The 4-4-2, the quintessential football tactic of the ’90s and one which has significant cultural interest to this day. It has given us great teams such as Sacchi’s Milan side and Ferguson’s Treble winning Manchester United team, as well as giving its name to one of the world’s most successful football lifestyle magazines. However, it’s long been associated as being a formation of the past despite its inherent strengths still being applicable today. This article will provide not only an in-depth description of a functional flat 4-4-2 tactic that can win the Premier League with Bournemouth first season without transfers but also will justify and state why we should not look to discount old formations but instead should look to reinvigorate them with our modern tactical understanding of the game.
Table of Contents
What is a 4-4-2, how was it used and why is it relevant today?
The 4-4-2 formation originated from the development of teams realising across the world to open up teams playing a more defensive style, such as the catenaccio of the ’50s and ’60s, you had to retain possession and that required more options at the back and to defend against the counter you needed equal weights of players across the pitch to prevent any given area being overloaded, thus the 4-4-2 was born.
Early examples of this were Bob Paisley’s Liverpool side and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest teams of the ’70s and ’80s which won European Cups (the pre-cursor to the champions league) with this formation. It must be stated however that the formation was being developed across the world in many continents by many teams, so crediting any one given coach for its evolution would be wrong and the English teams are just high profile examples.
So, we know what it looked like, two banks of four, with two strikers upfront but how did it operate? Each side using it will have had their own individual quirks due to the capabilities of their squad but the following is a very generic understanding of how the formation was deployed initially. In the ’70s and ’80s offensively the job of the forwards was to get into space between and in front of the opposition defenders and hold onto the ball to await reinforcements.
These reinforcements would comprise of fullbacks and wingers overlapping out wide with the central midfielders providing the option for a pass into the channel overlapping centrally or as a safe option to pass back to retain possession. Sides would add flavour to this by having one winger wide and advanced and another tight and tucked in to create a lopsided overload depending on whoever was in possession.
Defensively, players were expected to take responsibility for their side (if wide players) and their area centrally if central midfielders and central defenders. Other sides decided that overloading could occur in a more direct fashion and therefore the formation was but merely the structure for which the style of play would spring from.
Some games could involve both sides playing a 4-4-2 with the exact structure but with players and the team adopting different roles, with one side seeking to retain possession, such as Clough’s Forest and another seeking to be as direct and as physical as possible ala 80’s Wimbledon.
In the ’80s and ’90s, it was becoming apparent in the UK and around the world that the formation of 4-4-2 at the time offered defensive coverage equally around zones and that the control of movement around the pitch was vital as was the control of the space you moved within. The theory being that if you split the pitch into segments to be covered, defensively the 4-4-2 covers the whole width of the pitch with the opposing team having to get by two banks of four players. The area of the pitch that can be contracted and retracted depending on how high players press and how high the offside line is played without there being a disparity between left, central or right positions.
Arrigo Sacchi’s ‘89 Milan side were based upon this principle of being a “movement and space” team and in his own word’s “if you are far away from your teammates you are not a team” which was his way of expressing the need for compact space controlled by his players creating the smallest possible section of interaction. Sacchi wished for his team to attack and defend as a unit with the defensive and attacking lines no more than 25 yards apart at any given time.
The formation was then used by Walter Smith’s 90’s Rangers side to counter-attack with pace. Smith deduced that Sacchi’s contracting of space was all well and good but it left you open to long balls over the top and into space. In Smith’s mind, it was far better to drop back deep to prevent this and then counter through a counter long balls or by fast wide players. Smith’s system worked on a series of partnerships working in unison, fullbacks and wingers, target man and poacher, ball-winning midfielder and box-to-box attacker, two imposing centre-halves. It was an evolution and meld of both the direct and possession styles, were upon possession was retained to control the pace of the game and the direct style was used when opportunities arose.
After Sacchi’s Milan side possibly the most famous example of the 442 is Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble winners. Like Smith, Ferguson believed in swiftness of attack but Manchester United instead of countering and sitting back, aimed instead to dominate the opposition by having a conservative offside line but pressing hard from the front. This team were a blend of skill, strength and a never say die attitude, which aimed to capitalise on opponents mistakes under relentless pressure forcing long distribution to recycle possession.
Over the years the 4-4-2 is seen very much as having had its glory days in the ’90s but the formation still has a future.
Reinventing the 4-4-2 for the modern era
The problem is not that the 4-4-2 formation does not work, it is that it was being applied in a dated fashion. It is firmly my belief that the two banks of four, with two up front, still represents the most balanced coverage defensively and offensively offers balanced opportunities for attacking without being exposed at the back.
In reinventing the 4-4-2 we first have to decide what we want to use from our modern understanding of tactics in order to control the movement and space in the modern era. Sacchi’s version does not work today because of the weakness of the 25-yard compact space being broken but it can work if space is expanded by the forwards and midfielders pressing high up the pitch, putting pressing on the goalkeeper and the defensive line. This will hopefully lead to the opposition having to distribute long which creates opportunities for the team to regain possession. By using tight marking and conservative but hard tackling (no lunges with players staying on their feet) you do not give up a high amount of free-kicks but you do pressurise the opposition at all times.
Once you regain possession it is important to strike fast, therefore countering and counter-pressing need to be deployed alongside an attacking mentality and direct play through the middle. By having two wide midfielders cutting inside with fullbacks occupying the wider areas for more width, you attain a dual-threat of crosses and dangerous inside dribbling which opens up sides defensively. This, in turn, creates space for the strikers and late-arriving central midfielders as the central defenders and fullbacks need to cover this threat,
This approach is a mix of Sacchi, Smith and Ferguson’s approach and by using various principles from different types of historical 4-4-2’s you now have an approach that is modern and dynamic.
Creating a tactic based on this for FM20
Now to best use this tactic you need to accept I am going to describe exactly how I have played the game, the decisions I’ve made and why I have made those decisions and also some possible improvements that could be made. I will in the next few days on Twitch be using the tactic and may well do so for long term saves. I wanted a tactic that you could use with the very worst team in the game and get improvements, I wanted a tactic that you could plug in with Bournemouth and win the league if certain conditions were met (i.e. no major injuries) but one which could also dominate with a big side and cause absolute havoc to any team it came up against. I felt a lot of the tactics I was seeing were not plug and play, were very situational and required, well a college diploma in tactics to possibly understand WTF the thinking is behind their creation other than “This gets results and wins”. So, I went back to my roots, as a ’90s kid I grew up on the four-four-two formation, of the ’90s teams that used it well as described above and I was determined to bring this iconic but under-appreciated formation some love. I believe utterly I could have done the same with a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3 and I may well do so in future but for now, I wanted to make the 442 a prominent formation for people to viably use in FM20. So with that extensive pre-amble out of the way, what do you need to recreate my results and exceed these. Well, let’s take each section individually.
The testing conditions for this were basically that there would be no transfers for the first window (to give an accurate baseline example of how the tactic would work against most teams in the league) and thereafter until the completion of the season there would be no transfers by myself for the sides used. There would be no save reloading, so any losses or draws you see are accurate and the league cup and FA cup would have essentially the second string playing until the QF stage is reached. This is mainly to protect the fitness of the players and to keep the squad morale high. I was on holiday between games, I do not recommend this for saves, as ideally, you should deal with any player issues etc to maintain morale and if you do not holiday between games and deal with player concerns you should achieve better results than myself tbh. If I was not in such a rush to get these results out, I would have made this one change.
As many of you will know, in previous versions I made some very capable tactics (at the last count over 500,000 downloads) that you could plug and play under certain conditions and this is no different. In conjunction with the training schedules I will link here and the instructions I will give you below, I genuinely cannot see how you cannot win. – (Chrissy’s Training Schedules)
Plug in the training schedule for pre-season (for 2/3 weeks) and when you have matches and for the rest of the season use the game week training schedule. Amend the game week schedule to include rest after every midweek game you have. Here is an example of this amended set up. Note the amendment to the day after the Liverpool game I have made focusing on rest. If you wish to keep your team in tiptop conditions to actually withstand the rigours of the season, you MUST do this after every game. As for the preseason and game week training schedules themselves, again I have looked at what other creators have made and decided they weren’t ideal for long term progression, so I have created these two for you to plug and play with. If you have an international week or a holiday week with no games, fire in the preseason schedule to boost the physical stats.
In terms of individual training, do not set to positional training, the players will become more natural in the position purely by playing there repeatedly. Instead, focus on making them more suitable for the position. As a rule of thumb for goalkeepers set training to either GK distribution short (if passing stat is low) or GK reactions if the passing stat is above 14. For all defenders set individual training to defensive positioning, for central midfielders set it to attacking movement, for wide midfielders set it to ball control or quickness (whatever stats need boosting the most – remember by hovering your mouse over the specific training you’ll see what stats get aided by the training) and for strikers set training to final third or quickness. Set all of these on double intensity.
Remember after injuries though, you’ll have to rest these individual settings (let them undertake general rehab always) and reset the double intensity. I guarantee you, you will see huge gains in player development of young to mid-20 aged players as a result and you’ll maintain the stats of the senior players.
Coaches should set to be 5* if possible, with the training for each segment being light. At the prem level you really need it to be 4* minimum for players to develop properly in conjunction with the best training facilities you can get. This video by FM Base explains training well, go give it a watch – A training guide for FM – Video
For a more detailed explanation on attaining 5* coaching please watch this video – FM20 5* Coaches
I would say having the best coaching, medical, sports science and scouting staff can only improve each department and give you an advantage. FM20 is a game where the more time you put in, the more you get out of it.
This is hugely important. In a perfect world to make the best use of any tactic you need players that are up for it and are physically capable of lasting the 90+ minutes. Therefore, you need players that have a strong baseline of the following attributes – determination, anticipation, decisions, teamwork, work rate, stamina, acceleration, pace, natural fitness. A filter for this can be found here – Baseline player filter
Obviously signing young players is preferable for development and reselling and also there are attributes for each position that are desirable as well, but ideally, you want your baseline for those main stats to be above the average of your competitors in the competitions you are in order to have any chance. A more detailed explanation of attributes can be found at the following link – Player attributes
Player management is also important. Do not holiday between games, deal with player concerns and rotate and keep healthy players in the side at all times. Do not play a player if they are below 90% condition and substitute any injured or mildly injured players immediately. Likewise, if you can substitute any player going into the red zone of 50% condition. The stronger the baseline of the players, the less likely they will tire. I generally would never play a player with determination below 12/13 if I can help it at any level in the game. Determination is the one key stat I always put above others.
How the tactic works
The tactic is built around the concept that crosses into the box, the subsequent rebounds and percentage chances created, will lead to goals. The below graphic explains how a traditional 442 gets it done. My only change is that I wanted the wide midfielders to cut inside more and run at the defenders as I had noticed in testing this caused absolute havoc when it occurred. The central midfielders are assigned as deep-lying playmakers but in this role, they replicate the work of box to box midfielders. Otherwise, the ethos of a classic ’90s 442 is maintained.
Steve Grieve wrote a great article on the 442 and it helped me a lot when researching this. Feel free to give it a read if you want to know more – 90’s 442 Explained
Using the tactic
This is always what I get asked and here is a detailed explanation of how. Plug it in and play. If a player gets booked early on take off hard tackling. If they give up a freekick or are injured as well shortly after – sub them. Any players with injuries, even slight, sub them. If you get a player sent off, take off a forward and place one in the centre, same roles and player instructions, just move the icon.
In terms of instructions pre-halftime and post-game, I generally say nothing before the game or “I expect to keep this good run going” if things are not going well or we are underdogs I’ll every 15 minutes “Demand More” as a shout. At halftime I’d go assertive “I’m far from pleased with what I just saw from this team” if only up by two goals and aggressive “I’m far from pleased with what I just saw from this team” at halftime if only drawing or one goal up. If three goals up at halftime and/or after a win, I’d praise the team. For a more detailed explanation on team talks and shouts.
There are no exploits, let the AI assign players for roles. There are no set-piece takers apart from throw-in takers DL left and DR right. I would advise maybe ML left corners and MR right corners as that are what my testing used. As it stands, I am getting goals from across set pieces, not a ridiculous amount though and thankfully I am defending them in the main as well.
The set pieces alone can be downloaded here, all I ask is that if someone is going to put them into their own tactic that they have them set up as the screenshots below demonstrate and that you credit myself and this article when doing so.
Tactic Testing and results.
The game was saved 9 times, which includes the initial and final saves, the start of the season and 6 more save points throughout the season. I think I am the only tactic creator that currently does this, make of that what you will. This is accessible from the dropbox link here.
In terms of the results, I have obtained, playing the way I espouse I have won the league with Bournemouth. I feel if I hadn’t gone on holiday between games the morale would have been better and the results would have been even more impressive. Likewise, if I signed more players with a higher baseline, the results would have been a lot better. Likewise, I’ll be testing this with higher-level teams and I reckon with the better coaches, training facilities and players, the results will be remarkable.
Results and screenshots of the winning season
Where can I see this being used? Where can I get feedback?
To see this tactic being play tested in its latest version you can go to see me play on https://www.twitch.tv/comedychrissy
An external link to the tactic is listed here.