4-4-2 is purely a partnership based formation and is very simple. Replace the flat midfield with a diamond, then the change presents you with a chance of gaining an upper hand in the midfield region. Like the “give and take” rule of Mother Nature, this advantage in the midfield comes at the expense of width higher up the pitch.
Now, what if a side playing 4-4-2 faced a side playing 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond? This thought provoking question opens up a lot of possibilities that could be implemented by the coaches. Playing as the manager of Napoli and England in Football Manager 12, I visited two stadiums, Anfield, and Borussia-Park, in search of talented players for the national team. At Anfield, Liverpool played Bolton Wanderers in the quarter-finals of the League Cup and in Germany, Borussia Monchengladbach hosted Stuttgart in a league match. In both the games, the home team started with 4-4-2 and the away team played with a midfield diamond. Clearly, the hosts struggled in the midfield and the visitors had problems playing in the wider areas.
Taking these two matches as examples, let me demonstrate how both the problems were nullified.
1. Bolton’s manager (playing the diamond) pushes his shuttlers wide in order to check on the wide midfielders of Liverpool.
Raheem Sterling (14) and Alen Stevanovic (5) of Bolton played wide to stop Kiko Femenia (15) and Matt Phillips (39) of Liverpool. This negated Liverpool’s advantage in the flanks and shifted the balance towards Bolton. Fabrice Muamba (6) playing as the holding midfielder and Mark Davies (16) at the top of the diamond, confused the central midfield pair of Liverpool. Jordan Henderson (12) and Marko Veratti (6) had no clear cut idea as whom to mark.
While defending, Liverpool’s midfield quartet was pushed back. Wide midfielders were pushed back and made to move into wider positions by Sterling and Stevanovic. This created acres of space for Bolton in the midfield. Muamba was closed down by Henderson. This created space for Davies to drop into. Davies, who was not close to Veratti, easily slipped the ball to Knowledge Musona. Musona scored to make it 1-0.
Note that, here the shuttlers do not have the ball. They are moving with respect to the movement of the holding midfielder.
Another attacking situation, but this time Sterling was the one pulling the strings. Stevanovic stayed wide and positioned himself between the winger and the wingback. Sterling ran wide and stretched the defensive and the midfield line. This opened up a gap for Davies to pop into and create a goal scoring chance for the visitors.
This way, a side struggling in the bottom half of the table defeated the Premier League defending champions in the League Cup.
These two cases demonstrate how a team playing a midfield diamond can overcome its weakness of being outnumbered in the wider regions. Also, the team can boss the midfield zone.
To summarise – ” Push the shuttlers wide and ask them to constantly engage with the wide midfielders of 4-4-2.”
2. Monchengladbach’s manager (playing 4-4-2) asks one of the central midfielders to drop deep.
One of the central midfielders of Gladbach, Javier Mascherano (4) played deep to hold onto Jan Moravek (6). With the strikers, Kevin Volland (11) and Jelle Vossen (9), drifting wide and keeping the wingbacks of Stuttgart busy, the wide midfielders Oscar (21) and Edgar Prib (8) were given the license to roam freely in the wings. The fear of being outnumbered by Gladbach pushed the shuttlers of Stuttgart back.
Now that everything was ready, it was left to Giacomo Bonaventura to fill in the last piece of the puzzle. He kept some distance from Zdravko Kuzmanovic which forced the holding midfielder of Stuttgart to close down Bonaventura. Upon closing down, one of the strikers dropped deep to collect the ball from Bonaventura and sent a killer pass to the other striker.
On further anatomy of this situation, we can see that Mascherano is playing quite deep compared to the other three midfielders and Bonaventura is exactly in the middle, dictating the play. So this resembles a 4-1-3-2 formation. Therefore by changing a 4-4-2 to 4-1-3-2 momentarily in the game, a team can manage to disrupt the midfield set up of a 4-4-2 diamond opposition.
The central midfielder, Bonaventura, in this case, draws the holding midfielder of the diamond towards the center of the pitch while the player who has dropped deep, Mascherano here, holds onto the attacking midfielder.
At one instance in Liverpool’s defeat to Bolton, the home side changed to 4-1-3-2 with Veratti dropping into the defensive midfield role. But this did not long last as Henderson too dropped to play alongside the Italian.
To conclude – “One midfielder by dropping deep can change a 4-4-2 formation to 4-1-3-2 to lure the holding midfielder of the diamond formation out of position. This can pose problems to 4-4-2 diamond.”
While the two methods given above have worked out excellently in the game, it needs to be tested in reality. The solutions to these problems, even though inconclusive, can be further studied to develop suitable models.
Thank you for reading the article. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts about these ideas.