What happened to the traditional 4-4-2 formation

The original mastermind behind the formation being Viktor Maslov, The English classic formation, the 4-4-2 rose to popularity with Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning Manchester United side of 1998/99. The idea behind using this formation was to use both the solid central midfielders Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in the CMF positions and to play Ryan Giggs and David Beckham with lightning speed on the wings. Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were the two out and out strikers for the club. Sir Alex backed this formation and used it over his 26-year long tenure which yielded him great success at the club. Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003/04 is another example of a team who achieved great success using 4-4-2. Again, a solid core to the team meant Arsene Wenger could play Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg on the wings with Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry up front.

Manchester United 1999 Formation

Nowadays football is far more possession-oriented and a fusion of not to try keep possession, but to play with a narrow defense, counter-attack, and try to nick a goal, typically in a 4-5-1 formation. Coaching these days has a different approach than 20 years ago. Most managers examine an opposition before the fixture and stick with a formation. Uruguay is the only known team that backs a classic attacking 4-4-2 Formation with Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani up front. Major teams use the 4-4-2 formation as a part of a defensive measure and only play with one main striker and the other being the shadow striker who looks to make runs down the wing and provide balls to the main striker.

The 4-4-2 formation has been replaced by the more dynamic 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 formations. The main reasons for the decline of the 4-4-2 formation can be many, some of the key reasons are listed below:

  1. 3-Man Midfields – 4-4-2 being the most favourable formation during the early 2000’s, everything changed when Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona introduced the False 9 concept and the triangle tiki-taka passing specially when it came to its peak when Barcelona played against Manchester United in 2009. The footballing world changed and the basic formation turned out to be a 4-3-3 rather than a 4-4-2. All the best teams in the world at the moment: Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and Bayern Munich all operate with a three man-midfield.


  1. The Evolution of Full-Backs – Earlier fullbacks were regarded as centre backs who were not strong enough to play centre backs and were known as wide centre backs but with time fullbacks were given more responsibility for the wings so that the team could utilize the wide players to focus more on direct attacks, so having left and right mids became obsolete, and having a 3-man midfield was enough to cover the entire midfield. From 2000s to now, players have become increasingly faster and have more stamina so the 442 has faded out. There have always been false nines and CAMs. Basically with the CAM the gap between the two banks, was seriously exposed and with full back winger arriving from flanks and wingers cutting inside to score the options to defend where pretty scarce, teams that used the 4-4-2 mostly had much more physical players in every position and the 2 typical midfielders of the team where bug and physical and extremely slow usually, lacking attacking technique, so basically a small, creative and versatile CAM exposed their mobility issues, and a CDM could isolate them easily and then the 2 strikers would be useless unless you completely ignored the middle and played out from the flanks which also was ineffective due to fullbacks basically being faster center backs with zero attacking skills, winger would get outnumbered.


  1. Wingers becoming Scorers – With the evolution of the game, came in super attacking and gifted wingers in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and many more. The wingers gave in more fluidity than the static 2-man striker teams. There was much more space and movement in the midfield which led to many goal scoring opportunities and a less man up front which gave the team more defensive solidity.

The 4-4-2 is not totally dysfunctional as of now. Leicester City mastered the counter attacking play under this formation and N’Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater put their heart and soul in every match that led to a shocking Premier League victory in 2015-16. The inelastic 4-4-2 has retroceded into the background in recent times. Formations which are more fluid and flexible have developed which have capitalized on the flaws in the 4-4-2.