Football Manager Tactics | The 4-4-2
Just a quick foreword, this isn’t my usual style on tactics, it’s more of a quick overview to my 4-4-2 as a reference for my save with Parma as my pre-season post was getting a bit long. Also, I’m having some eGPU issues, so the screen capture quality isn’t great. That being said, hopefully, this quick overview of the 4-4-2 I use is useful.
There’s also a download link at the bottom if you want to give it a try
My view of tactics in Football Manager has changed somewhat over the last 12 months. I have tried to think less about specific player roles that SI have allocated the various templated roles we can use, and think more about positions and instructions. The questions I ask are where do I want my players positioned on the pitch and what do I want them to do in defensive and attacking phases.
To look at the positions on the pitch more simplistically, rather than looking at the positions in terms of the player roles the players have, e.g., a deep-lying playmaker, I try to think about what I want from that player when he is in that position. The roles are just a name for a collection of instructions to simplify selection. For example, if you want your number 6 to be more defensive, a player who just holds his position in the centre of the pitch, protecting the back four when the team are in attack, but then also have the freedom to be creative and open up the attacks in defence, you would assign him a role based on the instructions required to carry out your requirements.
So I would look to see which roles are available in the position that will allow a defensive duty and to hold their position. From the central midfielder position, the answer; a central midfielder, a deep-lying playmaker and a ball winning midfielder. Drilling down into these roles the ball winning midfielder is a little more aggressive in winning back possession than I would like so both the central midfielder and the deep lying playmaker would work here. Since I want someone to attract the ball and be the one to start attacks then the latter would be my choice.
Having a good understanding of what I want each player to do before I find the right role, for me, is a better way to approach tactics, and I have been guilty in the past of picking the roles first before thinking about what I actually want the players to do, often making compromises because I want to use a specific role, rather than use a specific set of instructions.
The following is my assessment of what I want from each position in my 4-4-2 and how I have selected the roles to fit these instructions.
THE PLAYER ROLES
Everyone should be familiar with the 4-4-2, we have two banks of four; one bank of defenders and one bank of midfielders. Ahead of this, we have the attackers.
The use of the 4-4-2 in modern day football has declined somewhat. I myself typically prefer to have three midfielders in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, controlling either the final third or defensive third depending on the opponents we’re facing at the time.
With the 4-4-2 you can manipulate the position of the players with the duty and instructions that you give them, but you can sometimes find yourself overrun if you commit too many players forwards, or keep too many back.
With the level of players I have available at Parma, I feel comfortable using a 4-4-2 again and expect to continue dominating Serie A for a while longer. And it wasn’t until I read over Samo’s 4-4-2 post that I wanted to give it a try. You’ll notice some familiarities between his system and mine, bar some different roles and player instructions.
From here I will explain each position on the pitch and my decision making process for why I have selected the role and duty to fit what I want to get from the player while he is playing in that position. I will also refer to the player by their number, using the image here to reference their position, rather than their role.
When outlining the player role, duty and instructions, any instructions underlined signifies that it is preset with the selected role/duty combination and cannot be removed.
The Number 1 | Goalkeeper
The goalkeeper is often the one position on the field that is overlooked. Their main job is to stop the ball from going into the net. Simple. Find a ‘keeper with good shot stopping, reflexes etc. and you’re set. Except my ‘keeper is sometimes needed to be the catalyst for my attacks. I like my ‘keeper to distribute quickly and accurately, and if there’s an attacking opportunity on, then start that attack quickly before the opposition can organise themselves.
In order for my keeper to be more involved in starting attacking phases and help us transition quicker, there is only one role I need him in.
Role sweeper keeper // Duty support // Instructions more risky passes, distribute to full-backs, distribute quickly
The Number 2 | Right Back
My right back needs to be quick and have good anticipation to be alert to the situation around him. I need him to be quite attack minded in order to link up with the right winger and when required overlap the winger when overloading the opposition left backs.
In defence, I want him to tuck in and squeeze the central areas to prevent teams passing through us and being less concerned with closing down wingers. I need him preventing the opposition breaking into the area. In attack I want him getting high up the pitch and crossing for the strikers.
Role full-back // Duty attack // Instructions cross more often, get further forward, tackle harder, close down much less
The Number 3 | Left Back
Like my right back, I want my left back to have similar characteristics but take fewer risks. Because my left central midfielder is more attacking by nature, I want more positional security in the form of a less adventurous left back.
Like his counterpart, I want my left back to tuck in and keep our defensive block solid. I don’t need him out of position chasing down wingers. We have midfielders for that. He needs to sit in an when someone does come into his zone, then hit them.
He still needs to cross the ball for the attackers, but will do so from deeper positions and is not expected to overlap his winger as much.
Role full-back // Duty support // Instructions cross from deep, cross more often, tackle harder, close down much less
The Number 4 | Center back
I think of the number 4 as my more capable defender with the ball at his feet. In this system, he is a player who can play us out of trouble, but also launch balls into the attacking midfielders or strikers when needed. He is a two-footed defender, so starting attacks shouldn’t be an issue for him, regardless of the situation.
Defensively I need him to be disciplined and not chasing down balls and losing his position. In attack I want him looking to make passes quickly to more advanced players to take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities.
Role ball playing defender // Duty defend // Instructions hold position, more risky passes, tackle harder
The Number 5 | Center Back
Unlike his partner, my number 5 is more of a simple defender. One who will pass it simple, keep his position and be tactically astute. He needs to organise the defence and keep things ticking over. I don’t need two ball-players, so he is more of a security blanket.
Role central defender // Duty defend // Instructions hold position, dribble less, shoot less often, tackle harder
The Number 6 | Central (defensive) Midfielder
Every team needs a heartbeat, and you will find mine at number 6. He is the player for whom we rely on the most both defensively and offensively.
At the back I need him to be aggressive in shutting down the opposition linchpin, winning the ball back at the earliest opportunity. He will act as a fifth defender, shielding the defence from counter attacks, and being alert to cover any threats to our goal. He needs to just hold his position in front of the defence and rarely deviating from our defensive plan.
In offence I want him to take chances to open up the opposition with defence-splitting passes. I want him dictating the tempo, coming deep to collect the ball if necessary. When he has the ball at his feet I want him to open up and stretch play by bringing the ball out wide and attracting the opposition with him, so that he can switch play to the opposite flank or play a ball over the top to our pacey strikers.
Role deep lying playmaker // Duty defend // Instructions hold position, shoot less often, more risky passes, run wide with the ball
The Number 7 | Right Winger
Sitting ahead of an attacking full-back, my right winger needs to also be fairly attacking by nature. He will play as an orthodox winger, in that he will look to get the ball past the opponent as quickly as he can when in possession before getting a cross into the box.
When out of possession during attacks I expect him to be in and around the area looking to get on the end of crosses and second balls.
In defence, he needs to support the right back by tracking the opposition winger and pressuring them so that they cannot get their crosses into the box, or at the very least make it difficult for them to do so.
Role winger // Duty attack // Instructions dribble more, run wide with ball, cross more often, cross from byline, get further forward, stay wider
The Number 8 | Central (attacking) Midfielder
The number 8 is my engine. The player who needs to bust a gut to get up and attack, while also being able to get back and defend. He is given a lot of freedom to open up the opposition, finding pockets of space to operate in with a hope of disrupting the opposition shape.
He should also be able to open up the defence with direct passes and should take risks when in the attack.
Role central midfielder // Duty attack // Instructions get further forward, roam from position, more direct passes, more risky passes
The Number 9 | Striker
Typically, the best goalscorer in the team plays here. I want this guy to have bundles of pace, but also the ability to be more than just a goalscorer. I need him to be a nuisance to defenders, pulling them out of shape, looking to run the channels and bust through the defence when he has the opportunity to do so.
When the ball is being launched over a high defence, I usually want this guy to be the one on the other end of it after he has beaten the defence to it.
When out of possession, I want him to defend from the front, chasing down the opposition defence, making it hard for them to play out from the back.
Role advanced forward // Duty attack // Instructions dribble more, get further forward, move into channels, tackle harder, roam from position, close down much more
The Number 10 | Striker (playmaker)
This position has always been one which sits in the attacking midfield strata. However, with a 4-4-2 there are no players who sit here. I usually ask for something a little different from my number 10 than what tradition would dictate.
While I want this guy to link the defence and attack. To be the guy to get a tonne of assists (he got 24 in 34 games last season), I also want him to be in the faces of the opposition when out of position. I want him to be everywhere doing everything. Up until now, we’ve been pretty specific with what we want from each player, but my number 10 is the one who I want it all from.
If you have the ball, run with it, or make a defence-splitting pass, or lay it off simple. If you’re looking for the ball, move about, hit the channels and roam from your designated position. Don’t make yourself an easy target to get marked out of the game. He must be strong enough to hold up the ball, but technical enough to pick out a killer pass.
For me, there is only one role that does this well.
Role complete forward // Duty attack // Instructions hold up ball, dribble more, more risky passes, get further forward, move into channels, roam from position, tackle harder, close down much more
The Number 11 | Left Winger
Like his counterpart, but sitting ahead of a supporting full back, my left winger needs to also be less attacking by nature. He will still play as an orthodox winger, in that he will look to get the ball past the opponent as quickly as he can when in possession before getting a cross into the box, he also needs to be a bit more mindful of counter attacks against us when our attacking central midfielder is committed.
So he has the same instructions as our attacking winger, but he sits a little deeper in the system.
Role winger // Duty support // Instructions dribble more, run wide with ball, cross more often,, stay wider, get further forward
THE TEAM INSTRUCTIONS
To keep things simple, I have one instruction: play out of defence. I want to encourage my defenders to pass their way out, that is either passing short or long. Either way, it isn’t a typical hoof, where the goal is to clear the lines, it is to find a target with a pass, whether short or long.
This is key for me because I want us to build from the back in the most part. Now we will still play more direct attacking football, but I want it to be a little more considered, rather than my keeper just punting it up field whenever he has the ball.
I do, however, have a slight variation loaded in the tactics slot, named direct, which keeps the same set pieces and positions on the pitch, but it allows us to be a little more direct than this system allows, which has a few more team instructions. In the default tactic, the direct play is dictated by player instructions, in the direct variant, it is enforced through team instructions, giving more of the squad licence to play more direct.
The instructions are:
- Pass into space. This will encourage my team to move forward quicker. Running onto a moving ball maintains the pace at which we attack, rather than passing into feet and a player having to control the ball before he can take his action.
- Run at defence. When we’re counter-attacking at pace, the quickest way there is by passing, however, if we are short on attacking numbers I want us running with the ball when possible to keep possession until other players can catch up with play.
- Whipped crosses. In my head, we’re playing fast, direct football. Whipping it into the box adds to the speed at which we can get the balls into the box. I don’t want to float crosses and give defenders a chance to get back and defend.
- Play narrower. While I want us to attack as pace, I also want to ensure we’re positioned well to cope with a turnover in possession, which is more likely with a higher the tempo. Playing narrower will help us recover our shape quicker if we lose the ball.
- Push higher up. I want us to be pressing the opposition closer to their goal, giving them less space to play in. Condensing the space they are in will make it easier for us to press and win the ball back. If you try to press with the opposition more spread out it is harder as they can pass around you easier.
- Roam from positions. We’re going to be chucking men forwards at pace, and that needs to be the man closest to getting forwards. It won’t always be a right winger on the right wing in every scenario, so this instruction allows us to cover a position when a player is making a run for the box.
- Much higher tempo. Doesn’t really need much of an explanation. A higher tempo will encourage faster movement of the ball and more chance of unsettling the opposition.
- Close down much more. We want to press and win the ball back quickly to catch the opposition when they’re transitioning into the defensive shape. This is when we will be most dangerous in attack.
I also change the team shape from fluid to structured. Keeping the mentality at standard.
I will typically use the second, more direct system when we’re playing against a more attacking team who play with a higher line, to help us exploit that space a little quicker than when we build from the back. In the most part, I use our standard system, and that is what I will analyse today.
HOW DOES IT PLAY?
When looking at this system I will keep it simple. I will show some examples of us in possession and some out of possession to see how we line up in each phase. I won’t give too many examples, but I will talk about each phase and the players’ responsibilities within them based on the instructions I have given them.
In Possession of the Ball
When we have the ball, I want to build from the back, moving the ball about until an opening is found. That being said, I don’t want to put our defence under stress if the opposition is pressing us quite heavily.
Atalanta, the first match of the season, and the one I have used for this example are managed by Cristian Bucchi, and if you look at his manager profile you can see that his pressing style is closing down so you can expect that they’ll chase every ball.
With this in mind, it helps to have a ‘keeper with 17 vision and 17 passing. As a sweeper keeper, his ability to set up counter attacks has won us so many points.
In the above example, rather than play out from the back, Vicente finds Andrejic, my number 10, with an inch-perfect pass. Something he has been doing all season. It is sometimes useful to see how the opposition will press you to see if you need to tweak your tactics to accommodate. Have you told your keeper to slow the pace down and pass it short? This could be a recipe for disaster unless you have someone calm and composed between the sticks.
So as a starter for ten, I try to find the best keeper for the job. One who can save first and foremost, but one who can also do this with the ball at his feet.
Moving onto the defenders, and when it comes to playing out from the back, having a number 6 drop deeper to collect the ball and play with the centre-backs helps in build up as the players are staggered vertically, rather than standing in a line.
My two central defenders are usually within close proximity, with my 4 being more of a ball player and then 5 being the safe and simple option.
It is also important to rubbish a common myth about the ball playing defender. Contrary to popular belief he won’t just smash the ball upfield at every opportunity, that’s more the style of the defensive centre back. As the below highlights, he is more than happy to pass to his partner or back to the keeper. In the match against Atalanta, he actually had more completed passes than his ‘safer’ partner. The ball player will do exactly that, play the ball, not hoof the ball.
His passes are over a bit of distance, but then you would expect that with the way that we play.
When we do have possession at the back, it’s important we always have a passing option. While the below might look a little complicated at first, the red lines signify the lines between the defenders, orange between midfielders and green the attackers. While the black lines fill the gaps to highlight the triangles created by the duties given to the players on the pitch.
Each player has at least two passing options when on the ball. This is key to keeping possession. You don’t want your midfielders in a line either horizontally or vertically, as the passing lanes will likely be blocked off. It’s easier to pass diagonally to break the lines of the defence.
What this shows is that my number 4 is a little more advanced than my Dossena, my number 5 with my 6 dropping to come to collect the ball from the defence if needed. My full-backs are wide and the wingers are wider still, looking to make themselves available should the ball be moved out wide. My number 10 is out wide on the left flank, too, looking to cause the opposition troubles if we decide to build down that side of the pitch.
Here is that passage of play. Our defence is comfortable enough on the ball to keep it moving until such a time that there is an opportunity to progress. Watch the movement of my number 10, the top left striker, he moves in and out of the channels waiting for a through-ball that he can run onto. This is the advantage you get by using a role that allows you to move into the channels. It causes an issue for the opposition defence because they need to swap responsibility of picking him up.
One of the benefits of the Complete Forward role is that the guy will be everywhere. In the below scenario, he has dropped deep into the midfield to come and collect the ball, my 6 is sitting between the central defenders and my 8, as he always does, has made a run for the gap. The central midfielder on attack duty will make these runs often, and it helps to have a striker who will drop and draw out the defence to him.
The ball from Andrejic finds this strike partner who in turn plays it into space for the on-rushing midfielder for another counter-attacking goal which has come about from winning the ball back and getting it up the field as quickly as possible.
One final example below comes from another attack on us, where we are pinned back, but when we win the ball the first thought it how quickly we can get it upfield and create a goalscoring chance. From this piece of play, we actually did score while Atalanta was still wondering what was going on.
So to recap. We are a team who will play with possession when the counter opportunities are not available to us. We are all comfortable playing on the ball and working our openings either down the flanks or through the middle. That includes the ‘keeper.
However, we really are at our most dangerous when we have numbers back behind the ball and the opposition has overcommitted. Having two advanced strikers gives us an outlet to create some dangerous chances while the opposition is out of their defensive shape.
This is while using a standard mentality and a fluid team shape.
Out of Possession of the Ball
I will keep this part short and sweet. Defensively, we look like a cross between a 4-1-3-2 and a 4-4-2.
The strikers will stay high and pin back the opposition defence. This always gives us an outlet when we’re under pressure and just need to get the ball out of defence. It helps to maintain possession rather than invite more. That is, as long as the strikers can get hold of the ball.
When defending we are quite narrow and compact. The back four will keep relatively close to one another, helped by the full-backs being told to close down much less.
The number 6 will drop deep. As a defensive deep lying playmaker, his role when we do not have possession of the ball is to hold his position in front of the central defenders. He does this excellently. He rarely deviates from his post and is usually there as the last line before the defence has to deal with the attacks.
The wingers and midfielders shift to cover the flanks when we’re under attack, allowing the full-backs to remain tucked in protecting the six-yard line.
Here you can see my back four are tight and defending the area well. My 6 and winger are out wide tracking the men on the flanks.
I’ve already spoken about the set pieces I use, you can find those here!
This post was short and sweet, but it was a little insight into how I have developed my 4-4-2 over time to allow us to attack and defend in a way that I have wanted. This has allowed us to dominate Serie A and make our mark on the Champions League, although we’re yet to conquer the latter.
This is no means a world beater of a tactic. It requires in-game adjustments as the situations progress, however, if you would like to download and use, you can grab it from the links below:
Until next time, arrivederci.