When we hark back to the days of ’66 and watch how England played, the dynamic is remarkably different from today’s game. Whilst back then, the mantra was on outscoring your opponent, there was far less regard for the defensive side of the game.
One of the most popular formations during this time, nicknamed the WM, involved (now defunct) positions such as a half back and inside forward. This was characterised by a 3-2-2-3 formation.
Although at first this would appear to be an incredible attacking formation, this marks a mindful shift from the tactics deployed just less than a century earlier—when England played a 1-1-8 against Scotland.
Nowadays, football, largely as a result of the growing appreciation of Spanish, Brazilian, and Dutch football, is far more possession-orientated. Cruyyf and Guardiola at Barcelona are prime examples of this paradigm shift towards possession-based play, whereby the thinking is, “if we have the ball, the opposition can’t score.”
Nevertheless, on the face of it, Guardiola’s tactics might not look defensive; they often use an attacking 4-3-3 formation. However, the attitudes of the opposition have changed as a result. They have changed their style of play, not to try keep possession (this would be futile), but to play with a narrow defence, counter-attack, and try to nick a goal, typically in a 4-5-1 formation.
However, this has not always been the case. During the 1970s through to the 2000s, the formations (in British football at least) was normally focussed around two strikers. Whether that was Keegan and Toshack, Shearer and Sutton, Cole and Yorke, or Heskey and Owen. However, nowadays, if you look at how the top teams set themselves up, it is normally only with one striker, like Firmino (for Liverpool), Aguero (for Manchester City), or Rashford (for Manchester United), etc.
However, every now and again, a team diverts from this cultural norm and plays with two strikers, reminiscent of the good old days.
2013/14 was the season Liverpool nearly won the league. Who was up front for Liverpool? Suarez and Sturridge. Together. During one of Watford’s best seasons in the PL, it was Deeney and Ighalo. That same season, Leicester, who won the Premier League, had Vardy and Ulloa/Okazaki. Together. And now this season, Lacazette and Aubameyang have to a small extent demonstrated how effective two strikers working together can be.
In summary, the 4-4-2 is not dead. Formations, like managers at Chelsea, come and go whilst the 4-4-2 remains on the periphery of popularity. Nowadays, the 4-4-2 is seen as the stereotypical English way of playing—the Sam Allardyce way. Not free-flowing football.
Despite this not being the case on the continent, after all, Atletico play Griezmann and Costa as a two, that is how it is seen in England. And I think this is wrong.
Defenders in training don’t face two strikers, one making movements off the other, running towards the opposition goal. Build-up play is now typically back-to-goal stuff, with no strikers running behind the defence, like Owen against Arsenal in the 2001 FA Cup final. The 4-4-2 allows for this. However, during a time when so much emphasis is placed on defending, I don’t see the 4-4-2 coming back into football any time soon, and it’s a shame.
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