Over recent years, Premier League managers have developed a reluctance to play two strikers in a 4-4-2 formation, instead reverting to a three-man midfield. We decided to investigate why this is and what tactical implications it has for Premier League teams.
4-4-2 is the traditional formation of the English game, epitomised by Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning Manchester United side of 1998/9.
With a solid goalkeeper, defence and central midfield of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, Ferguson was able to play two out and out wingers in Ryan Giggs and David Beckham and two out and out strikers in Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke.
Ferguson stuck with the formation that granted him so much success in his 26-year tenure until his final few years as Manchester United manager, when he added an extra man to midfield to adapt to difficult opposition, such as his lineup for the 2009 Champions League against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003/04 is another example of a team who achieved great success using 4-4-2. Again, a solid spine to the team meant Arsene Wenger could play Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg on the wings with Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry up front. Once this core began to disintegrate, Wenger tended to prefer 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 in his later years as Arsenal manager.
Most teams in the Premier League played two strikers until the arrival of José Mourinho and Didier Drogba in 2004, who was a perfect target man for Chelsea.
He was able to score goals, hold the ball up and set up teammates, such as Frank Lampard, who became a world-class goalscoring midfielder. Playing Drogba up front by himself allowed Mourinho to create a new role for a defensive midfielder who would sit in front of the defence.
This role was brilliantly executed by Claude Makelele, whose anticipation, tackling and positional sense allowed him to break up attacks, adding an additional protective layer.
Other Premier League teams struggled to cope with this unprecedented formation, and Chelsea racked up 95 points, a Premier League record until last season. Whenever Chelsea took the lead, there was a sense of inevitability that they will win due to their sturdy defence.
Manchester City’s Fernandinho has done a fantastic job of replicating the ‘Makelele role’ for Pep Guardiola’s side. In his second year at the Etihad, Guardiola adjusted City’s formation so that he could play David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne alongside Fernandinho in a three-man midfield.
City dominated possession in almost every game they played and broke Chelsea’s record as they surpassed the 100 point mark.
For possession-based teams such as City with playmakers like De Bruyne and Silva in their midfield, playing three central midfielders and one striker makes perfect sense.
However, teams who have a more direct style of play such as West Bromwich Albion and Stoke have also shown a reluctance to deploy two strikers in recent years.
Under Tony Pulis, Stoke achieved great success by playing long balls up to strikers who could hold the ball up such as Peter Crouch.
However, when the owner Peter Coates desired a more attractive style of football, Mark Hughes was appointed, who bought technically gifted players such as Bojan and Xherdan Shaquiri and deployed one striker to match up to the other teams in the league. Hughes’ new formation and style of football was ultimately a failure and Stoke were relegated in 2017/18.
Arsenal arguably have two of the best strikers in Europe in Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, however, new manager Unai Emery has shown a reluctance to play them together.
The Gunners lost their first two games and were on course for a 1-1 draw against West Ham at the Emirates until Lacazette came off the bench to change the game, and Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners. In their next game away to Cardiff, Emery played both Aubameyang and Lacazette, and both strikers scored and combined well for Aubameyang’s goal, inspiring Arsenal to a 3-2 win.
⚡ AUBA ⚡
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) September 6, 2018
Arsenal average 2.2 goals per game when Lacazette starts, compared with 1.5 when he does not start. Pundit Phil Neville suggested that Arsenal should play Aubameyang alongside Lacazette, because “Arsenal are a better side with him. They look better going forward.” The Gunners’ average points won also increases with the Frenchman in the first XI, from 1.1 to 2.0.
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, but this is not to say that all Premier League teams should follow suit.
Many sides would cause more damage with the traditional 4-4-2 system and look a more threatening side when an additional striker gives the opposition defence something to think about.
The rigid 4-4-2 formation is not dead in the water, as shown by Leicester’s against the odds Premier League winning side in 2015/16. N’golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater played out of their skin all season to protect their defence while facing up to three midfielders in most games.
Playing with two solid banks of four and two up front is a bold decision and puts a lot of pressure on the midfield, which is why the formation is rarely utilised in modern English and world football.