It is often bemusing to hear fans and pundits alike moan about playing “only one up top.” After all deploying two strikers in the side is no guarantee of goals. Indeed, Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of Europe’s most attacking sides, line up with a lone striker and a variety of other attacking players in formations that are far from traditional 442.
Indeed, 442 is a fine formation defensively, with sides able to fall back into two banks of four defenders when under pressure, but in the modern game the formation has become far too predictable going forward.
By simply mirroring the formation, the opposing side can have at least one defending player picking up each attacking player, with few if any players deployed ‘between the lines’. Straight 442 versus 442 thus often descends into an ‘end to end’ battle as each side looks to get the ball forward, hoping for gratuitous breaks and defensive mistakes.
The crucial weakness of 442 is of course that teams can be outnumbered in midfield against systems with three central midfielders, which will inevitably claim more possession and control the match. To avoid being starved of the ball, the side playing 442 must then drop a striker or a winger into the middle, which of course defeats the purpose of playing 442 in the first place.
In recent times Manchester United, lacking a classic playmaker in the Xavi or Wesley Sneijder mould, has struggled to play 433 or even 4231 without becoming overly negative and unimaginative. The midweek game against Manchester City demonstrated this fact amply. Darren Fletcher, of the starting XI, was the only midfielder comfortable breaking ahead of the ball and pushing forward. Comfortable the Scot may have been and Fletcher is a fine player but he is not and never will be a ‘number ten’.
The obvious lack of a creative goalscoring midfield in United’s squad has often forced Sir Alex Ferguson to deploy a fairly rigid 442 against teams that look to defend first. Sir Alex Ferguson, who rarely gets enough credit for his tactical acumen, has attempted to counter the deficiencies in the system with a modern variant on 442 that is more unpredictable, and hence more potent, in attack than the traditional variety.
United’s 442 is classical in defense – two banks of four with two strikers putting pressure on opposition defenders. One of United’s strikers usually drops deeper into midfield when under pressure.
Central midfielders hold their positions and strikers look to stretch the defence. United’s forwards have generally taken turns dropping deep this season but spend more time on the shoulders of opposition defenders than coming into midfield.
With ample room in the area that is occupied by an attacking central midfielder, midfielder running ahead of the ball or a striker dropping deep, United’s wingers cut in. Width is provided by the full-backs who take up the vacated positions in wide areas.
The recent match against Aston Villa offers some insight into United’s tactics and limitations. Above, Michael Carrick and Nani both cut infield – Park Ji-Sung and Carrick having swapped positions. Notice that both Wes Brown (top) and Patrice Evra (out of shot) have remained deeper. The area of play is therefore extremely narrow and this played into Aston Villa’s hands.
United found it extremely hard to break Aston Villa down in the first half because both full-backs, perhaps wary of the Brummie’s pace in wide areas, simply didn’t break forward enough.
Ferguson’s new take on 442 is a brilliant idea on paper; it takes advantage of the Reds’ strengths – an abundance of modern wingers who like to cut in and attacking full-backs – and masks the obvious weakness, the lack of a classy attacking central midfielder.
The system is vulnerable to quick balls down the flank when play breaks down but the risk is minimal given Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s class and the presence of two relatively deep central midfielders.
Arguably, the bigger danger to United’s success is that creative responsibilities are placed upon Ferguson’s full-backs, with back-up players Brown and John O’Shea simply not good enough creatively to play in such roles.
As with any new formation, it takes time for a team to really grow into the system. Fans should not expect miracles but they have every reason to be optimistic too – the game against Tottenham Hotspur is an example of how effective United’s particular take on 442 can be.