The basics of the 4-4-2 soccer formation

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The 4-4-2 soccer formation

When you hear 4 4 2 formation and as a football fan you immediately think of the FourFourTwo magazine …. and yes the 4-4-2 formation was so dominant in the 1900s and early 2000s that it inspired the title of the infamous football magazine

If you are reading this piece of article you must have acknowledged the importance of formations and systems in football and you are itching to know more about them, How they work ? what are their requirements ? what’s the difference between them ?

You can think of this system as a renaissance painting, a formation so simple yet so mesmerizing.

It has offered coaches and teams the opportunity to get to the next level and win major trophies with absolute domination

There is one example of a team that has used the 4-4-2 formation to it’s fullest and made history, The AC MILAN team trained by Arrigo Sacchi and later Fabio Capello,

That team has won between 1988 and 1995 :

  • 3 European cups
  • 2 intercontinental cups
  • 3 UEFA super cups

What made the formation so popular ? What are the requirements for this football formation to perform ? And what are its strengths and weaknesses ?

Let’s dive in 😉

We can call the 4 4 2 formation and with no hesitation the Standard formation.

Every player on earth knows how to play in this formation and what are his duties in this system.

The player's position in the 4-4-2 formation

this football formation is easy to implement because it has specific and clear instructions to every player.

It gives you strengths in the back-line and numbers in the midfield that makes moving the ball around and creating passing lanes easier, and with the two strikers upfront guarantee and offensive presence for the team in oppositions box

What you need to implement the 4-4-2 formation

This classic soccer system needs obviously some basic requirement so it can perform in its most optimal configuration. It needs :

  • Central midfielders that can move the ball around and create triangles with their teammate
  • Fullbacks with an sense for attacking so they can support the strikers
  • Chemistry between the two strikers : They need to create space for each other.
  • Central defenders with strong understanding of the game to direct the play and their teammates


The teams using the 4-4-2 formation enjoy the luxury of its strengths through the game

The Milan team was a nightmare to every team in Europe with this simple formation that was animated by a legendary coach the mastermind Arrigo Sacchi. And it’s essentially due to formation great features :

  • Balance ; the two blocks of four do well attacking and defending
  • Attacking with a maximum player of four the wingers always move forward to support the strikers
  • With 4 players in the midfield plus the two strikers you can trap the other team in their half pressing them high
  • Solid structure ; with 4 players defending the box and with the help of the midfielders it’s a real fortress
  • Adapted to quick counters


The 4-4-2 formation is lost in the history of football and systems were developed to counter it, and sadly the formation itself didn’t evolve in a long time which made it vulnerable due to many reasons:

  • Midfielders need to be fluid with the ball,
  • Needs fit wingers that can track back to help the defense
  • Lack of control of the game, the two midfielders cannot compete with teams that play with three central midfielders
  • With two flat lines of 4 spaces are left unchecked for the opposition to exploit

The players role in the 4 4 2 formation

The principles in each and every soccer formation are taught to the players in the training sessions. A top coach always plan his training session to attain the goal that he has set in his mind in the early stages of the season. Most of the time the goal is to make his players play like he wants them to.If you are interested in soccer training sessions don’t miss out the how to plan a soccer training session article.

The Goalkeeper

The goalkeeping position is one of the most criticized position in the history of football. Even the slightest mistake can prove fatal to the team because he constitutes the last line of defense.

To give his teammates a sense of confidence to play without worrying about what will happen if the ball is in the dangerous area he should be imposing and great both with his feet and handling skills.

The goalkeeper in this classic football formation will be tasked of managing his defense and directing them from the back to avoid openings that can create dangerous situations for the team.

In modern football, the goalkeeper ability to play with his feet and passing techniques are becoming more and more important in every football formation. In the 4-4-2 formation he will be solicited in attempts to hold the ball and build from the back. Most of the time he’ll be passing to sides either to the fullbacks or the wingers.

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The central defenders

Two physically imposing players that clears the danger away from their zone. The backbone of any defence and the responsible when it comes to organizing the defensive man-oeuvres of the team.

They should be able to read the game and analyze the opponents movement to stop them and intercept their attacks before they reach the penalty area.

Together with the fullbacks, they should be synchronized when moving up or from side to side to avoid creating gaps and openings for the opposition to use in their attacks.

They should organize the offside trap by calling the fullbacks and keeping them on high alert and aligned with them to execute the trap perfectly.

They don’t have much obligations when it comes to attacking except in set pieces where they should use the aerial superiority to score goals.

The fullbacks

Speedy, extremely fit, ferocious , passing and crossing skills,… the modern fullback can’t just concentrate on developing his defensive skills or he will just be a liability for his team.

They support the centre backs in defending their keeper and they often move wide to stop the opposition’s winger from delivering deadly crosses to the box.

While the central defenders are nearly always physically imposing, the fullbacks are usually smaller and quicker. So when the center backs move forward to provide more attacking options in the set pieces, the fullbacks stay back to cover.

The fullback position is a highly demanding position in the field. The players in this position should aim at developing stamina and physique if they want to reach world class level.

Unlike the center backs the wingers have to develop strong technique with the ball . they should ideally have good crossing skills with which they can target their team’s strikers as they end up most of the time in the opposition’s end of the pitch.

they need impeccable positioning and decision making skills to know exactly when to stay back and when they have the freedom to go forward.


The central midfielders

With only two players covering the midfield and due to the responsibilities they bear in that position the coaches always opt for all rounder midfielders that can perform attacking an defending.

Usually one of the two CDM has a defensive and the other is a more offensive one. Both of them need to contribute to attacking and defending or else the formation loses its stability.

In an attempt to clear the danger away from their defense they need to limit the spaces between them and the two central defenders. Also they have to direct the opposition to the wings where they can be cornered and away from the goalkeeper.

Consequently, they need to be disciplined and tactically aware to make sure that they don’t leave the defense exposed or the attack too short of numbers.

When building from the back both midfielders need to be available to get the ball and help the defense to get the ball out. They should be able to pass the ball around and move it up the field.

In the 4-4-2 formation, the central midfielders are crucial to the balance of the team and need good technical skills and an unfazed calm under pressure to help the team retain possession and push for a goal.

Left and right wingers

Most of the time they are the best dribblers of the team and the fastest as they are the troublemakers for the opposition.

Their roles vary from coach to coach sometimes they are mostly tasked of keeping the fullbacks of the opposition as far away form the crossing areas as possible but most of the time they are asked to bring chaos to the defense of the opposition by their movements.

They can take the flank and cross to the strikers in the box or they can cut inside and shoot, or combine with the striker.

The vivacity and the movements of the two wingers have 3 purposes:

  • ​If they stay out wide, this gives the central midfielders more room to man-oeuvre inside.
  • If they sprint forward they create more through-ball opportunities for their teammates.
  • If they come inside, this open up space for their fullback to push on and overlap them

The wingers usually work in tandem with the wing-back to create 2v1 situations in the attacking phases of the game and they also track back to help them in their defensive duties. With the fullback pushing on, the opposition’s fullback must decide whether to confront the winger or follow the fullback.This opens up space for the winger who can now decide whether to get a cross in, drive at the center-back, or try to release the striker in behind.

The wingers should also be inspired and try to score as many goals as possible and not only provide assists, they should always try to get in dangerous positions in the box. They do this by using their pace to run onto through-balls played behind the defense, cutting in from the flank and shooting, or getting onto the end of the opposite winger’s crosses into the box


The strikers

Two strikers lead the attack in the 4-4-2 formation and they weigh heavily on the defenses coordinating their movements between each other to throw the defense out of balance.

The main purpose of the strikers is obviously to score goals. They should be fighters and lethal with a good sense of positioning.

The two strikers should work in tandem to avoid stepping on each other feet as they tend to be in the penalty box together,Both strikers are expected to hold up the ball and shield it from the defenders trying to tackle them. This means they need to be strong to hold off the defenders

In a 4-4-2 formation, some teams play with a support striker or number 10 off of the main target man or speedy striker, it almost ends up as a 4-4-1-1 formation as the other striker drops off into the hole and uses their creative skills to bring others into play around them.

Some prefer two big target men whose physicality and aerial ability can overwhelm the opponent’s defence and batter them into submission. Others choose to have one such player and one more mobile, speedy striker playing off of them. It is their job to stretch the opposition’s defense by running in behind, playing off of the big man, and retrieving any balls he knocks down or heads on

“Great clubs have had one thing in common throughout history, regardless of era and tactics. They owned the pitch and they owned the ball. That means when you have the ball, you dictate play and when you are defending, you control the space”

Arrigo Sacchi

Before you jump to what’s next make sure you check Patterns training in the 4-4-2 soccer formation blog post or make sure to Pre-order my ebook that contains everything there is to now about this classic formation



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