The two top form sides Watford and Leicester are both deploying 4-4-2, with the four attacking individuals Igahlo, Deeney, Mahrez and Vardy scoring 48 goals between them. The modus operandi is “attack is the best form of defence” and it is proving very fruitful for two sides who were relegation favourites before the season started.
When defending the 2nd attacker Deeney for Watford and Mahrez for Leicester, drops into midfield making it 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1 in defending situations.
There are a number of reasons why 4-4-2 has re-emerged, one is the lack of commanding centre backs. In the era of Vidic, Ferdinand, Carragher or John Terry in his pomp, forwards would get far less change from centre backs.
In the current premier league there are no truly commanding centre backs, meaning the ball sticks more up front (than it would of previously.) In Watfords example the inter play between Deeney and Igahlo allows the Watford midfield to push up constructively. If you compare that to teams such as Aston Villa, Newcastle or Sunderland the current relegation trio, predominantly playing one up front, the ball just doesn’t stick up front, making them play deeper. Their trio of strikers Gestede, Mitrovic and Defoe, remain detached from the rest of their team, making it far easier for the opposing team to defend against them.
The first goal in premier league games is also becoming far more important. Once you have scored one goal, playing on the counter attack allows you to hit teams on the break, and this is the classic Leicester tactic of using the pace of Mahrez and Vardy to score on the counter attack.
As the graphic suggests home teams have a 70.79% chance of winning the game if they score the 1st goal. The theory of “attack is the best form of attack” obviously pays dividends and allows the so-called smaller teams like Watford and Leicester to get teams on the rack, and make teams attack them. It allows them to utilise their most potent tactic of the counter attack to greater effect.
The statistic of a 61.17% chance of winning the game if you score 1st in an away fixture gives further credence to playing an attacking formation such as 4-4-2. The added bonus away from home is that the 1st goal often silences the home crowd, creating anxiety in the fan base, which transmits on to the pitch.
Even Spurs deploy a 4-4-2 in attacking situations, with either Dele Alli or Erik Lamela accompanying Harry Kane as the graphic above shows. It means Kane is rarely isolated, and the young energetic players Pochettino favours mean they are able to push on from midfield at pace.
Stan Collymore in his Talksport discussion also said 4-4-2 is the formation that players are coached from a very young age. There is a knowledge and confidence in this system, everybody knows their role implicitly with no grey areas.
The tiki-taka system has come full circle with people questioning the purpose of possession if it doesn’t achieve anything. Swansea a renowned possession side are struggling, and even Arsene Wenger is conceding possession in matches for more meaningful play and results of late.
4-4-2 allows a team to play off the front foot, sometimes luck such as a deflected shot can give you breathing space and change the pressure within the game away from the underdog. The ball “sticks” further up the pitch easing some of the relentless pressure that would otherwise come their way. Confidence is indelibly increased with something to defend and it increases the pressure on your competitor to take more risks.
The resurgence of 4-4-2 makes for more entertaining football, and to a degree makes “parking the bus” a little harder. Confidence breeds fluidity, and scoring goals imbues these teams with more gusto. The topsy turvy premier league is giving teams far more confidence and “attack being the best form of defence” with a 4-4-2 is certainly paying dividends.