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A guide to formations: The 4-4-2

The following is the fourth part of a mini-series in which Jake Askham takes a look at the common formations prevalent in football today. This piece focuses on the 4-4-2 formation.

Probably the best known formation in football is the 442, but in recent years there has been a decline in the amount of teams playing this formation. The back four is as expected; with two full-backs and two centre backs. The midfield 4 consists of two central midfielders and two wide midfielders, further up the field there will be two strikers.



One strength of the 442 is the balance throughout the team, each side is equally balanced which can help the teams shape with and without the ball. This is even more so when left footed players are played on the left hand side and right footed players on the right side, which in turn provides a lot of width which is again another strength.

Under Alex Ferguson, Manchester United often played with 2 wide midfielders who would hug the touchline. Ryan Giggs and David Beckham are a great example of this, of course they had the license to roam inside if the situation allowed that to happen but a lot of the time they would hug the touchline and stretch the game. Had Beckham played on the left and Giggs on the right, in order to get onto their stronger foot they would have cut inside and in turn clogged up the midfield.

Another great strength is having two strikers on the pitch at the same time, if they work in tandem with one another then it can give centre backs a much harder time. Often one striker will drop slightly deeper to provide a link between the midfielders and the other striker, will be positioned further forward. Having two strikers who work well together can elevate an average team into a very good one with the goals they score.


One huge weakness is the lack of a defensive midfielder, this means that teams who play an attacking midfielder can find a lot of space between the lines and potentially cause teams a lot of problems. One way to eliminate the threat of space between the defence and the midfield is by having the defence holding a high line and one of the centre backs closing down the oppositions attacking midfielder if they get the ball. However, this may cause more problems than it solves. Due to the high defensive line it means there will be a lot of space in behind which quick players could exploit and furthermore if the centre back pushes too far forward then there will be plenty of space to exploit.

Another weakness is the lack of a central attacking player; this then puts more emphasis on the two central midfielders to create chances and if one of them pushes too far forward it means the team loses a lot of its structure. The two in midfield need to be disciplined and work in tandem with one another; covering for each other and always offering a passing option.

Due to the defensive responsibility of the two central midfielders; the wide midfielders have a great responsibility to create chances for the rest of the team but they also need to work hard defensively in order to get back into position. This means that it is a very demanding position and due to the rarity of finding a winger who is great at going forward and working hard defensively, teams will often have 1 winger who is great at going forward on one side and then on the other a more defensive minded player in order to have a balanced team.

Teams successfully implementing

One of the best examples of a team successfully implementing in recent history is Manchester United. Their use of the 442 was text book and Alex Ferguson made sure all the players knew exactly what was expected from them. Up front Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov was a regular strike partnership. Rooney would often drop deeper to link the midfield and attack whilst Berbatov would stay slightly further forward to occupy the two centre backs. Ryan Giggs, Nani, Ashley Young and Ji Sung Park were the main wide midfielders during this time. They would be told to hug the touchline and provide a lot of width to the team.

In midfield, two of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher played in the central areas, both played fairly disciplined roles and were in charge of controlling the game from the middle of the pitch and recycling possession and getting the ball to the wingers and Wayne Rooney.  A solid defence of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were one of the best defensive partnerships at the time whilst Patrice Evra, John O’Shea, Rafael made up the full-backs positions.

Expected player roles

Two Strikers:

Very similar to other strike partnerships. One striker will play deeper than the other and their role is to receive the ball and try start an attack by either playing the ball towards the wingers or running at the oppositions defence. In order to be successful they need to have great positional sense and always be in a position to receive the ball, they need to be good at passing the ball which is vital for creating chances and keeping the ball and they also need to be able to score goals which will take some of the pressure off the other striker.

The striker further forward needs to be successful at scoring goals, as that is his primary responsibility within the team. In many cases, they will need to be proficient at either running in behind to stretch the game or using their height to score from the crosses that the wingers provide. It is important that the two strikers together make a partnership and understand each other’s play style.

Two Wide midfielders:

The two wide midfielders have a very important role with this formation. One of the most important attributes is being able to cross the ball successfully; when they get into the wide areas they need to be able to deliver quality into the box for the rest of the team attack. One example of this was Ashley Young. Whenever he received the ball he would look to see if there was a chance to get a cross into the box.

They also need to be athletic in order to get back and support their full-back. Antonio Valencia was fantastic at this aspect of the game, he would provide great cover for whoever was behind him. The wide midfielders need to have an understanding with the deeper striker in order to get into dangerous positions.

Two central midfielders:

The two central midfielders have a very important role. They basically need to provide a base for both attacking phases and defensive phases; in order to do this they need to have great positional sense and they need to communicate with one another to make sure the opposition’s players are all marked. Their job is to recycle possession and to get the ball to the wingers and the secondary striker as quickly as possible during counter attacks.

Often you will have 1 defensive minded player who is proficient at tackling and then the other midfielder will be excellent at passing the ball and keeping it from the opposition. If neither of the midfielders are particularly good at passing the ball then the tempo of the team can slow down dramatically which can cause problems throughout the system.


In modern football, the traditional 442 is rarely used. This is down to the emergence of specialist defensive midfielders and a number 10 playing behind a lone striker, which many managers like to utilise in modern football. But the 442 does have a place in today’s game, it can make an average team into a very good one if they have to exceptional strikers. As with every formation, it goes through phases and I’m sure at some point in the future 442 will be played by many top teams once again.

Read his take on the 4-2-3-1, the 4-3-3, and the 4-1-2-1-2 as well.

Written by Jake Askham

Jake Askham

Head of Performance Analysis and Co-Founder of SR Analysis. They aim to provide high quality, affordable analysis solutions to clubs across the world
Jake Askham

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