By Ewan Roberts
The criticism of the 4-4-2 system Roy Hodgson used in England's friendly against the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday night has been as vociferous as the Three Lions' performance was dull and predictable.
Former striker Gary Lineker described it as “a step back to the dark ages of two lines of four”. Outdated, archaic and impeding, England have donned the footballing equivalent of a suit of armour in an age of drone strikes and nuclear explosions.
“[It is] so easy to play against,” continued the Three Lions' second all-time topscorer via Twitter. “Brazil will thrash us if we line up the same way. Predictable and dated. It's not about playing in straight lines, it's about playing between the lines. Depth gives flexibility, passing alternatives, creativity.”
The formation has been used by England, virtually exclusively, for decades. The one notable move away from the system in recent years came under Steve McClaren, but his 3-5-2 experiment in Zagreb saw Croatia secure an easy 2-0 victory – and contributed to England's failure to qualify for Euro 2008.
Even continental coaches stuck with the same shape, as first Sven-Goran Eriksson, favouring a typically British big man-little man combo of Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, and then Fabio Capello, using the same cautious, defensive set-up that had brought him so much success with AC Milan in the 1990s (using Gareth Barry and/or Scott Parker in the holding role a la Marcel Desailly), continued the love affair with a formation that was being phased out elsewhere.
The main argument for the continued existence and use of 4-4-2 is one of familiarity: English players don't know how to play any other way. But that is becoming less and less true.
|THE RAPID DECLINE OF 4-4-2
What is especially interesting is the contrast in how much 4-4-2 is used between the top half of the table and the bottom half (the better sides versus the worst) and also how much more reluctant non-English managers are to use the formation.
Some 50% of sides that finished in the top half of the table did not use 4-4-2 at all last season, whereas only Wigan did not use the formation in the bottom half. The top 10, in total, used the formation 23 times compared to 68 times for the bottom 10 – almost three times as often.
The most frequent users of the system were QPR (nine times), Reading (16) and Newcastle (13); the former pair were relegated, while the Magpies finished 16th. No side used 4-4-2 more often than the Royals, nor did any team endure a smaller average share of possession (40.7%).
At this point it is important to note that all three teams were managed by Englishmen, Harry Redknapp, Brian McDermott/Nigel Adkins and Alan Pardew.
Across the league as a whole, English managers were 229% more likely to play with a flat 4-4-2. Surprisingly, the only Englishman that did not start with the formation at all was West Ham boss Sam Allardyce, though he did revert to it in-game (and his philosophy is hardly a bastion for the cultured possession football that England aspires to recreate).
What this suggests is that 4-4-2 is not so much a formation that English players cling to, but English managers.
|The players Hodgson has picked for his squad lined up in a 4-4-2 formation just 3.7% of the time for their club sides, while the 65-year-old used the system 56.6% of the time in his final three seasons in the Premier League with West Brom, Liverpool and Fulham|
In Hodgson's most recent England squad, now sans Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge, Leighton Baines is the outfield player most accustomed to the formation – though even he only used it five times during a season in which he played all 3,420 minutes of Everton's league campaign.
In total, the players picked to take on Ireland and Brazil appeared in 584 Premier League matches last season but only used a 4-4-2 formation 22 times – that is a minuscule 3.7%.
Hodgson, meanwhile, used the formation 50% of the time with West Brom, 55% of the time with Liverpool and 65% of the time during his final year at Fulham. Now, with England, Hodgson is using a formation he knows and trusts in (even previously fielding the likes of Erik Nevland and David Ngog in order to stick rigidly to the shape), rather than picking a formation the players are more accustomed and suited to.
The reason it is used predominantly by lesser sides is because it is (barring the odd anomaly like Arrigo Sacchi's high-pressing, attacking 4-4-2) a defensive, preventative formation. Two solid banks of four, with the midfield retreating deep to deny space between the lines, makes it difficult for the opposition to break down.
But it is largely a reactionary tactic that assumes a position of immediate inferiority. Before even taking to the field, the midfield battle has already been lost. Hodgson's squad (which included no outfield players from outside the top seven teams in the Premier League) are used to battling for control with their domestic sides, but under the 65-year-old they are being used in a formation that pre-empts submission of the midfield.
Only having two central midfielders (and playing with touchline-hugging widemen) leaves the side horribly exposed and outnumbered against most nations. Take the Euro 2012 final, for example, where Italy's 4-3-1-2 took on Spain's 4-3-3 (with inverted playmakers and a false No. 9). There were, in effect, ten players (six for La Roja, four for the Azzurri) contesting the middle third.
But England, under Hodgson and many managers before him, instead stubbornly persist with a formation that puts defence before attack, solidity before creativity, rigidity before fluidity and constraint of the opposition before control of the ball.
And, you suspect, while England's philosophy continues to mimic something that you would more usually find in the pages of a coaching manual scribed by Mike Bassett, the national team will continue to underwhelm and underperform in its antiquated four-four-effing-two.
*All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com
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