“Players win football matches, not formations”…

I actually thought the above memorable quotation was from a top football manager, and not, with all due respect, to Scottish footballer David Weir when defending the under fire national boss Craig Levein for his striker-less system. But alas, it is only Weir I can find on a world famous internet search engine. I think the comment is absolutely correct; you can play any formation you want, but if you don’t have the players to execute the tactics, you’re not going to win football matches. Having said that, putting players into positions that make them most effective does, in my opinion, make a massive difference.

English football has had a long affinity with 4-4-2, and although at the top level clubs are becoming slightly more imaginative (at least most have moved on to 4-2-3-1, which is really 4-4-2 with a no.10 rather than two strikers), at the level I play and coach at, you move away from 4-4-2 and you’ve got a ready made excuse for why the team failed to win – “we know 4-4-2, it’s the most effective…etc…etc…”. Typically unimaginative footballer speak.

The problem with sticking to a formation no matter what, is the old adage of square pegs in round holes. Someone has to play wide when in reality it’s not their strongest position. Is the player a bit weak? Stick them at full back where they’re not going to cause a problem. The fact is, the game has moved on.

When the manager of the team I’m currently coaching and I sat down in pre-season, we looked at a team that had mostly played a version of 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 the previous season. The issue with this is that in reality, there were few genuine wide players in the squad, and the one player who we considered could play there had shown to be a more than capable striker. We had full backs that appeared keen to attack, and a large number of central midfielders, one of whom, probably the best ball player in the squad, had been marooned out on the left wing for most of the previous season.

This left us with two formations that we thought would suit the squad we had most effectively; 3-5-2, or 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield. The squad we had in pre-season was a little light also for centre-backs, so we put the three at the back formation on the back burner, and decided to introduce the diamond formation.

The 4-4-2 Diamond Formation:

The first time I remember seeing this formation in action was back in the early to mid 1990s, when Watford under the stewardship of Glenn Roeder employed the formation for similar reason to the team I’m coaching – a surplus of decent central midfielders in a squad lacking some real width. More recently, it was one of the tactics Liverpool used successfully last season, most memorably in a thoroughly dominant 3-0 win at their great rivals Manchester United. More recently, the formation was also used in the World Cup by various teams including The Netherlands, and their coach Louis Van Gaal has also used it this season in his new role at Old Trafford. Also of course, Roy Hodgson has seen it as the best solution for the current players at his disposal for England, although I for one am unconvinced that Jack Wilshere’s best position is in front of the back four.

Steven Gerrard Manchester United v Liverpool, 2014

The first time I remember seeing this formation in action was back in the early to mid 1990s, when Watford under the stewardship of Glenn Roeder employed the formation for similar reason to the team I’m coaching – a surplus of decent central midfielders in a squad lacking some real width. More recently, it was one of the tactics Liverpool used successfully last season, most memorably in a thoroughly dominant 3-0 win at their great rivals Manchester United. More recently, the formation was also used in the World Cup by various teams including The Netherlands, and their coach Louis Van Gaal has also used it this season in his new role at Old Trafford. Also of course, Roy Hodgson has seen it as the best solution for the current players at his disposal for England, although I for one am unconvinced that Jack Wilshere’s best position is in front of the back four.

However, I digress. Let’s firstly look at the potential strengths and weaknesses of the formation – I say potential as, of course, it all depends on the players you have available.

Strengths of the 4-4-2 Diamond Formation:

  • A back four which a lot of defenders feel comfortable in
  • A very strong spine of the team from goalkeeper, two centre backs, four central midfielders and two strikers
  • Extra protection in front of the back four in the shape of a defensive midfielder – this can often prevent the opposition no.10 from playing
  • In the centre of midfield you usually have an overload – 4 v 3 or even 4 v 2
  • The licence for attacking full backs to be able to push on from deep
  • Accommodation for two strikers and a no.10 (attacking midfielder or deep lying striker)

Weaknesses of the 4-4-2 Diamond Formation:

  • The most obvious is the lack of width – full backs can get overloaded against a team playing with full back and wingers
  • Similarly, you are relying on our full backs to be your attacking width
  • Space in behind attacking full backs can drag central players out of position
  • The two central midfielders have a lot of shuttling to do so need to be extremely fit
  • The full backs are effectively wing backs so again need to be extremely fit

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Individual Player Roles in the 4-4-2 Diamond Formation:

As already discussed, to make a formation work, you need the players to perform the various roles both defensively and offensively. We take a look at the individual responsibilities for each player below.

Goalkeeper:

Other than the standard requirements of a good goalkeeper, the goalkeeper needs to distribute the ball effectively. The team requires patience to switch the ball from side to side to find the right times to play, so a goalkeeper confident with the ball at their feet, who can receive a pass back from an outfield player under pressure and effectively switch it to someone else is a real asset.

Full Back:

As already discussed, the two full backs need to be extremely fit. They need to be able to get up and down, from forming a solid back line, to providing as much width as possible when the team is looking to penetrate the opposition defence. When there is the opportunity, they should also be looking to overlap and get crosses into the box. This can become extremely exhausting when the ball is being switched from side to side a lot, as when the ball is in the possession of the opponents on the opposite side of the pitch, the full back has to look to tuck in at the far post defensively.

Centre Back:

The modern centre back should be confident in possession and be looking to receive the ball both from their goalkeeper and back from one of their midfielders looking to recycle the ball. They are also the insurance cover for full backs who have been caught further forward, needing to drop wide to cover while ensuring the defensive midfielder has dropped in to cover them.

Defensive Midfielder:

This is a key player in the formation. Defensively, can provide extra cover in front of the back four and also drop in to the back four should either of the centre backs get dragged wide. Good positioning can also reduce the pockets of space that an opposition no.10 could find to cause problems. Offensively, this player is often the chief recycler – looking to receive the ball from one side of the pitch and switch it to the opposite side. With this in mind, a player who is an excellent reader of the game, positionally disciplined, and a good “talker” should play this role particularly well.

Central Midfielders:

These two players, similar to the full backs, have to be extremely fit. Defensively, they have a shuttling role from side to side which can offer extra protection to the full backs, which as already discussed, can be a potential area of weakness. With this covering role in mind, they also have to remain positionally disciplined so as not to be dragged into areas where they are not needed and therefore leaving gaps. Going forward, they can look to break into wide areas in front of their full backs where there may be space, particularly if the opposition decide to defend narrowly to counter the strength in central areas.

Attacking Midfielder/No.10:

Defensively, this player has to provide support to the other three midfielders, dropping in to create overloads in central areas. They should then look to find space between the opposition lines to create opportunities in the final third. Where the opposition try to squeeze the play high up the pitch, the no.10 should also look to make runs from deep to break beyond the two strikers. Overall the player should be an intelligent footballer – good at finding and creating space, patient in finding the right opportunities to play the correct ball, and also disciplined in their defensive responsibilities.

Strikers:

The best teams defend from the front, so the strikers are key to this. Depending on how aggressively you decide you want the team to press will define the positioning of the two strikers defensively, however either way they should be looking to deflect the opponents possession towards central areas. Key to this is stop the opposition playing to their full backs – this doesn’t necessarily mean they go and mark them, however their positioning should make passes out to the full backs as difficult as possible.

In possession, one or other of the strikers can offer an “out ball”, usually a longer pass hit over the opponent full back’s head into the wide channels. Similarly, another out ball is one played longer into the striker for them to hold up while facing their own goal, and then bringing others into play. Either way, they should be protecting possession of the ball otherwise the defence is immediately under pressure again. Positionally they should be looking to make the pitch as large as possible, stretching the opposition back line. In the final third, their movement should be positive and dynamic to create opportunities for combination play in and around the box.

Tactics – Key Principles When Out of Possession:

See the enclosed video for some thoughts when out of possession or defending in the 4-4-2 diamond formation.

As with all tactics, when out of possession the key thing is to make the pitch as compact as possible. This is even more important with this formation where the biggest potential weakness is in wide areas. Right from the front, the team is trying to force play into the central congested areas. When this isn’t possible, the centre of the players shuttle across in a compact unit, and when the play is stretched (such as the ball over the top into wide channels), the key is to delay the play to enable recovery, and try and force play either sideways or backwards. Finally, when possession is regained, it is important to keep the ball – the first pass is therefore crucial. An opportunity to break quickly at a disorganised defence should also exploited.

Tactics – Key Principles When In Possession:

See another video here where we explore the 4-4-2 diamond formation when in possession, playing from the back.

Again, the key principle here is the same as with any formation, trying to make the pitch as big as possible. You can see the key roles of the full backs in providing the width in this example. The formation allows overloads to be created all over the pitch, and this is what the team should be trying to do to allow play to move up the pitch. When further forward, patience is important, finding the right opportunity for quick passing to break down the defence. This will involve moving the ball across the width of the pitch until the opposition defence leaves a gap to exploit.

Generally for our team, the transition to the new formation has been quite successful. We’ve also managed to gain some new players during the season who fortunately have complemented the system – such as an excellent defensive midfield player, a couple of new full backs, and also some added competition for the midfield and forward areas. We still have work to do to become one of the top teams in our division, but the progress has been encouraging.

Have you used or coached the 4-4-2 diamond formation. What are your thoughts on the benefits as well as the weaknesses of this way of playing?

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