Highlanders FC were arguably a dismal lot under Bongani Mafu last year who made them play to a 4-2-3-1 formation, as such new coach Erol Akbay will this season accustom the team to a 4-4-2 system.
The 4-4-2 formation is characterised by four defenders (two centre-backs in the middle, full-backs on the left and right sides), four midfielders (two central midfielders, two wingers on the left and right sides) and two strikers and Bosso’s Dutch gaffer Erol Akbay says they have opted to use this “open” or “flat” 4-4-2 in which the midfielders are not placed in a narrow diamond shape but spread out in a line.
“I initially wanted us to use the 3-4-3 formation but it seems my players will not adapt to that style of play soon. We are now going to use the basic 4-4-2 formation ahead of the start of the season,” said Akbay.
The classical 3-4-3 archetype has been around for several decades.
The formation is extremely strong through the midfield, but like most three-men backlines, it gains that strength by sacrificing width.
The formation naturally struggles against the classical 4-3-3, but with such a possession dominant side like Highlanders the main advantage in midfield can actually be a blessing worth the sacrifice.
“I like possession play. We will have to keep the ball and not lose possession to our opponents first. We need not to be dominated. There is a need to maintain possession all the time,” he said.
The Pros of the 4-4-2 system
The chief benefit of the 4-4-2 is its simplicity. It provides a solid basic structure with defensive depth and attacking numbers, with clearly marked roles.
Many English players have grown up playing this formation their entire lives and define their position as a defender, midfielder or striker due to its influence.
Without the ball, the four defenders and four midfielders can put eight men in front of the opposition, covering the entire width of the field.
If the defence pushes up high with the midfield, the opposition can be strangled in their own half by a wall of players.
With the ball, there are always options out wide and a strong presence up front to provide attacking options via long balls or crosses.
The real danger of the 4-4-2 is a pair of strikers who understand each other’s game. The common example is a “big man-little man” combo, where a big striker is the target man for long balls and crosses, ready to knock the ball behind the defence or down into the box for his partner to latch onto. But such combinations can exist between many different types of strikers.
The best example in recent years was under Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in Andy Cole and the former Aston Villa man Dwight Yorke — two good strikers who became terrifying when put together and drove United to their 1998-99 treble.
The downside of the 4-4-2 is that its rigid positions can lead to a side being swamped by more flexible opponents.
The obvious potential weakness is that by playing with two strikers you can be outnumbered in midfield.
While one striker may be tasked with dropping back to help out, many strikers are not disciplined enough to do so effectively. If the wingers also prefer playing out by the sidelines of the pitch, the central midfielders can quickly be isolated against teams playing three or even four central midfielders.
That rigidity is caused by the 4-4-2’s three lines of players which can allow opposition players to find pockets of space ‘between the lines’, especially defence and midfield.
A well-disciplined team will compress the space between defence and midfield so as to avoid this, but a poorly organised 4-4-2 can leave huge amounts of space in front of the defence and if the midfield cannot close down the passing lanes, teams can be ripped apart by opposition players lurking in those spaces.