The Comfort Zone: The U.S.A. and the 4-4-2

You could see it almost immediately yesterday, the familiar patterns settling back in. Center midfielder passes to a forward who is checking back to the ball and who then passes sideways to outside midfielder pushing past him. Midfield running with it, stopping, looking at the forward, checking outside to the outside back, who swings a cross in or checks it back to the outside midfielder. The passing moves are so habitual at this point there are probably grooves in the field at the Home Depot Center; for those of us who follow the U.S. Men’s National Team, the passing options were so obvious when a player received the ball that it was like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book: To pass to Steve Cherundelo, turn to page 53; To pass to Kyle Beckerman, turn to page 74. (At which point you die and have to start over.)

Despite six games worth of practice in Jurgen Klinsmann’s new system – be it a 4-5-1 or a 4-4-1-1 or, as the famous whiteboard picture suggests, an unbalanced 4-D-2/4-3-3 with one winger high up the pitch, it took next to no time to revert back to the old ways, to fall into the cradle of the 4-4-2.[1] It wasn’t the same as before, the roles were slightly altered and the pressing was more intense, but it was known, typical, established. They know how to create chances in it, how the forwards can pull wide and work with the outside midfielders and fullbacks to over-man the fullback’s zone and get a free cross or pass in. That’s something they couldn’t figure out how to do it in the other system, not with any consistency. If Jozy pulled wide, there was no one left to cover the middle.

I argued with a couple of different people around the World Cup last year that the reason we couldn’t just swap to a 4-5-1 immediately was because 4-4-2 is more than the default system, it’s the dominant one, far and away the most played system at nearly all levels. I’ve been to youth tournaments where literally every single team I watched played a 4-4-2.

Granted, styles differed: Some teams ran the offense through their outside midfielders, much as the U.S. circa 2010 did with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan in those wide roles. Others sat back in a Hodgsonian pair of four-man banks, hitting the ball long to their forwards and letting them beat their men. I remember one that wheeled strongly right in attack, with the right midfielder pushing high up the pitch in possession and the right back following him into the midfield while their counterparts stayed put, so they went from a base 4-4-2 without the ball to 3-4-3 with it.

There’s a reason for this – namely that in the past our soccer model nation has been England, and they’ve been doing it wrong for years (A. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but not immensely so. B. I’m kidding about that last bit, kind of.) 4-4-2 is such a standard that when I was in high school, I don’t remember ever even thinking that there was another way to play. I don’t think I was the only one.

In the summer of 2010, I was at a camp in San Diego for college prospects, watching groups of them, each coached by a different university assistant, play one another as part of the camp. These were relatively elite high school players, guys whose biggest worry was which scholarship to pick, or at least which program to join and try to get financial aid from. Of the four teams, all but one played in some variation of a 4-4-2, be it a typical one or a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-D-2. The other squad lined up in a 4-3-3, with wingers who stayed high up the pitch and pressed and a three man triangle in the center of the midfield.

That team kicked ass. The 4-3-3 completely flummoxed its opponents, working in all the ways Michael Cox assures us it is supposed to. The amount of pressure their wingers were able to get on the fullbacks completely unsettled them. The midfield dominated the center of the park with its extra man. It required more coaching, their assistant was constantly yelling from the sidelines, making the minute adjustments the other coaches didn’t have to do. It paid off.

All this could change soon, of course. If Claudio Reyna and the U.S. Soccer Coaching Curriculum their way, we’ll get a new default. As the document says, “Teams will use the 4-3-3 formation, either in its 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3 variations.” Teams older than age U15 are allowed to use a 4-D-2 if they so desire, but, “All teams will be encouraged to display an offensive style of play based on keeping possession and quick movement of the ball.”

On the one hand, this is kind of exciting. I’m a 4-3-3-ophile; I’ve preferred it to any other system since the time I started actually thinking about that kind of thing. On the other, if everyone starts to play that way, which is unlikely since coaches are stubborn, hypothetically won’t it just become the new default? What about the times when a 4-4-2 is called for? Will we have any players who know how to use it?


1. Though the introduction of Fabian Johnson and Michael Bradley helped an awful lot too. Personally, it would have been nice to see them in the old system.

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2 Responses to The Comfort Zone: The U.S.A. and the 4-4-2

  1. Rafe says:

    Played in a fairly competitive adult rec league for 10 years comprised of mostly ex D 1-2 players and the thought of playing anything but a 4-4-2 was foriegn to 99% of players.


  2. vanpablo says:

    a good read.

    I am a fellow 4-3-3 fan, and believe all things being equal 4-3-3 beats any other formation 9/10.

    Except for one shape, the Valencian 4-2-3-1 (full back matching up to the winger, one positional CB with the other manning up to the opposite striker. the two DMs mark the opposing CMs and your central of the advanced 3 intentionally picks up the 4-3-3 anchor man. the two wide midfielders engage opposing wing backs at the half way line, but don’t press too high. and the single striker is essentially just the out ball. Real Madrid, Getafe, Valencia & Sevilla have seen some LIMITED success against Barca with this, although Pep seems to have found a way around that now with the Fabregas false 10, leaving Barca with two forwards playing on either touch line)

    this 4-2-3-1 doesn’t really match up well to other shapes though.

    i believe all kids who enter organized coaching should be taught to play 3 positions within the 4-3-3 shape, which is what we learned at my (very small) school which produced players for the premier leagues of England and Scotland. kids should occasionally also learn about the 4-4-2 basic shape.

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