Tactics Talk: Roster and Roles in the 4-2-2-2

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Millions spent on players. A new successful South American coach. A club not far removed from trophy-filled seasons. In 2004, Real Madrid believed they’d found perfect mix and hired the right man, Brazilian Vanderlei Luxemburgo. He arrived with fresh ideas for a talented but aging roster. Among them, the “magical boxes.” After the team’s strong finish to 2004, the team collapsed in the first half of 2005. The tactical revolution was a retrogression. Vanderlei got fired.

Flash forward a decade. A petro-dollar team in the EPL hires a South American coach famous for….magical boxes. In many ways, Pellegrini’s tactical ideas eerily mirror Vanderlei’s tactics at Madrid. Why did one collapse, while the other is thriving?

A close look shows that players can be shifted to fit tactics, but it’s not always for the best.

[I know, a non-ironical tactics post. Surely you can bear with me for a few several paragraphs. Besides, I'm reminiscing about Real Madrid history!]

Luxemburgo didn’t coach Real Madrid for a full season, but rather the end of the 04-05 season and the first half of the 05-06 season. For that Spring run, Luxemburgo basically gave up on balance and fielded a sole holding midfielder, Gravesen, plus three forwards, Owen, Ronaldo and Raul, and two attacking midfielders, Beckham and Zidane (and sometimes Figo). His dilemma was simple: Ronaldo was injury prone and overweight but still a goal machine, Raul was in his prime, and Owen was in form. All of them deserved starts. Beckham slotted right, Raul dropped back to the left, and in defense the team resembled a classic 4-4-2 (with Zizou alongside Gravesen).

The system worked when Madrid faced La Liga minnows and goals flowed from all angles. However, Vanderlei knew that to compete against bigger sides, balance must be restored. That summer, he made a splash with a wave of signings: Robinho, Cicinho, Julio Baptista, and Sergio Ramos arrived at the Bernabeu. He also canceled Figo’s contract (letting him go to Inter) and offloaded Michael Owen. In terms of man-management, the question remained: how would the youngsters gel with the Galacticos? In terms of tactics, things were even less clear. He signed good players, but failed to fill the perceived holes.

Luxemburgo’s solution was a new tactical approach, imported from South America: the magical boxes. Today, this approach is known more as a 4-2-2-2. Of course, necessity breeds invention. In the first few games of the season, he tinkered with a 4-3-3 but suffered a shock loss to Celta Vigo. Thus, against Espanyol, a narrow 1:0 defeat where the team played reasonably well, the boxes were born. Ronaldo and Raul started up top, Robinho and Baptista played nominal “wide” roles, while Beckham slotted center alongside Pablo Garcia.

The key to the “boxes” is the nominal winger. The defining trait is narrowness in attack. Thus, on defense, Robinho and Baptista tracked the opposing side’s outside backs, but on offense they freely cut inside to connect with Ronaldo and Raul. Rather than race to the touchline and whip in a cross, Robinho and Baptista attacked through the middle with short and quick passing triangles. Against Espanyol, Robinho cut inside often and got off several shots and a few nice square balls. He seldom darted to the corner flag. Baptista was also permanently camped out in front of Garcia, leaving the left flank open (which was okay – Roberto Carlos could be counted on to overlap).

Still, things did not fire on all cylinders. While Raul willingly dropped back to exchange passes with Baptista or Robinho, the aging Ronaldo preferred to play on the last defender’s shoulder. His excellent finishing masked poor off the ball movement and a dismal work rate. For the 4-2-2-2 to fire on all cylinders, it’s preferable to play two very mobile forwards. Otherwise you get a 4-2-2-1-1, which leaves the top forward too isolated or perpetually offside.

The highlight of the Vanderlei era was probably the 3-0 thrashing of Atletico de Madrid at the Calderon. Of course, he did not field his usual 4-2-2-2. Instead, Zidane shared central midfield with Pablo Garcia, Beckham played as a traditional winger on the right, but Baptista continued to play on the left and pinch centrally on offense. At times, the team looked like a 4-3-1-2 with Baptista in the hole. Regardless, an unfortunate early penalty and some tactical naivete from then-coach Carlos Bianchi saw lots of yellows for Atletico and a gift of victory for Madrid.

As the season progressed, Vanderlei continued to tinker with his system. The problem with his 4-2-2-2 was that Pablo Garcia, Guti, Zidane and Beckham were not suited to play center midfield in that role. They lacked the ball-winning and box-to-box athleticism, even if Guti, Zizou, and Becks had the vision and touch. A much more suitable player would be Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira or even Ricardo Montolivo. Midfielders used to a set holding role, like Claude Makelele, can sometimes play well, but creative players who don’t win balls mess up the defensive balance. Often, the nominal winger will get caught inside on offense and the central midfielder will have to push wide to cover a counterattacking fullback.

Raul and Ronaldo could have been a suitable partnership for the system and Robinho thrived for a time, but once defenders got a read on his game, his sizzle fizzled. Vanderlei tinkered with a proper 4-3-1-2, but got axed by Madrid in December after a drab 1-0 win over Getafe. Ironically, he was not fired at the 3-0 loss to Barca at home weeks earlier, but rather after a recent board vote of confidence. So much for confidence and results.

Looking back, it’s easy to point the finger at the roster. How on Earth Real Madrid let both Claude Makelele AND Esteban Cambiasso go in a span of a few years points to serious problems in evaluating talent. Still, at the time, fans wondered – could the 4-2-2-2 succeed in Europe? Or, like enganches, was it a South American species that shriveled up and died after crossing the Atlantic?

If Vanderlei’s magical boxes failed at Madrid, where have they worked? And with what players? Enter the Pellegrini. Many moons ago, he enjoyed several years of modest success at La Liga mid-sized club Villareal. Interestingly, two castaways from Real Madrid, Julio Baptista and Borja, both thrived under the Chilean coach. Obviously, his longevity at Villareal and the club’s ownership played a large role in crafting the team. He implemented the magic boxes with much success, also known in some corners as a 4-4-2 “double 6″.

At Villareal, Pellegrini could count on the work rate, touch, and vision of (nationalized) Spanish international Marcos Senna in central midfield. He was often paired with Josico, a more classic holding midfielder with limited technical ability. In the nominal winger role, he often fielded Mati Fernandez, Santi Cazorla, Cani, and Robert Pires. Pires, after a lengthy spell at Arsenal, did at times play as a traditional winger and offer width, but rarely strayed near the sideline for long. Nihat and Rossi were a perfect pair at forward: mobile and technical, they could play give-and-gos or dribble at defenders with speed. Neither is a lumbering target forward and both like to show for ball (as opposed to hanging on a defender’s shoulder).

In a 2-0 win over Racing during the 2007-08 season, Villareal’s 4-2-2-2 hummed along to perfection. Nihat scored an early goal and a Racing player got a red card, but it’s Pires positioning later in the game and assist (to Rossi) that show just how narrow the “wingers” played in such a system.

Off the ball, Pires is not hugging the touchline, but also not standing directly in front of the holding midfielder. Instead, because he’s already tucked in centrally, he’s able to easily step forward and act as a third forward when the ball is on the other side of the field. Thus, the 4-2-2-2 can actually look like a 4-2-1-3 at certain stages of the attack.

When on the ball, the 4-2-2-2 thrives because of the ubiquity of the flat back four. Outside backs are reticent to follow a wide midfielder like Pires or Cazorla inside because they’d be stepping on their own central defender’s toes. However, with the nominal winger floating, a quick pass can create a temporary two vs. one as the winger and a forward go after a centerback. If the outside back then cuts inside, he invites the attacking team’s fullback to overlap into space.

The opening sequence of this video, before a lovely chip goal from Marcos Senna from the halfway line, shows how theses narrow attacks can confuse defenses.

With four nimble, quick and interchangeable midfielders and forwards, the attacking “box” can run right through the thin “line” of a defense. Rather than spreading the field to force a 1 vs.1 and use the open space outwide, the attackers bunch together to force a series of 2 vs. 1′s in very tight areas.

Well, you say, Villareal got relegated. Pellegrini got sacked at Real Madrid and didn’t win a trophy. In fact, Villareal under Pellegrini never won a trophy. These are facts. However, his 4-2-2-2 took Villareal to unfathomable heights. They were a saved penalty kick from featuring in the Champions League final. The Yellow Submarines also only spent one season below, and have come back to La Liga with a splash.

The next criticism: the 4-2-2-2 may have worked at Villareal, but it was a one-off. Once Rossi got injured, Senna lost a step, and they sold Cazorla the team got relegated. Yes, players play a key role in bringing a tactical plan to life. However, the magical boxes did reappear and succeed at another club: Pellegrini returned to Malaga, and the team (with petro dollars) reached stunning heights.

Pellegrini’s Malaga reached the Champions League semifinals and he often employed the magical boxes, with slight variations (based on match ups). In general, Jeremy Toulalan and Iturra played central midfield. While neither player will impress you with their speed, both are solid two-way players. Pellegrini then played two stars seemingly out of position: Joaquin, a talented by mercurial journermay, had made his name for being a classic winger. He could run like the wind and cross. However, Pellegrini preferred to play him as a striker just off Roque Santa Cruz. Roberticus referred to his role as a “Paco Gento throwback.”

Pellegrini also found a unique role for Spanish starlet Isco. For many, Isco would be the ideal second striker, a very technically gifted, two-footed forward with creative distribution, a good work rate, and  sharp eye for the killer pass. Pellegrini saw all those pros and realized he could play the nominal winger role in a 4-2-2-2 to perfection. And he did. This video of Isco vs. Dortmund shows that while he started the game in wide positions, he naturally drifted centrally to help retain possession and kick start the attack.

 Isco’s work rate shows another advantage of the 4-2-2-2: defensive cover. In a normal 4-4-2 battle vs. a 4-5-1, the five-man midfield owns the ball and keeps the majority of possession. However, if the 4-5-1 does not have adventurous outside backs, either or both of the nominal wingers can easily pinch center to lend a hand. Dortmund won, but largely thanks to last minute, long-ball heroics.

In many games, Pellegrini played Isco wide as one nominal winger and then alternated between Julio Baptista (of Real Madrid) or Eliseu on the other flank. However, the 4-2-2-2 has another advantage: you can often make a single sub and wholly remake the shape into a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1. This is due partly to the quality (and similarity) of the nominal wingers and crafty forwards.

Of course, the 4-2-2-2 has a serious flaw: if your outside backs are not adventuresome, the lack of width can be an issue. A very tightly packed and well-drilled defense can match the vertical virtuosity box-for-box. Thus, in games where width could be a plus (like, say, attacking a slow outside back), Pellegrini has played a 4-2-2-2 with a single nominal winger on one flank and a classic winger on the other.

For example, in Malaga’s 4-0 win over Valencia, Pellegrini played Joaquin wide in a traditional winger role to great effect.

Isco played as a forward, normally just behind Javier Saviola, while Portillo played a nominal winger role on the left. In theory, this was an awful idea: Joaquin wide and whipping in crosses to….Saviola, Isco, and Portillo, players not blessed with size or height. However, in practice, Joaquin merely pulled the magical box to his side of the field, overwhelming Cissokho and the two Costas.

So, the magical boxes have worked in Spain, but would this tactical innovation die on a cold Tuesday night at Stoke? Rather, could the 4-2-2-2 do well in the Premier League? It has and it is. At least at Manchester City.

Ahh, Roberto Mancini. He may not have lead a team to Champions League glory, but he knows a thing or two about winning domestic titles. His first year at City was very conservative: he played a 4-3-3, with very defensive players Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong forming the back end of a triangle with Yaya Toure. Defensively, things worked out fine – City kept the ball well and muscled off opponents. The problem, though, was goals. To win the Premier League, they needed goals. Lots of them.

In Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli he had two explosive strikers, but the midfield needed to create more chances. Thus, he axed Nigel De Jong, played Yaya Toure alongside Gareth Barry, and played James Milner and David Silva as nominal wingers in a 4-2-2-2. While Milner has since seen a major dip in form and playing time, his movement, awareness, and two-footed play was comparable to Eliseu at Malaga or Baptista at Real Madrid.

City won the 2011-12 season, thanks to goal difference, and crushed rivals United 6-1 (that loss still hurts btw). Arguably, though, City’s best lineup for a 4-2-2-2 was Nasri-Toure-Barry-Silva with Tevez and Aguero up top. Silva and Nasri naturally pinch inside, while Tevez and Aguero were and are both nimble, quick strikers.

Still, success in England did not translate to Europe. Even with Nasri and Silva playing well as nominal wingers, Mancini’s 4-2-2-2 failed to advance out of the group stages of the Champions League and sealed his fate. The domestic tiger was a possum in Europe. Then came the off-season.

Mancini left and Manuel “Magic Boxes” Pellegrini arrived. Equally important, the club signed Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo, and Jesus Navas. Both Fernandinho and Negredo made sense for a 4-2-2-2: Fernandinho is a two-way central midfielder and has slotted in nicely alongside Yaya Toure. Negredo, a nimble and quick (while surprisingly strong) forward has taken to City and the Premier League by storm.

Injuries, though, have prevented Manuel form playing a 4-2-2-2 with Nasri and Silva on the flanks with Aguero and Negredo up front. However, just as he sometimes played Joaquin wide at Malaga, he has fielded Jesus Navas as a classic winger in a 4-2-2-2 variant. In the 4-1 win over City, the results speak for themselves.

Again, this victory shows the advantage of a 4-2-2-2 in the defensive phase of the game. With Chris Smalling hardly getting forward, Nasri could pinch centrally and help Toure and Fernandinho to outnumber and overwhelm Fellaini and Carrick. This variation has allowed City to wreak havoc on other EPL sides who played a 4-4-2, such as Tottenham.

Still, though, no system (or coach) is perfect. In City’s win over Chelsea in October, Pellegrini curiously opted for a 4-3-3 with Garcia, Fernandinho and Toure playing behind Nasri, Silva, and Aguero. The game was evenly matched until a Joe Hart error in the 90th minute gave Chelsea a win. In the more recent 1-0 loss, Pellegrini reverted to a 4-2-2-2 with Navas as a traditional winger and Nasri as a nominal winger, but Mou countered the magical box with a box of his own: David Luiz and Matic sat in front of John Terry and Gary Cahill, ensuring no quick give-and-gos could materialize. Narrowness neutralized narrowness.

The loss was unfortunate, but nowhere near as bad as the Real Madrid debacle in 2005. Pellegrini has found a system that works for him and is working reasonably well for City. He’s even adapted it to fit traditional wingers like Joaquin and Navas. The key lies in overlapping fullbacks, technical and mobile wingers/forwards, and athletic two-way midfielders. Tactics are a useful lens to understand how and why things happen on the pitch, but, ultimately, players bring them to life. If Fernandinho and Silva had been available, that 1-0 loss to City may have gone another way.

The magic boxes. The diamonds. The 4-2-2-2. The 4-4-2 Double 6. Regardless of the name, narrowness is the key component. The boxes are magical because they are a response to the prevalence of the flat back four: defenses cover space horizontally, so it’s a vertical overload. It’s a throwback to the days of the Scottish passing game when the line between forwards and midfielders have not yet crystallized. Think of it as “Perverting the Pyramid.”

CREDIT: Zonal Marking, Santa Pelota, the history-riffic TransferMarkt

4 thoughts on “Tactics Talk: Roster and Roles in the 4-2-2-2

  1. Thanks, this was a very nice walkthrough of Pellegrini’s tactics. While he has continued to tweak his 4-2-2-2 to adapt to the players he has, do you think that the loss to Chelsea will prompt him to search for a more consistent “Plan B”? You spoke of the 4-3-3 he used at Stamford Bridge, but I didn’t see how that game played out, would that be the most likely alternative for him to turn to?

    • Matt,

      I hate to say it, but I think City and Pellegrini are in trouble. With De Jong long gone and Barry on loan, Javi Garcia and Fernandinho injured, and Toure suspended, they are oh so short on central midfielders that they look kinda like Real Madrid from the Vanderlei era!

      I think he’ll have to stick with the 4-2-2-2 with Milner and Demichelis playing center mid. Ugggh. Still better than Gravesen and Guti, but not by much.

  2. Gotta admit I didn’t read the whole article but I’ll make a crotchety point nonetheless. Raul was not “in his prime” come 2005-6 and hadn’t been so since about 2003. Didn’t he only score like 5 goals one of those seasons? Yet his starting place was unquestioned. He was everything that was wrong with Real in those years. I reckon Owen scored at a much better ratio that year and yet when he expressed his frustration Raul gave pompous response about how “I guess we can see who wants to play for Real Madrid and who doesn’t. It was around the time I read that asshole, pampered quote that I started to hate him and by extension, Real Madrid. (He was great until 2004, to be fair.)

    • Marty,

      for me a player’s prime is based on age, generally 26 until 32. You are right that Raul’s peak was probably around 2002, but he was still fit and in fine form.

      Also, I love the Owen debate, even if it’s a decade old almost :) The proper comparison is not Raul, a hardworking forward who drops into midfield, with Owen – it’s the aging Ronaldo who was very Owen-esque in how he hung off a defender’s shoulder. I still can’t decide – Ronaldo scored lots of goals. I do think that Real was foolish to sell Owen (and not Ronaldo), but let’s not forget how Raul thrived alongside Ruud once both Ronnie/Owen were gone.