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.
16 thoughts on “United’s new four four two”
Jay Shon? a new mod?
FFS ED…..You hav’nt put Brian Of Naz in as Mod?
Spike – authors seem to automatically be given that status. Brian is, isn’t he?
loved this piece mate.. i always criticized 442 and demanded 4231 from Sir Alex but after reading this article, i kinda fell back on that idea.. this modern 442 needs Evra and Rafa and we need to keep them fit cuz the ones who replace those two are not that good as you said..
It’s clear that Fergie is aware of the limitations of the central midfield. So why the hell has he not bought a central midfield player since the summer of 2007?
Against Villa there were far too few players running beyond the ball. Berba gets all the stick, but his skills are maintaining possession and finding a pass to a winger or a run from deep (the assist to the assistor if you will). Nothing was happening so it looked like he was just dwelling on the ball. There was a definite hangover from the City game, the mindset was too negative.
you can try as much as you like to defend Berba but it will not work at all. Hernandez and nani time and time again made good runs for the porn star but he dwelt on it far too much and then throws his hands up in frustration when it is taken off him. The idiot stank out the joint and was rightly hurled off.
Why did we not buy van der vaart before Spurs got to him? Honestly, it is big big mystery to me on some of the stuff that have gone on at our club inthe last three seasons in terms of acquisitions. We have been slowly but surely deinvesting in the team and we are only getting weaker. The only good thing is that we do not look too far off the top hence it has been masked. If those council tenants were to get their acts together with the millions they have we would have been blown out of the water by this season. Ofcourse Liverpool also helped by imploding!!
VDV was on his way to Bayern for £18M. The deal fell through and at 4pm on the final day of the transfer window Real informed Spurs that he was available for £8M.
It was a freak deal. Please can we try and get over it. Yes United should have signed some central midfield players but can we all stop citing the VDV deal.
As for Berba, yeah he had a poor game. But some fans seem to think the simple removal of him from United’s starting XI will solve everything. It won’t.
Triggs – both Real and Bayern have denied that story. It was either a rumour Redknapp picked up on or a total fabrication.
Harry never lies!
well all of our best games last season came with him out of the team, removing him will probably solve quite a lot, especially if we assume rooneys back for our next game
Yeah because without Berba in the team against Wolves we were on fire!
Is he? hope not…he’ll delete the whole site! *intern joke*
You mean any author can get Mod status?….* see’s Alf & Sid scribbling away*
Another Berba thread FFS
The article is good. I agree that 442 can be “defensive” (more resolute, strong) if one striker drops deep and joins the midfield when not in possession.
But I disagree that two teams playing 442 always results in an end to end game. I think more and more it seems to create a boring game where each player is effectively man marked.
And if the opposition use 3 central midfielders, then you don’t have much of choice but to match them with 3 in the middle oherwise they will dominate possession and the match
Excellent post mate, had been thinking something along the same lines myself but just couldn’t seem to grasp it. The modern wingers and attacking fullbacks really do help mask our lack of creativity in central areas, at least against teams such as Tottenham that arguably prefer to attack from the center of the pitch themselves.
i disagree. tottenham use their flanks more than any other team in the league. it helps them exploit the pace of bale and lennon. we dealt with that threat quite well, which begs the question, why were we afraid of young and albrighton, in the sense that our fullbacks werent attacking the flanks as much.
Great piece Jay.
But I agree with Baggio365. Traditionally we’ve exploited the flanks much better than we do currently. Maybe this is just down to the fact that Valencia – a throwback to traditional wing-play – is injured and Giggs is no longer the young touchline scamp that he used to be, but I’m not a huge fan of the inverted wingers cutting inside as it just crowds the area outside the opposition penalty box, and often relies on scoring from long-shots rather than crosses.
Call me a romantic, but I miss the flair of traditional wing-play, which is why Bale is such a joy to watch
Cant agree that Brown is either deputy fullback or void of creativity