Just the mention of 4-4-2 is enough to make many of us feel nostalgic.
Like fashion and music, football tactics evolve over time and these days it’s all about front threes, false 9s, inverted wingers, inside forwards, and other terms that will help you sound knowledgeable on Twitter.
4-4-2 was the formation of choice for a bygone era and, as a result, is viewed with a certain sense of disdain by modernists who see it as archaic and unsuitable for the modern game.
Even though Leicester used it as recently as 2015/16 to win the title!
4-4-2 still has a place in 2019/20.
And specifically, that place is bang in the middle of the Premier League.
Only three teams in the top flight consistently use 4-4-2 from the off and here we’re going to see how they are getting on in an era that wants to leave them behind.
BRIGHTON – 11th
Graham Potter’s side play better football than those who don’t watch their games would probably assume.
The Seagulls have completed more passes than Arsenal (historically the most famous possession-loving side of English football) this season and already have a convincing 3-0 win over Spurs as evidence for what they can do at their best.
Brighton are not as committed to 4-4-2 as the other two loyalists in this article — they often shape up 3-4-3.
The switch between these formations facilitates the unexpected sight of man mountain Dan Burn at left-back in a back four.
The ex-Wigan defender is the tallest outfield player in the league at 6ft 7in and is in stark contrast physically to the league’s more notable full-backs: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Joao Cancelo, etc
And this unusual height at left-back is offset by a rare combination up front.
Historically, 4-4-2 would mean a strike partnership of a target man and a smaller, quicker finisher (see: Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe).
Brighton play Neal Maupay (5ft 7in) alongside Aaron Connolly (5ft 8in).
While this rare small man/small man combo means a lack of aerial threat, the pair have displayed a good understanding, which is the most important factor when it comes to strike partnerships.
BURNLEY – 10th
While Brighton are content with two smaller strikers, Burnley clearly believe it’s a case of the-big-the-better when it comes to their front two.
Chris Wood is your archetypal ‘big man’ and Ashley Barnes isn’t towering at 6ft 1in, his playing style is that of a target man: holding up the ball, winning headers, physical.
The Clarets’ front two may not have the skill of a Roberto Firmino or the expertise of a Sergio Aguero but you can guarantee the league’s centre-backs dread a trip to Turf Moor.
Barnes and Wood’s partnership is one of the unsung stories of the season so far.
The pair have scored ten goals between them so far (five each), accounting for 59% of Burnley’s league goals.
Sean Dyche’s thinly-veiled grumblings about the curses of the modern game (diving, VAR, etc) are beginning to wear thin but he deserves credit for preserving Burnley’s Premier League status as often as he has.
In terms of budget and individual talent, they are not as blessed as the majority of their rivals, but they are greater than the sum of their parts.
Tactically organised, highly motivated, battle-hardened; Dyche’s troops generally make life difficult for their opponents, even if they don’t get a result.
They may be too reliant on Dwight McNeil to supply Barnes and Wood – the left-hand flank of Erik Pieters and the 19-year-old have provided the same number of assists as the rest of the squad put together – and it does seem every clean sheet requires a James Tarkowski masterclass.
Their other midfielders – Jeff Hendrick, Jack Cork, Ashley Westwood – are diligent players but most Burnley fans would admit they have their limitations.
We can’t be too harsh on the Clarets though, they consistently punch above their weight and Dyche deserves praise for making ‘old-fashioned’ tactics work in 2019/20.
BOURNEMOUTH – 9th
That’s right, the three teams that use 4-4-2 are next to each other in the league and all start with ‘B’.
Eddie Howe’s variant is more ambitious than Dyche’s as he often plays Harry Wilson and Josh King as the wingers, allowing them to have four genuine goal threats in attack at any one time… if you count Dominic Solanke as a goal threat.
The ex-Liverpool striker is yet to score for the Cherries since his £19million transfer.
In contrast, Callum Wilson has been a regular scorer in the last year and combines well with King when the Norwegian is permitted to play up front.
Wilson and King split the difference between Brighton’s wee lads and Burnley’s man mountains — two medium-sized forwards, like Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.
Bournemouth’s central midfielders are a combative pair.
Jefferson Lerma is a walking yellow card while Phillip Billing has added yet more steel plus enough technical quality to supply the aforementioned goal threats.
Bournemouth are another team who have been exceeding expectations for years now.
Their 11,000-seater stadium is a reminder of the club’s stature in a bygone era.
It’s difficult to overstate the job Howe has done at the Vitality Stadium.
The primary criticism of him was his inability to organise a frugal defence, but that has somewhat been addressed this season.
Only five Premier League teams have conceded fewer goals than Bournemouth this campaign — last season, their goal tally mimicked those of the relegated clubs.
Has a new found faith in 4-4-2 allowed the Cherries to reach the next level?
4-4-2 is dead?
Long live 4-4-2!