01192018

Watford and Leicester are bringing 4-4-2 back with remarkable displays in the Premier League

Anyone who received Mike Bassett: England Manager from the HMV bargain bucket for Christmas will soon have those immortal words etched in their memory: ‘Four-four-f***ing-two.’

The formation that comes under scrutiny in the 2001 film has seemingly become a relic in modern-day football, snubbed for 4-2-3-1 in the Barclays Premier League.

Yet Leicester City and Watford are bringing it back. Claudio Ranieri and Quique Sanchez Flores don’t write their team sheets on the back of a cigarette packet like Bassett but they too are keeping faith in 4-4-2, and their scripts this season aren’t dissimilar to a Hollywood movie either.

Troy Deeney (left) and Odion Ighalo (right) are proving a deadly combination for Watford in the Premier League

Troy Deeney (left) and Odion Ighalo (right) are proving a deadly combination for Watford in the Premier League

Ighalo (left) and Deeney (right) have become one of the Premier League's most feared attacking duos

Ighalo (left) and Deeney (right) have become one of the Premier League’s most feared attacking duos

Leicester also use two up front and did so at Everton with Shinji Okazaki (left) and Jamie Vardy (right)

Leicester also use two up front and did so at Everton with Shinji Okazaki (left) and Jamie Vardy (right)

SO, WHAT IS YOUR CLUB’S MOST USED FORMATION THIS SEASON?

Arsenal ‒ 4-2-3-1

Aston Villa ‒ 4-2-3-1

Bournemouth ‒ 4-4-1-1

Chelsea ‒ 4-2-3-1

Crystal Palace ‒ 4-2-3-1

Everton ‒ 4-2-3-1

Leicester City ‒ 4-4-2

Liverpool ‒ 4-3-3 

Manchester City ‒ 4-2-3-1

Manchester United ‒ 4-2-3-1

Newcastle United ‒ 4-4-2

Norwich City ‒ 4-4-1-1

Southampton ‒ 4-2-3-1

Stoke City ‒ 4-2-3-1

Sunderland ‒ 4-1-4-1

Swansea City ‒ 4-2-3-1

Tottenham Hotspur ‒ 4-2-3-1

Watford ‒ 4-4-2

West Brom ‒ 4-4-2

West Ham ‒ 4-1-4-1 

MOST POPULAR FORMATIONS

4-2-3-1 ‒ 11 clubs

4-4-2 ‒ 4 clubs

4-4-1-1 ‒ 2 clubs

4-1-4-1 ‒ 2 clubs

4-3-3 ‒ 1 club

Leicester are top and haven’t used 4-2-3-1 once this season, though that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the formation ‒ not if you have the right striker.

Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur use it and feel safe with Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane leading their attacks.

It was in 2005 when this became a thing, as Craig Bellamy noted on Monday Night Football previously: ‘Jose Mourinho and Didier Drogba came in and it changed the game.

‘He went 4-3-3 with a big, strong target man. Even my manager at the time said to me, “to be a modern day striker, you have to be 6ft 3, 6ft 4, strong…” Everything I wasn’t.’

Yet not every club has a Drogba.

Manchester United and Chelsea have struggled with 4-2-3-1 this year because they have been relying on Anthony Martial and Diego Costa.

This memo ‒ to stick one up front ‒ has not reached Watford.

Last week, Liverpool could not handle Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney, who have created more chances for each other than anyone else in the Premier League (29) ‒ even beating Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez (23).

Watford’s captain was brutally honest after the 3-0 win.

‘We bullied them,’ Deeney said. ‘They didn’t fancy the fight. We dominated. [Martin] Skrtel went off, didn’t fancy it. We’re not scared of anybody.

‘I’m surprised that the other clubs are not clicking on. It’s been nearly six months now and teams are still trying to put two centre halves against me and Iggy.

‘Defences don’t like that nowadays. It’s all pretty football up front, want to do a Barcelona.

‘We’re old fashioned. We’ll bully you, we’ll run in behind, we’ll do the flick ons, and put a shift in going the other way as well.’

Chelsea stuck with 4-2-3-1 this season before Jose Mourinho's sacking with Diego Costa (right) up front

Chelsea stuck with 4-2-3-1 this season before Jose Mourinho’s sacking with Diego Costa (right) up front

Costa has failed to lead Chelsea's attack sufficiently this season and is struggling in the Premier League

Costa has failed to lead Chelsea’s attack sufficiently this season and is struggling in the Premier League

Manchester United's Anthony Martial (right) has been used as a lone striker in their 4-2-3-1 previously

Manchester United’s Anthony Martial (right) has been used as a lone striker in their 4-2-3-1 previously

If it’s not broke, why fix it? Flores took over in June, having previously managed in Spain where 4-4-2 remains popular. Deeney and Ighalo had scored 20-plus goals each in the Championship before his arrival and Flores didn’t try to change an already winning combination.

They are accountable for 17 of the 21 goals scored by Watford this year, and only five newly-promoted teams have made a better start in the Premier League (Sunderland in 1999, Blackburn Rovers in 1992, Middlesbrough in 1995, Ipswich in 2000 and Nottingham Forest in 1994).

An essential part to the 4-4-2 system is that the manager is able to persuade his strikers to track back, which Ranieri and Flores have done.

FURTHEST DISTANCES COVERED BY PREMIER LEAGUE FORWARDS

181.8km ‒ Harry Kane

174.3km ‒ Jamie Vardy

168.7km ‒ Troy Deeney

155.0km ‒ Odion Ighalo

153.6km ‒ Graziano Pelle

Watch Ighalo and Deeney, or Vardy and Shinji Okazaki or Leonardo Ulloa, and you’ll see one dropping deeper than the other when out of possession, becoming almost 4-5-1.

It explains why three of the five furthest distances covered by forwards this season belongs to ever-presents in the 4-4-2 system – Vardy (174.3km), Deeney (168.7km) and Ighalo (155km).

Yet it is not only down to the strikers. It’s a collective effort.

In Watford’s engine room, for example, Ben Watson (10.6km) and Etienne Capoue (10.5km) ran further than any of their team-mates against Liverpool. They control midfield in tandem.

Ighalo (right) has been on fire for Watford under manager Quique Sanchez Flores (second from right)

Ighalo (right) has been on fire for Watford under manager Quique Sanchez Flores (second from right)

Claudio Ranieri has stuck with 4-4-2 at Leicester and they sit top of the Premier League table at Christmas

Claudio Ranieri has stuck with 4-4-2 at Leicester and they sit top of the Premier League table at Christmas

Leonardo Ulloa (centre, applauding at Goodison Park) has played the supporting striker for Vardy previously

Leonardo Ulloa (centre, applauding at Goodison Park) has played the supporting striker for Vardy previously

Leicester sit top of the Premier League at Christmas and are looking to maintain their position into 2016

Leicester sit top of the Premier League at Christmas and are looking to maintain their position into 2016

MOST DUELS WON THIS SEASON 

148 ‒ Troy Deeney (Watford)

133 ‒ Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)

129 ‒ Sadio Mane (Southampton)

128 ‒ Erik Pieters (Stoke City)

126 ‒ Etienne Capoue (Watford)

At Leicester, Mahrez has been unstoppable on the wing, having completed the most dribbles (58) this season and also won the second-most duels (133) behind Deeney (148).

So, is it a coincidence that the two overachieving teams this season play 4-4-2? Surely not.

Just look at Atletico Madrid.

They overachieved in 2014, winning La Liga and almost the Champions League by playing 4-4-2.

Costa, who left Atletico shortly after that ill-fated final in Lisbon, hasn’t been able to handle it by himself in Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 set-up.

Ranieri and Flores know that if their system is adhered to properly, then they can beat any team on the day.

It’s ironic that it took an Italian and a Spaniard to remind us that England still has use for the old-fashioned formation but, thankfully, Leicester and Watford are keeping 4-4-2 alive.

This map shows the average positions for Manchester United in their 4-2-3-1 set-up against Norwich
This map shows the average positions for Watford in their 4-4-2 set-up against Liverpool

These maps show the average positions for Manchester United (left, against Norwich in a 4-2-3-1 set-up) and Watford (right, against Liverpool in a 4-4-2 set-up)

Deeney and Ighalo have created more chances for each other than anyone else in the Premier League (29)

Deeney and Ighalo have created more chances for each other than anyone else in the Premier League (29)

Distance data courtesy of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, the Official Player Rating Index of the Barclays Premier League 

 

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