Much is being made in recent weeks of the resurgence of 4-4-2 in the English Premier League. Its standout proponent this season, Leicester City, sit atop the league this Christmas, and Watford’s Troy Deeney and Odion Oghalo have formed an increasingly fearsome partnership. Is it time to revert back to two banks o’four?
Disclaimer: formations taken from published lineups, they may misinterpret the manager’s intent. Two managers’ takes on the same formation can be wildly different. Teams change formations during games in ways I don’t measure here.
It was Mourinho’s 4-3-3 in his first Chelsea stint that dealt the death-blow to 4-4-2:
Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.
Despite Mourinho’s success, 4-4-2 remained England’s go-to formation until the rise of 4-2-3-1. Wenger converted early – in 2011/12, Arsenal were the first team to deploy it in every EPL game. Manchester City had fielded 4-2-3-1s for 25% of their title-winning 2013/14, but Pellegrini’s freewheeling 4-2-2-2 was their mainstay, probably the last title-winning formation to bear any resemblance to 4-4-2. It took Chelsea again in 2014/15 for the formation to claim its first English title – the indestructible trio of Hazard, Willian and Oscar allowing them to play 100% of their games in the same shape.
Approaching 2016, 4-2-3-1’s victory seems complete: it comprises 57% of team-sheets this season, the highest ever. City have jumped on the bandwagon with 88% of their lineups, and 4-4-2 is at 12% – an all time low (its more conservative counterpart 4-4-1-1 is at 10%):
If there was ever a season to suss out 4-2-3-1, this would be it. Enter Leicester and Watford, neither playing your dad’s 4-4-2 (though it’s worth pointing out that Watford have actually racked up as many points with 4-2-3-1, the traitors). Watford have the 4th fewest crosses this season, and Leicester are midtable. Both are making key passes further away from the goal than any other teams in the league, and Leicester are 3rd in the league for completed throughballs, trailing only Arsenal and City. Looking at assists, Leicester are playing the ball from deep, out wide: their scorers are receiving the ball on average wider than any other team in the league, and Watford are 4th. Both teams are using their width differently than you might expect from standard, meat and potatoes 4-4-2. On top of this, their speed and directness denies opponents the advantage of Mourinho’s extra man – their buildup bypasses the 3 and their wide players stretch the 2, with Mahrez threatening to come inside and score, or making space for central throughballs. Are these the tools to end 4-2-3-1’s dominance? This season certainly features 4-4-2’s highest points per game against 4-2-3-1:
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However, I suspect the real answer is simpler, and less hopeful for traditionalists: Watford have Ighalo, and Leicester have Vardy and Mahrez. These are attackers on varying degrees of hot streaks, and how do you separate the tactical chicken from the goalscoring egg? Plus, where else is 4-4-2 really working? Bournemouth’s 4-4-1-1 may keep them up which is certainly a decent achievement, but Palace spend 2/3rds of their time in 4-2-3-1 and you’re left with Newcastle, Norwich and West Brom as the only teams racking up real minutes – not the most convincing vanguard for a tactical revolution, or indeed restoration.
So, should teams look into 4-4-2 in the New Year? There’s life in the old girl yet, but StatsBomb recommends waiting for Leicester’s regression before drawing too many conclusions.