Tactical Theory: 4-4-2 Low-Block Principles

Tactical Theory: 4-4-2 Low-Block Principles

Out of possession, the 4-4-2 is perhaps the most traditional and common shape used in football. While teams and managers are always looking to be innovative and find new and exciting approaches to defending – solutions that offer unique styles of proactive defending in different shapes and different heights, many teams in professional football are reverting back to the 4-4-2. The renaissance of the 4-4-2 has seen clubs such as Juventus, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham and many other top sides rely on this shape out of possession, though each club has their own way of utilizing it.

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

What is interesting about many of the teams using this shape out of possession, is that many of them prefer to transition into another shape when in possession. This is perhaps a telling sign that shows that the advantages of the 4-4-2 out of possession are too great to ignore for many managers. There are loads of advantages to defending in a 4-4-2, whether the team wants to press in a high-block, mid block or low block. Each block height has different strengths and different weaknesses, and will also have varying implementation of principles and sub-principles. This article will focus on the low block, and is based on analysis of various teams which defend in a 4-4-2 with a particular focus on Atlético Madrid from the mid 2010´s, as well as my own personal preferences and philosophy of the 4-4-2. We have seen some great examples of the 4-4-2 in recent years with teams such as Iceland, Sweden, Red Bull Salzburg and Southampton all offering their own variations. While there is an unlimited number of approaches to take when implementing an out of possession strategy, I feel that the way Atlético Madrid deployed this shape was nearly perfection, which is why I have chosen to focus on their style and utilization.

Common principles used in a 4-4-2 low-block

Though all teams will have different principles and sub-principles which they will follow when out of possession, teams who defend in a 4-4-2 generally have similar guidelines to help steer their decision-making process and actions.  If we start by looking to break down the key factors of a 4-4-2 low-block, many will agree that the following principles will hold true to most teams. Clearly, the main goal in the low-block phase, regardless of shape, will be to prevent the opposition from scoring. To achieve this, the principles and sub-principles can be broken down much further with varying degrees of detail. The idea behind these principles will be to help the team to achieve their target for this phase. To prevent the opposition from scoring, or even coming to scoring opportunities for that matter, the main collective principle in this phase should be along the lines of having immediate pressure on the ball carrier and the space surrounding them. If this is accepted as the main principle in the low-block phase, then once pressure is applied to the ball carrier and the immediate space around them, the team should look to achieve the next set of what could be known as sub-principles. The sub-principles will once again guide the collective decision-making process to ensure that the defensive structure stays organized and that the team is working together as a unit. Beyond the immediate collective principle, the rest of the team should look to organize themselves behind and around the pressure. This would mean moving the lines in the direction of the pressure by compressing the shape, in turn offering immediate support with depth and multiple lines. Following the compression of the team shape around the pressure, focus should then quickly move to re-organizing the structure into the appropriate shape, while also helping to apply pressure to the ball. At this point, the ball carrier should be pressed, space around the ball carrier compressed, support behind the pressure should be in place and the shape of the formation should still be in-tact. Once this is achieved, focus should then be to force the opposition to play to the outside of the block where the danger will in theory be smaller than if the block was penetrated with a pass or dribble centrally. Forcing the opposition to play around the block will allow for the team to change their focus back to the collective team principle, which is to stop the opposition from scoring, and of course begin with pressure on the ball carrier again.

Characteristics of a 4-4-2

For any side that chooses to defend in a 4-4-2 low-block, there are some key characteristics which should be taken into consideration to fully achieve the best possible outcome with the system, which as explained above is to prevent the opposition from scoring. A well-organized 4-4-2 should be vertically compact and narrow. The shape and compactness of this system – the two banks of four plus two on top – should be prioritized above all else. This is to prevent any collapses within the shape, leaving dangerous spaces to attack for the opposition. This is especially critical when defending in the low-block, because any gaps in the structure means the opposition will most likely find themselves with the ball close to the goal. Though maintaining shape and compactness should be prioritized above all else, this should be sacrificed when and if the opposition do manage to get the ball into a dangerous area. With focus on protecting the most perceived dangerous areas on the pitch, as well as covering conceivably the most pitch area, here are a few details of how a 4-4-2 should theoretically look. With the opposition in possession and circulating the ball amongst their backline and midfield, the backline of the 4-4-2 should be positioned approximately one to two meters from the edge of the penalty area. Horizontally the backline should cover around 33 meters, while the midfield line can be even a bit more compressed to squeeze out space in the middle and protect the backline. This will help to prevent the block from being penetrated centrally which has already been determined as the danger area. From front to back, the 4-4-2 shape should cover around 15 meters vertically, however when shifting to a mid-block the vertical distance between the front and backline can stretch to maximum 25 meters. The importance of the vertical compactness is to ensure that if one line is broken, the next line is always in support for immediately repressuring the ball. This shape and positioning on the pitch will allow the team to in theory cover the most territory, protect the most dangerous spaces and also allow the players to shift the block side to side and enable them to apply pressure  when the ball is played around the outside of the block.

Though previously stated that one of the main sub-principles should be to apply pressure on the ball carrier, it should also be mentioned that this particular principle is often only acted on if the shape is provoked. Many teams will happily let the opposition circulate possession around the block and in front of the block without necessarily needing to engage.  This is a much more reactive and pragmatic approach to defending than we will often see compared to teams which press high up the pitch and defend in a more proactive manner, always on the front foot and taking steps forward as a unit.

Scenarios and sequences

This section of the article will be highlighting various scenarios which have been taken directly from matches, showing how the team defending in the 4-4-2 solved the situation. Hopefully the situations vary enough where we can get a wide grasp of what space is most important to protect, how to protect it, who to protect it with and how to react with the rest of the team’s organization. 

SCENARIO 1: Forcing the opposition wide

In this scenario, the team in possession is attacking in a 4-3-3 with narrow wingers and high and wide fullbacks. There is also a single pivot player dropping a bit deeper to allow for width from the fullbacks and central defenders. When the pass is played from the left central defender out to the left back, the left winger immediately cuts to the outside hoping to receive the ball at his feet between the lines. The out of possession team defends this situation nearly to perfection. First, the closest man to the ball – who in this case is the right midfielder – immediately shows and pressures the ball carrier. Following the pressure, the right back provides support underneath while compressing space around the pressure, and the right forward drops into the vacated space left by the right mid. What is significant in this situation, is the final adjustment mentioned. The forward dropping in as cover not only protects the passing lane to the opposition left wing, it also allows for both central midfielders to maintain their central positioning, and the rest of the team can reorganize behind the pressure. The team successfully defends the opposition move, maintains compactness and forces them to play around the block.

SCENARIO 2: Midfield line is dragged out

In scenario 2 above, the structure of the 4-4-2 gets slightly compromised by the opposition central midfielder provoking pressure and engaging the right midfielder (highlighted). When the right midfielder steps up to pressure the ball carrier, the pass is once again played to the wide left back. What is different now, is that the defending right back is now the man pressuring the ball carrier. To solve this sequence and to keep the shape intact, the ball near central midfielder drops down and turns into a functional right back, while the ball near forward drops into the midfield line to ensure two players are central, protecting the back four. Now, with the right midfielder back-pressing after being bypassed, the defensive side are able to create an overload against the touchline while still protecting the dangerous areas and pressuring the ball. The back-press from the right midfielder is critical to ensuring the shape remains in-tact and that there are not any gaps left open to penetrate. The danger from the situation where the right midfielder is pulled out of position and the fullback gets isolated, is quickly nullified and the side in possession recycle possession and attempt to break down the block once again.

SCENARIO 3: Switch of play

Above in scenario 3, the out of possession right midfielder is engaged in pressuring the in possession attacking midfielder. The block has shifted well to the right side, blocking all progressive passing options centrally. With the in possession right back holding width on the right side, the attacking midfielder quickly switches play to the opposite wing. Though the defensive block had shifted to the right by quite a distance, in the length and time it takes for the switch of play to be completed, the out of possession left back manages to arrive and apply pressure on the ball as soon as he receives. What is noticeable in this sequence is, as noted above, the backline tends to stay a bit wider horizontally than the midfield line. This means that when the ball arrives on the opposite wing it is the left back engaging on the press as he was initially wider when the pass was played, and not the left midfielder which we might expect if the ball took an extra pass to arrive

Now that the left back has essentially left his duties in the backline to pressure the ball, the rest of the team quickly follows the aforementioned sub-principles to provide optimal balance and protection. The left mid drops into the backline, which not only achieves maintaining the shape, but also offers support to the press. In addition, the left forward has now dropped into the midfield line as a temporary solution to the left midfield position, and the right midfielder who was pressing high on the initial switch of play is now in the line of the front two. All of these positional rotations allow for pressure on the ball, support to the pressure, maintaining two lines of four and forcing the opposition to play on the outside of the block.

SCENARIO 4: Isolated on wing and played in behind

In the image above, we see the out of possession left midfielder happens to get isolated 1v1 on wing with the opposition right back. In this particular moment the shape has been broken and adjustments need to be made. With the left midfielder being pulled out, it creates a space behind the backline for the opposition to attack, as the out of possession central midfielder now also gets dragged out of position when they are caught in between supporting the isolated winger, or holding the shape. In this instant, the opposition manage to get in behind both the midfield and backline. The defending team again does a fantastic job solving this by quickly reacting following the aforementioned principles and sub-principles, and we can see the result below.

Immediate reaction from the ball near central defender allows for them to apply pressure to ball carrier, which is the first priority here. This begins a chain reaction which then sees the previously dragged out central midfielder drop into the backline and fill in for the central defender, which achieves two things in one action – support to the pressure, and reorganization of the shape. Now the backline is completed, the ball is pressured, space is compressed and all potential options for the ball carrier are taken away. In the end the ball is tamely played across goal for the defense to clear away, stopping a potential goal scoring opportunity.

Conclusion

As mentioned above, the 4-4-2 is a very traditional shape used in the out of possession phases, particularly the defensive third. Statistically speaking it covers the largest amount of pitch area out of various formations and offers compactness both vertically and laterally. Though the shape can be effective vs the majority of in possession shapes, managers will always find new ways to create problems for the opposition defense. Overloading the backline with five to six attacking players can often prove a difficult task for the 4-4-2 and the shape may need to come up with different solutions. With the availability of wingers being in close proximity to the fullbacks we have seen this shape turn into 6-2-2 at times in recent memory. Prioritization of attacking via the half-spaces has also created different problems for the 4-4-2 to solve, as the shape is often focused on preventing central penetration. The use of this formation in elite clubs as well as clubs closer to the bottom of the table goes to show its versatility as well as its strong foundation to build on.

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