The Goal.

Playing a 4-4-2

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A Coach Asks

I am a JV coach for a girls soccer team.  The girls are brand new to soccer.  Not only teaching them the basics I have to teach them how to execute a 4-4-2 formation.  Can you offer any suggestions on materials?  Is there info available that lays out the 4-4-2 and illustrates what each position needs to do on an individual basis as well as in a group basis in conjunction with the surrounding players?

Some Suggestions

A comprehensive answer would require a book, but we'll keep it short here in Part I.

There are many different ways to play out of any systems of play.  From a kick-off arrangement of players that looks like 4-4-2, nearly anything is possible.  For example, by simply pushing a center midfielder forward into an attacking role, the 4-4-2 can be played like a 4-3-3.  Alternatively, by playing the screen (stopper) into midfield, the 4-4-2 can look and play like a 3-5-2.  So, as important as the starting arrangement of players might seem, the starting arrangement at kick-off is not as important as 

  • how the ball is played out of the back
  • how the players work together to create space
  • where space is created and used
  • which spaces are attacked
  • where the ball is played in attack
  • what types of attacking are employed
  • how the players work together to control space
  • which spaces are defended and which are not defended
  • how the players defend near the ball
  • how the players defend away from the ball
  • how the players reorganize in defense when a defender is beaten

It can be said that nearly anything that you would like to accomplish with a 4-4-2 could also be accomplished with a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2, but some things are more or less difficult with this system of play. 


OK, now we are off the hook with this caveat.  Lets plow ahead and assume that your team

  • currently plays 4-3-3
  • will play a classic 4-4-2 with two strikers working together
  • will use two marking backs, a stopper and sweeper
  • will deploy two center mids who have equal responsibility for attacking and defending (instead of designating a defending mid and an attacking mid)

Key Differences between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2

  • There is little difference at the back in defending, except that in a 4-4-2, one of the center midfielders can drop back into the space outside the D to pressure the ball and to help stop outside shooting, and still leave a center midfielder free as a target to receive the ball when possession is regained.
  • Playing the ball out of the back is slightly different in several ways from a 4-3-3 because there is an extra center midfielder, making it possible for one center midfielder to check back to the ball coming up from the central defender and still leave a center midfielder at home.  Alternatively, it is possible for both center midfielders to make check runs toward the ball, at different angles, or for one to check to the ball and one to provide support for the outside midfielder.

    In a 4-4-2, a defender can still play a ball forward to a wide wing midfielder as in a 4-3-3.  After turning, the wing midfielder in a 4-3-3 sees a forward straight ahead along the wing, one in the center working back from the penalty spot, and a forward wide on the other side of the field.  However, when the 4-4-2 wing mid (outside midfielder) turns, the mid will see two strikers working out of the penalty area and a center midfielder close by available for combination play.  The support and passing angles are very different.

    In the 4-4-2, a wall pass with the center midfielder, or a ping off one of the two strikers checking back from the penalty area, both can be used to play the wing midfielder into space in front of the 18 a little more easily than with a 4-3-3.  In the 4-3-3, the nearest forward to the wing midfielder (on the same side), needs to make a run to either hold the defender on the wing midfielder's side back near the 18, or to pull that defender out of the space.
  • Midfielder to Striker Play works differently in a 4-4-2.  From center midfield, two strikers checking back from the penalty area, back to goal, looks a lot different than three forwards running hips to goal.  The 4-4-2 is a little more inviting in terms of bringing an attacking midfielder into the final third than a 4-3-3 in the sense that a ping off the striker checking back starts a very nice three player combination with the second striker being available and the "pinged" striker spinning out, opening hips, and getting back into the attack immediately after dropping the ball.  With a 4-3-3, a ping off the center forward really creates just a 2v1 off the drop pass from the ping, provided the center forward spins out and turns hips either to goal or open to the ball.  

    The 4-4-2 also invites the diagonal ball to a wing midfielder moving forward after an initial ping off a striker.  In the 4-3-3, the forward nearest the ball played in will have to make a run to create space and to get rid of the nearest marking back, who might otherwise step up to win the ball played in for the wing midfielder.
  • Strikers work together a different way in a 4-4-2.  Many coaches teach 4-3-3 play with the front players as "forwards", playing mostly hips to goal.  Crosses in a 4-3-3 usually come not from a wing midfielder coming forward, as in a 4-4-2, but from an outside forward.  With three strikers, stretching the defenders to create 3 separate 1v1 situations is a usual tactic, and is accomplished by keeping distance between strikers in attack.  In a 4-4-2, the strikers play more back to goal, work together to alternate check runs back to the ball, and generally stay within 10-15 yards (combination play range).  They attack together in a 4-4-2.

    Note that strikers in a 4-4-2 separate to cover throw-ins and to defend corner kicks.  In each case, at least one striker stays up as far as possible, either to the last defender or half-way line, to hold a marking back and central defender out of our defending half, and to give us a target up front to whom we can pass when possession is regained.

Part II will cover a few more of the differences, then we'll get on to training specific to the 4-4-2.