In large part this journey by GCFC to play a 442 began with @Nic Madden who thankfully appeared on one of my shows playing a bog basic 442 with England, without any Team Instructions and only one player instruction assigned to a Goal Keeper. It turned out to be a marvellous match, perhaps Malta may not be the perfect test, however, the transitions England came up with provided me with some precious insight.
There are several ways we can approach the game. We can either become Jose Mourinho or Rafa Benitez and opt to load over team with a myriad of PIs and TIs and get them to play a specific style of football or we can choose to allow the roles to breathe. It was fun and that inspired Mikey to send in his 442 to my channel which we quickly tried. Unfortunately for us, while we managed to close out the league with the title, we fell to a 3-0 defeat to PSG. This fired me up to enter the transfer market with GCFC. We dumped 89m on 18 players. The goal was to become a diversified squad that could use different tactical systems. After all the FM Tactics show that I host on my YT channel is about community tactics. Managers submit their tactics and I use them with tweaks to show how I would either adapt them to my squad, sometimes we use them in their entirety. In most cases the unique requirements of my side mean that frequent tweaks are needed. And the same applied to Mikey’s 442.
Initially this tactic featured an Inverted Wingback. Its a role I love. The IWB is a cross between a playmaker and a fullback. When in possession he takes up a narrow position and is frequently found congesting areas in a central area of the pitch. This gives us options. In order to understand the options and find out how GCFC managed to go on this run, we first need to set up the parameters on how we play with a 442
The Challenges of Playing the 442
Michael Cox has released a brilliant book called “The Mixer”, in it he traces the history of tactics in the premiership. And one of the interesting things about this is how he described the evolution of the 442 played in England. The 442 and the style of play is uniquely English. Huff and puff down the flanks and drop the ball down to the head of a strong striker with a fast striker. Basically that’s the 442 in a nutshell from the early days. Sides like Blackburn and Manchester United showed how this could be played. And in its title winning season, United almost exclusively took this route, however Europe was a different matter. There, players were more technical, they were better on the ball. And they frequently had a man either protecting the backline or someone playing in a hole behind the strikers. Sir Alex Ferguson in his biography describes how their system needed to adapt. United started going strikerless.
The challenge the 442 has is its reliance on the flanks, in that system, no-one really cared about controlling the middle. Arrigo Saachi was different, he believed in controlling the middle of the pitch. Over time, United changed, first with Cantona, and then with Scholes dropping deeper to become a deep lying playmaker in his latter years. While I am taking some liberties condensing the 442 history, my point is this : The 442 needs to control the middle somehow, its weakness is actually the middle. SAF had to change their style of play, by the time Cristiano Ronaldo started banging in the goals, the need for Ruud Van Nistlerooy, slowly decreased. The purchase of Rooney was meant to allow United to play with a striker who could drop a bit deeper allowing the flanks to cut inside. Van Nistelrooy eventually had to leave, and United’s system evolved.
For sides like Leicester City and Atletico Madrid, the benefit of playing the 442 lay with the potential of creating 2 solid banks of four. The challenge was getting the strikers to drop back. Early on in their season Leicester frequently looked like they played a 4-4-2-0. With both their strikers dropping so deep they frequently looked like a 6 in midfield. Faced with having to score goals, it slowly evolved into a 4411 with Vardy frequently seen sitting on the shoulder of the last defender. Madrid would move around as a compact unit, but the same challenges once again faced Madrid. Its notable that neither side could replicate their title winning seasons, its the nature of playing the 442 so defensively that eventually teams figure out how you play. It would surprise me if either Madrid or Leicester were to win a title again, playing exactly the same way.
The challenge for GCFC would be playing our 442 against systems that controlled the middle more effectively.
442 vs 4231 – I need to worry about the impact of their AMC and worry more if their FB’s get involved
442 vs 4132 Narrow – Here the challenge of breaking the dm based defence are further compounded with the potential of conceding goals from counters if their two strikers are released
442 vs 41311 Narrow – The master exploiter of the halfspace. This tactic by the AI allows them to congest as many as 6 players in midfield vs my 2
So for every system we played, we needed versatility, so our 442 had to change slightly for most matches.
HOW OUR 442 PLAYED OUT
Before I begin, let me explain transitional width. A team takes up different width settings at different areas of the pitch. If you are playing on a defensive flexible setting, chances are you are going to be narrow at the back when you are in your third, and the likelihood that your fullbacks step out to engage is not as high as it would be if they are on an attacking mentality.
Note how tucked in our fullbacks are on transitional phases in play. While the two central midfielders appear really close together, this combination was a BWM(S) and BWM(D) combination, and I actually was ok with the way the two in the middle held their position, passing options are limited for the ball carrier and we are narrow. The issue when playing on a low setting like this is that you are effectively ceding the flanks. In cases like this I am going to make sure I field really good headers of the ball in my defence, because I am expecting crosses.
The defending positions my team takes up when on Attacking Flexible look almost similar, but during play I usually notice that my fullbacks and wingers are more aggressive at protecting the flanks which makes more sense, considering the higher mentality in the team.
So now that we have established what our transitional width looks like in defence, I start focusing on strategies when playing my 442.
If I am playing against a team which has a flank attack that is extremely potent like Manchester City or Arsenal, then we play on at least Control mentality and we keep a structured shape to encourage more discipline during transitions.
If we are playing against a team that deploys a narrow attack, e.g. the narrow 4231, we play on lower mentality settings to defend the middle. There congested numbers in midfield will surely overpower our 2 central midfielders.
In most cases we will begin on Structured shape, because a 442 could do with the space to work in, and not committing too many players in transitions will also help maintain some defensive integrity. If I feel the need to throw more bodies into transitional attacks, then I will raise shape to fluid. Venturing to very fluid is a risk I am not prepared to take.
I have also covered how you can understand transitions earlier on this blog here.
The Tactic As a Whole
The challenge in playing the 442 lies greatly in adapting to what’s happening on the pitch. Sometimes I seek out a more aggressive style where I deploy an attacking CM with a defensive Midfielder, sometimes I need more control and try to go down the flanks more then I use a combination of BWM on support and defend duties. At other times I see to congest the playable area and then I use a IWB with a W(S) and CM(A) on attack in midfield.
In nearly every case the players have limited Player Instructions. Those that have PIs are listed here:
GK – Distribute Quickly, Distribute to Flanks
FBs(Both) – Pass it Shorter
IWB(if used) – Close down much more/tackle harder – The logic in this lies that if he is out of position and needs to track back and defend, then there is also the chance that he may need to go in early, since that flank is open to a lot of risk
DLP & CM(A) – I really want to use at least a BWM(S) or (D) here, but the problem lies in the fact that my players haven’t learnt the trait “DOES NOT DIVE INTO TACKLES”, so until they learn that trait I need roles that give me the option to reduce hard tackling. So for now they get close down much more and hard tackling. I don’t like it, but it’s a decent compromise.
Making the system compact in defence
We need to use every tool in the game to make ourselves compact defensively, so we have opted to do this via three methods:
1. Play Offside Trap
2. Pushed up Defensive line – ( This instruction will adapt to the speed and skill of the opposition, if their players have better acceleration and anticipation then my players acceleration and positioning then I will play normal)
3. Opposition Instructions
To play the offside trap aggressively we need to put the AI under pressure. This is where OIs become handy since I can opt for a form of zonal closing down that is aggressive but focused zonally instead of giving specific players that instruction. When you give your players specific close down instructions, they may create issues. Here I want to target opposing players specifically so that players closer to their zone can close them down. In conjunction with the offside trap we are also going to press their backline. This will create several side effects:
By closing down their backline, we ensure they are not given time on the ball, this will allow us to pressure them even when they have throw-ins in their half. We can counter attack them after their fail to get their own attacks going. We avoid pressing any AM role, because these have the potential of pulling our backline out of shape. If we maintain a cohesive press on their midfield and their backline, and along with our offside trap, we can play with a forward press that can cause turnovers. In order for us to pull this off effectively, we need players to fulfil certain requirements from an attributes point of view:
All support duties : work rate, determination, stamina, bravery, off the ball. If they don’t have at least 13 for the first team they will not be considered. The league average is 13, so that makes us barely competitive.
Most of my roles need a degree of multitasking
Fullbacks – need to play as IWB on occasion so they will need attributes like decisions, vision, passing too. So these are all converted defensive midfielders
We went into the transfer market, found this youngster, dropped 7.5m for him and are now retraining him as an IWB. In attack I need my players to have the skills to play as AMs and strikers. My central midfielders need to be quality deep lying playmakers and ball winning midfielders. If we are going to win the title with a 442 there is no room for mediocrity especially if I am going structured. Playing structured puts more of the burden on the individual player so they need to be technical competent enough for me to change roles in a game.
The only roles that I will have to change is the FB(S) on the right, and the two central midfielders. So far our strategy has worked.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAYER TRAITS
I can’t stress how important these are to my style of play, I am not saying the players need them, I am saying that we need to know what traits they may have so that we can determine its impact on the system. There are some traits I can afford, we found that out in a draw against Southampton, when I fielded a player in the middle with Comes deeper as a PPM. Now we are hindered by not being able to play BWM because I need my players to learn the PPM – Does not dive into tackles.
Since PPMs >PI>TI, it makes sense that we understand how those PPMs can affect individual roles. I can’t believe how the dropping of Germano for Olmedo turned my 442 around. There are player traits that I plan to include in the tool-kit of the players I expect attacking down the flanks – “Knocks Ball Forward”. I know this PPM is particularly effective with players who have good acceleration. Sides that apply high pressure with closing down and tight marking could overcommit.
It’s important to pay attention to attributes and traits, and I have done a post on why these can be important here. I plan to do a new video on player traits and how you can use them in a youtube video on my channel pretty soon.
Update thus far:
Against Arsenal we had to play a control structured system with a FB combination on both flanks because they played a FB-ML/MR combination on both flanks. This was their biggest threats. I was pleased to see how our central midfielders stayed wide enough to protect the centre and support the flanks. And over on the flanks we were very guarded. Although Arsenal played with a wide 4132, my biggest concern was their speed and potency from counters. In Musa and Danaher they had the most lethal scoring combination, with Musa frequently heading to the wings to flight in crosses. By nulling their flank attack, we were able to secure a 3-0 lead by the end of the first half.
This Arsenal team had been devastating with their flank attacks. Their left flank almost felt overpowered with 3 players giving it width. So our strategy to curb the flank threats worked.
We knew going into this match that if we played on a lower mentality, this would gift the flanks to them. It was something we could not afford. So we started the match on Control/Structured and moved it up to Attacking Structured. The increased pressure on the flanks allowed us to get good coverage to break their passing lanes.
In attack my Wide Playmaker would frequently cut inside and the two central midfielders would usually offer themselves up as great passing outlets. With all three having good off the ball, it’s no wonder they found space. Overall their use of only one central midfielder with one DM was probably their undoing, making the job relatively simple for us. This had to be the easiest match against the best scoring team in England.
A COMPARISON BETWEEN THE IWB system and the non-IWB System
Basically I have two 442s and there are variations in between with respect to how I want my midfield pivots to work. If I am in a particularly defensive position, i.e. the team I am playing against is particularly strong, I will play with a Support/Defend duty combination. I find that Defend/Defend combinations work better in the DM slots. The 4222 Deep works amazingly effectively as well, this system deploys 2 DMs, and if I really wanted two pivots to be holding players for 90 minutes I would rather use 2 DMs. Having two players on defend duties in the central while it looks defensive just offers too little off the ball movement for my liking. Against sides that deploy a 3 man midfield their lack of forward movement could unhinge the middle.
The IWB based system is really cool, when we have possession. The IWB moves into midfield, creating the semblance of the Brazilian box midfield. In attack they play like the box midfield and in defence they drop back into a 442. By playing like this we have created some risk for ourselves as we leave ourselves open on the right flank. During these transitions, it’s vital that the IWB have suitable attributes that allow him to hold on to the ball, which is why I have reconverted DM’s playing here. During the start of the season, there was some uncertainty, players made positional errors. Now though, Zuniga the player I linked earlier is showing the requisite qualities I need playing in the position. It allows us to keep retention of the ball against packed midfields. And here is where we give the option to the other central midfielder to romp forward. In my earlier versions of this system, the CM(A) had the “Drop deeper” ppm which actually added to congestion without offering much by way of attacking options. With a player playing there now without those PPMs we are looking a lot more dangerous. The side effect of using the IWB as we have also found out is the risk we open up by given the AI a numerical advantage on our flanks.
I am not too sure if I like the way he closes down sometimes, but its a choice I have consciously made knowing that he may sometimes be out of position. By giving him the PI close down much more he sometimes leaves the defensive line a bit too early like he does here when the AI is entering our half.
In the final third, the IWB option is interesting, depending on how the AI lines up it can give us options. The IWB option becomes more deadly when the AI is playing a narrow system. Here the IWN is in an advanced position looking to add support and allow the CM control the centre. We have effectively formed a 3 man midfield.
Against good teams who have solid flank attacks I sometimes default to not using the IWB, instead opting for the safer option of having a FB/Mid pair to protect the flanks. On the occasion that I have used an IWB, failure to control midfield has usually resulted in us conceding goals. So while the IWB option looks interesting, it plays well against some systems and requires particular attention to player attributes. I do feel that its still a stronger option in games where the AI has a better midfield than ours. Against PSG in the champions league final, we used the IWB 442 but were roundly beaten 3-0 as they took advantage of the weaker flanks, so I kinda failed at doing my homework.
Going forward I will be looking at both options, and its not uncommon for me to switch between the two if there is a need to take control of the match and keep the ball from the AI, however the risk is always there that our IWB flank could ship goals.
Things haven’t been perfect, while we seem to enjoy playing against most teams. Its those hell bent on staying defensive playing narrow that have given us the most headaches, against
Southampton we made the wrong decision to field a BWM(S)(D) pair in midfield it backfired. On top of that we made things worse with an IWB. We played into their hands and it was a mistake, as our plan to release our Winger fell flat. Here we made some fundamental booboos
1. Fielding a CM with the “Likes to Drop deep to get the ball PPM” in a support duty. This just made things worse as we create further isolation issues with our strikers
2. Using an IWB when we needed to use width as an attack weapon against a packed midfield. The match finished 2-2.
A few people have asked details on how I play my 442s, thats the reason for this post, its meant to show how I approach games and how I adapt the system on the fly when I am faced with needing to decide how to protect the 442s weaknesses. I do hope this helps some of you and I will update the thread if people need more insight.