sense, the Central Winger does what we want him to do, even expect him to do. He runs at the opposition, with or without ball and tries to cause havoc for their defensive line. Either his runs are picked up by a midfielder, which opens up space for one of our own midfielders to use, or the defenders are left to deal with yet another attacker trying to penetrate their line, which often gives my team a 3 vs 2 numerical advantage in the opposing penalty area. Besides his running, he should also be capable of producing an end product with either a cross or a through ball. Let’s watch him in action.
In the first situation, a pass by Marinelli leads to penalty. His run from deep finds him in space as he is not picked up by an opposing midfielder, which allows him time to pick a pass. Right winger Gonzalez is brought down in the box, which leads to a penalty for us. A good run into space, penetrating the central area and delivering an end product. In the second situation, we see that Marinelli is not properly picked up by the defence yet again and a solid sliding tackle by Merry sees him through on goal. A poor finish means there’s no end product here, but the run is promising again.
In several cases in the video, Marinelli tries to link up with one of the two forwards, Amodeo. Because of his support setting, Amodeo tends to drop deep, which often opens up space for the overlapping runs of Marinelli, who then has time and space to either have a go on goal or pick a pass towards one of the other advanced players. When we look at his passing chart, we can see that almost all of his passes are forward passes, trying to probe the defensive line for weaknesses.
Since the game only registers dribbling when a player moves past an opponent, there’s no suitable chart to show the off-the-ball movement of our Central Winger. You have however seen in the videoclip above that he does not necessarily do all his running with the ball. He is constantly linking play between the wingers and the forward and his comrade in central midfield, as well as being one of the more creative players in the team, generating chances for his team mates. This is how we tweaked the central midfielder role to make it a Central Winger.
We made the Central Winger a more mobile threat, which means we have to allow him to roam and move wide if necessary, as well as allowing him to take on defenders with the ball. He adds an extra layer to our already intricately woven web of forward motion this way.
When we look at the team instructions, you will notice they all make sense in the big picture. In terms of passing, I want the team to play out of defence and exploit the wings so as to maximise our offensive threat. With several centralised outlets and an additional offensive outlet on the wing where the ball isn’t, there are plenty of targets for a cross, which is a remarkably effective tactic in the current Match Engine. My players are allowed a fair amount of creative freedom as well, again to counter-act the otherwise predictable movement of the rigid lines of a 4-4-2 formation. I do want them to retain possession to try and wear an opponent down.
Many partnerships over the years have been build on getting the best out of the physical prowess of players. A large player can provide an effective target, holding the ball up or playing passes to a quicker team mate, or playing him in behind instead. The larger player generally plays deeper, flicking on the ball, winning aerial challenges, although it is possible for the larger player to stay higher up, flicking the ball back into space or to a teammate, coming in at pace. The smaller player can look to break in behind or into pockets of space, often created by the larger forward beating a defender to the ball. These partnerships generally rely on good wide delivery & crossing from wingers and full backs, and generally suit fairly direct tactics.
That almost fits the bill for what I have in mind for my lads. When looking at the Leicester setup, I can see either Ulloa or Okazaki partnering upfront with Vardy. For my setup, I try to mix the physical presence of Ulloa with the intelligent positioning and fleet footedness of the Japanese forward, essentially creating a mix between a targetman and a creative, mobile forward, essentially reviving my Withdrawn Targetman experiments from last year and bringing it to a higher level.
First of all, let’s look at one of the poster boys for Leicester’s remarkable performances this year, Jamie Vardy. An aggressive runner who never gives defenders any peace, Vardy is much more than a predator who comes to life in the penalty area, and Leicester have reaped the rewards of playing to his strengths. He is a constant menace and thrives in a team that presses high up the pitch, acting as Leicester’s first defender when they are without the ball and, by playing on the last man’s shoulder, the focal point of their attack once in possession. In re gular old tactic, he’d probably be best suited as a Defensive Forward, what with the constant harassing of the opposition, but as the eponymous name of this blog betrays, I don’t deal with strikers. That leaves me with trying to re-create the Defensive Forward’s harassing without losing the tireless and energetic runs Vardy makes.
I have opted to tweak the shadow striker role to accomplish these goals. The chasing after balls offensively is what shadow strikers naturally do, so I didn’t have to alter the role too much in that regard. The reason for adding the mark tighter and tackle harder instructions is to make the Shadow Striker actually harass and pressure defenders in the same fashion as Vardy does in real life. I want him to be a constant thorn in the side of defenders, a hornet buzzing around and annoying them, allowing them no time on the ball and pressuring them into hoofed clearances.
We see our Shadow Striker constantly in motion, chasing after opponents and engaging them in duels for the ball. It goes without saying that you need a rather mobile player in this position, a player willing and capable to chase after any ball and harass opponents mercilessly. Our Shadow Striker is generally played high up the pitch, constantly re-adjusting his position, making himself available and giving defenders torrid afternoons or evenings. He utilises the full width of the pitch in the final third, constantly moving from left to right and vice versa, which concentrates his energy toward one threatening area of the pitch. He is not a lazy player, as he does drop back when required. In some cases, his constant harassing pays off as he latches onto diagonal cross passes or direct passes from the back.
Whilst I appreciate goals like that, they are rare. Most of the goals the Shadow Striker gets to his name come from surges into the box to get on the end of a cross by either of the wingers or a through ball by the Central Winger or his partner-in-crime upfront. They would like more like this.
Unlike the real life Vardy, I will not have the Shadow Striker moving into the channels, as I feel he would get in the way of my wingers and might even stop them from cutting inside and becoming goal-scoring threats themselves. I have one player who constantly moves in between the lines, exploiting the space opponents give and generating room to move in for his team-mates. That player is the Withdrawn Targetman. He really is an interesting one to look at and analyse. Allow me to elaborate.
The Withdrawn Targetman is basically the type of player you get when take a dash of Ulloa and mix that with a healthy dose of Okazaki. He is a nimble and creative factor, dropping deep and generating space for others. Because the Shadow Striker is constantly chasing down balls, harassing defenders and looking to drive play forward, or into wide appears of space, his compatriot upfront has the freedom to both drift into space and attacking positions and also draw defenders from either the Shadow Striker’s or the Central Winger’s path to goal. Let me show you how that works.
The Withdrawn Targetman’s deeper positioning means that he is either completely free on the ball to do as he pleases, or that any defender who chooses to mark him has to step out of the defensive line and move away from the cover of his team-mates to engage this player. These shadow runs by the Withdrawn Targetman (WTM from here on) in turn open up space for either the Central Winger or the Shadow Striker to exploit, because the WTM opens up space in defence and defensive midfield. Let’s see that in action.
Around 0.10/0.11 you see Amodeo, the WTM, move to the right flank. You also notice that Danilo, the Central Winger, surges forward to take over. The Central Winger’s surging run is spotted and the defenders stay in place, allowing Amodeo time on the ball to set up a brilliantly executed attack. If the Central Winger hadn’t been picked up, a quick through ball would’ve seen him through on goal.
In this instance, the WTM moves inward a bit, allowing for the Central Winger, Danilo, to surge ahead unopposed by a defender. Like his comrade upfront, his primary defensive function is to harass defenders and defensive midfielders. So how do we generate such a role?
The Attacking Midfielder Support role has been tweaked. After previous experiments with an Enganche, who ended up being too static and too much of a playmaker, I have gone for a more mobile player in my strikerless approach. The AMC(S) has been modified in similar fashion to the Shadow Striker earlier to mark tighter and tackle harder in order to make the WTM actually harass and pressure defenders. The Shadow Striker does that higher up the pitch, whereas this player often deals with DM’s or defenders trying to push forward into midfield.
What I wanted was a role that saw a master at pulling strings from this position in the hole. Elusive for much of a game yet so often important in the moments where the game is won, these players are the embodiment of technique, grace and skill. Relying on touch, vision, control and, most importantly, speed of thought, they tried to create and score where possible. Teammates sprang into life around the player, anticipating knife-through-butter killer balls and deft touches to open up defences. I toyed with the idea of a Trequartista, but he turned out to be too lazy defensively.
Whilst the Trequartista’s ability to unlock defences and turn a seemingly innocuous attacking phase into a goal required them to be kept higher up the pitch, which also necessitated a player to do the dirty work for them. In this 4-4-2-0 formation, I simply could not spare a player to shoe-horn a Trequartista into the squad, as I need every player to chip in and help out defensively. I tried to combine the best of two worlds, by modifying the AMC(S) role to have the same freedom as the Trequartista, but with more defensive responsebilities. I still want him dropping between the lines in an eternal quest for a bit of space, looking to turn an attacking move into a goal with a delicate through-ball or a cheeky shot on goal, but I also want him to pressure defenders and defensive midfielders, allowing him team-mates time to re-group or pick up stray balls.
So there you have it, ladies and gents, my take on a strikerless version of Leicester City’s tactics this season.
P.S. Guido, I want a real Leicester-inspired tactic, as in ONE WITH STRIKERS
Alright silly bollocks, don’t get knickers in a twist. Sheesh. You came to Strikerless.com, what the bloody hell did you expect from me? Seriously. On the bright side however, such a tactic was created, by me. It served as the frame-work for the entire long, overly complicated and probably winded wall of text above. However, since this is Strikerless, with a special emphasis on the -less part, I won’t be hosting it here. Since I am all about sharing, #wearethecommunity, you can find this heretic tactic of mine over at FM Central. Most of the setup remains the same as detailed above, except for the presence of strikers.
Strikerless wouldn’t be messed up (be honest, you love me for it) and outside the box (in more than one way) if I hadn’t tried something entirely new with the offensive setup. Instead of the traditional roles, I have gone for a Defensive Forward / False Nine pairing there. The rest of the information can be found over at FM Central, so if you really insist on playing with * shudders * “strikers”, you can find it over there.