Wilson: England's love of the 4-4-2

Ahead of England's participation in Euro 2012, ESPNSTAR.com columnist Jonathan Wilson reviews Roy Hodgson's preferred tactic, the 4-4-2.

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For almost half a century, English football has found comfort in a 4-4-2. It was the formation that won England the World Cup, it was the formation that Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa used as English sides won the European Cup seven times in eight seasons between 1977 and 1984 and it is the formation to which England habitually return in times of crisis. It's what feels natural, what feels safe, to a generation brought up to see any other shape as suspicious foreign sophistry. In an age of false nines, 4-2-3-1s and inverted wingers, though, it feels pretty old-fashioned.

When Alf Ramsey launched 4-4-2 on the world in the quarter-final of the 1966 World Cup - after an experiment in Poland in England's final warm-up friendly before the tournament - it was revolutionary.

Eschewing wingers was a radical development and gave England extra men in midfield, allowing them to control games even if it required more long balls from back to front than had been the norm until then.

Still, that England had confidence and fluidity, two full-backs in George Cohen and Ray Wilson who were confident pressing forward and, in Martin Peters, Bobby Charlton and Alan Ball, three midfielders more than capable of getting forward to support the front two. That was an excellent side, something they proved by reaching the semi-final of the European Championship in 1968 and then playing superbly in the alien conditions of Mexico before going out in the quarter-final of the 1970 World Cup.

The key was that there was - some - intermovement of players, that they were relatively patient in possession and that they were good on the ball. That 4-4-2 developed a bad reputation was because, played without imagination or confidence, it can be a very rigid system.

Sides looking to take the game to their opponents can become very predictable, playing only in straight lines. The system has fallen out of favour - at the highest level at least - with the increasing prevalence of teams playing with a lone central striker and an additional midfielder. When 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 plays against 4-4-2 it will almost inevitably dominate the centre of the pitch, making it harder for the side playing the more traditional formation to dominate possession.

But that's only if a team is looking to be proactive. A side happy to play reactive football, to sit back and defend, can get still play 4-4-2. It might not be pretty and it requires a side that is prepared to soak up pressure but, over the past six months, reactive teams have struck back against the proactivity that had come to dominate European football over the past few years. Chelsea showed in the Champions League that, with a little luck, even against a side as good in possession as Barcelona or Bayern Munich it is possible to hold out.

England, in their last two games under Fabio Capello, similarly set up with two lines of four very deep, stifling both Spain and Sweden, winning both games 1-0.

It is that style that Roy Hodgson has always preferred throughout his career. He qualified as coach under Allen Wade, the hugely influential Football Association technical director who took Ramsey's doctrine and developed it into a fully formed coaching manual. Hodgson was in that first flush of coaches to qualify under Wade, a group that included such figures as Bobby Houghton, Dave Sexton and Don Howe. They played functional, direct but not unintelligent football.

Houghton and Hodgson both had notable success in Sweden, winning five titles out of six between them between 1974 and 1979. So influential were they that they ended up changing the general Swedish style, from a man marking libero system to a zonal 4-4-2. Hodgson has evolved, but only a little. At Fulham he favoured a narrow midfield four with inverted wingers, with an attacking midfielder linking to a robust centre-forward. He focuses relentlessly on "shape". As numerous players who've worked for him have said, training tends to be repetitive and a little dull - but highly effective.

That shape is already apparent with England. Against Norway last Saturday, amid a flurry of substitutions, they became a little ragged in the second half, but against Belgium at Wembley, the shape was clear. Belgium are a technically highly accomplished side - they passed the ball around neatly and looked rather more comfortable on the ball than England - but they rarely looked like creating a chance, never mind scoring. Only when the right-back Guillaume Gillet struck a speculative first-time shot from 25 yards, clipping the post, was Joe Hart troubled. Admittedly that has been characteristic of Belgium for some time, and explains their failure to qualify for the Euros, but their total impotence was surely in part down to Hodgson's set-up.

Hodgson himself seemed more than satisfied with two 1-0 wins to start his England career, praising his side's "concentration and determination"  - the two characteristics on which he places greatest stock. Significantly, he insisted those virtues were "encapsulated in Steven Gerrard" - a player who has regularly in the past been accused of lacking patience and tactical discipline. There are even signs of a partnership forming with Scott Parker, who plays the more defensive role in the centre of midfield. "It's working out OK," Hodgson said.

"I'm happy with the defensive shape."

From an attacking point of view England have been rather more muted, although Ashley young has proved his aptitude in that role linking midfield and attack - even if he will presumably vacate that for Wayne Rooney when he returns from suspension for the third game of the tournament. The question then is whether Hodgson goes with the more robust Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck, who already has a fine club partnership with Rooney and proved his quality with a deft finish against Belgium.

The diminished expectations around England probably suit Hodgson's approach. His 4-4-2 - or, more accurately 4-4-1-1 -is ideal for sitting deep and countering, for frustrating better opposition. For the first time probably since 1982, an England team can go to a tournament and defend - and, as Chelsea proved in the Champions League, it is possible to win tournaments on resilience, application and organisation. It's a slim chance, but it's probably the best England have.

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