Harry Redknapp and Tottenham’s progression through the Champion’s League this season has reignited the 4-4-2 in European ties. So it seems a fitting juncture to discuss the reasons behind English teams disposing of the, until then, traditional two-striker system early in the previous decade.
Until the mid-2000s – and in many quarters, even today – tactical flexibility in a team was derided by fans and the media in England as a form of weakness. A traditional 4-4-2, without much variety at all, had been the cultural coda since Charles Hughes’ FA coaching policy was written. There is also a societal antipathy directed toward the tinkerer in this country (he is confused, without knowledge of his best XI etc) whereas in, say, Italy if a manger’s tactical scheme changes in relation to the opponents he faces, he is seen as looking for solutions. Being reactive isn’t as weak an ideal as many deem it where football is concerned.
“We [English footballers and coaches] do not think about tactics…The 4-4-2 is the easiest formation to play if you’re poor technically and we’ve never been the best in terms of technique.” –David Platt
Platt’s point is not unfounded; tactical flexibility is contingent on technical mastery. Why 4-4-2 became the prescribed approach to our game is not the question at hand but it is interesting to wonder: historically, do we play 4-4-2 because we don’t have the players? Or do we not have the players because we play 4-4-2?
It’s obvious to note that English dominance in the Champions League over the past 5 or 6 years has been without the 4-4-2. Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal have all made it to the semi-finals or more and none have employed the traditional 4-4-2. The reason for this is simple; European football demands tactical flexibility and other teams, particularly the Italians, have been clinically adept in the past at dismantling the formation. Ferguson talks openly about the discipline and flexibility he desired in Europe, especially after losing to Marcelo Lippi’s Juventus:
“I remember playing Juve in the mid-1990s…We get a throw-in near the corner flag. Gary Neville takes the throw and Alen Boksic goes up the other end and scores…That was it, one-nil and that was all they needed. We learned from that…Italians don’t get caught on counter attacks like that. We had to learn to do the same.”
Arsene Wenger is a believer of the 4-4-2 not due to any romantic notions of English tradition but because of its efficient coverage of space on the football pitch:
“I think it’s the most rational formation in most cases. With a 4-4-2, sixty per cent of your players are covering sixty per cent of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient at covering space.”
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