The return of 4-4-2 to La Liga in 2019/20 – tactical analysis
For the first time in many years, 4-4-2 has returned as La Liga’s formation of choice in 2019/20. After years of domination from 4-3-3, which is still the case in the big teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid, only two La Liga sides did not use 4-4-2 as one of their three most used formations in 2019/20, with more than half using the formation as their first choice more than any other shape.
What’s more, is that it has brought consistency to La Liga in terms of tactics. The six La Liga sides who were most consistent in their tactical shape all boasted 4-4-2 as their primary formation, with three different sides using it for more than 80% of minutes played.
This tactical analysis will look at this tactical approach and how this strategy is used by La Liga teams. The analysis of these tactics will provide insight into how different La Liga teams have deployed 4-4-2 in 2019/20, featuring the likes of Atlético Madrid, Getafe, Villarreal, Levante, Eibar and Alavés.
Asymmetrical midfield set-ups
An asymmetrical midfield four is a key element when we look at 4-4-2 and how it is deployed in Spain. This lies in an approach where a midfield unit is highly structured, allowing only one wide midfielder freedom to push forward into attack, with the opposite winger drifting into a more central or defensive-minded role.
Two of the best examples lie in sides who focus defensively, Atlético Madrid and Getafe, who have clear tactical philosophies under Diego Simeone and José Bordálas. Javi Calleja also deployed a similar approach, albeit with a less structured and more fluid system, at Villarreal as they climbed up the table into Europa League spots following the restart. As can be seen here, particularly in the case of Atlético Madrid, one wide midfielder plays in a more advanced position.
As can be seen here, Atlético provide a good example. Koke plays on the right, with usually either him or Saúl operating as the narrow wide midfielder. Thomas Lemar is on the left and has more freedom, allowing him more time to get back into a deeper defensive position as his team track brack. This works well for these two teams given the offensive options they have, such as Lemar or Ángel Correa in the case of Atlético.
In Getafe’s case, the approach is slightly different. While they use the same asymmetrical approach, they regularly chose to have Marc Cucurella, leading the high press, on the left, and make-shift wide midfielder Allan Nyom, traditionally a right-back. Here, Nyom can drop into a back five at times against superior opposition, and also drifts centrally as is the case with Atlético.
This approach provides more of a defensive stability and flexibility which is key to the approach of both Bordálas and Simeone. This means that for these two teams, 4-4-2 offers the most appropriate formation and is one which rarely varies, even in-game.
Very narrow central duo
Other sides do offer more width, but look to rely upon their central midfielders in the middle. Wingers play in a more narrow position, but are more advanced, with full-backs almost level to the central midfielders but not pushing beyond. This reflects where teams see their play dictated by central midfielders, hence why two of the best examples come from Levante and Villarreal, where their strongest players play in central roles.
A good example can be seen here with the case of Levante. José Luis Campana is a regular with either Enis Bardhi or Gonzalo Melero usually being the player to line-up alongside him in a very narrow midfield two. They look to block off the central areas and force teams into attacking them wide. Particularly when defending, they remain narrow to prevent central playmakers from finding space, in this case also preventing Leganés’ forwards from dropping deep to get involved in the game. This approach looks to control the middle of the field without relying on a numbers overload with a three man midfield.
Villarreal operate in a similar way. Here, we see more variation in central positions. This comes as Santi Cazorla and Vicente Iborra would play more varying roles. Iborra would typically sit into a deeper role, with Cazorla pushing on into a more advanced role. In this way, Villarreal can almost reflect a 4-1-3-2 at times. This change from Javi Calleja, particularly after the arrival of Paco Alcácer allowed him to play with two up-front, was an intriguing one. However, with Unai Emery’s arrival, the departure of Cazorla and the arrival of Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin, that shape could change ahead of 2020/21.
4-4-2 or 4-2-4?
The other option which is used by some teams is to have very advanced wingers, almost always operating in a system which involves a high press. This is the case with Eibar in particular, while Alavés also deploy a similar approach with a slightly different strategy. In some cases, the 4-4-2 can almost look like a 4-2-4 as these wingers push on so high that their average position can almost be alongside the strikers.
Eibar are the clearest example. When in possession, Eibar’s wingers act as an extension of the front two, rather than as an extension of the midfield. As can be seen in the below example, wingers like Takashi Inui or Pablo de Blasis will drift into central areas while a striker moves wide, opening space for the wide man to attack while the full-back provides the ball from wide. In fact, even when out of possession, they play a crucial role in the high press which means that they pressure full-backs, while the centre-forwards occupy the goalkeeper and central defenders.
Alavés operate slightly differently, with their positioning taking place deeper without such a high press. However, their wingers, like Oliver Burke, Aleix Vidal, Borja Sainz and Luis Rioja, push up into a more advanced role and are used frequently in the transition to progress the ball forward. This kind of movement is crucial to Alavés’ game plan, sticking to a wider position but driving the attack through their high positioning.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two sides who have most shifted away from this formation and 4-3-3 has been their style of choice for over a decade now. The famous attacking tridents of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale typify this shape. As these players have aged and moved on, these teams have stuck to the same tactical system, even as they now begin to consider alternatives.
However, this season has also seen both of these sides trial 4-4-2 at different times. Early on in the campaign, it even looked as though Zinedine Zidane was seriously considering it for his Real Madrid team. The signing of Luka Jović saw experiments early on in the season alongside Benzema in a front two, with two wingers making the shape similar to a 4-2-4 when in possession. This allowed Real Madrid to overload effectively, but the poor connection between Jović and Benzema, with Benzema’s movement keeping him fluid while Jović stayed on the last man, and the Serbian’s poor form meant that it has not become a regular feature. Instead, a 4-4-2 at the Bernabéu has instead allowed the likes of Isco into the team, acting as a second striker in a shape which was often more akin to a 4-2-3-1.
Barcelona have acted similarly. With a shallow squad and few wide options in attack, both Ernesto Valverde and Quique Setién have trialled a diamond midfield which operates with four central midfielders behind a front two of Messi and one other, usually Suárez when fit. This has allowed Barcelona to dominate possession more easily, but has also contributed to their problems of struggling to break down teams who defend in low blocks. Without width or pace in attack, Barcelona’s play has become turgid as Jordi Alba and Nelson Semedo struggle to be as clinical when moving forward down the flanks. 4-4-2 at Camp Nou has been an option almost forced upon both coaches due to the players available to them, without ever being the solution to Barcelona’s struggles.
Only two sides didn’t register 4-4-2 among their three most frequently used formations in 2019/20: Sevilla and Real Sociedad. 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 have dominated for these two teams, although in different order of preference.
In the case of Real Sociedad, their preferred 4-2-3-1 can often resemble a 4-4-2. It is perhaps surprising that at no point Imanol Alguacil trialed a 4-4-2 given the good form of both Willian José and Alexander Isak, particularly late on in the season, but he has stuck to his preferred shape throughout the campaign. Portu has provided a key role, acting as an offensive midfielder, interchanging with Martin Ødegaard as the more attacking central figure providing support to a lone striker.
Sevilla also avoid a 4-4-2, primarily due to the fact that their squad is not built for such a system. In Luuk de Jong and Yousseff En-Nesyri, two target men striker who would struggle to connect if playing together, Julen Lopetegui does not have any further options in attack, other than wide men like Lucas Ocampos or Munir El Haddadi. As such, Lopetegui almost always sticks to a one-man attack, or a front three, often choosing to overload the midfield or defence in central areas so as to afford more width and freedom to his marauding full-backs.
Many teams have enjoyed success through their approach this season with 4-4-2 once again coming back into fashion in Spain. The trend has also spread to Segunda, where again the majority of teams have stuck to this formation. 4-4-2 has once again established itself within Spain as a valid choice, even for teams at the very top of the league.
What will be most intriguing, in terms of the future of this formation as the leading one within Spain, will be the approaches taken by Javi Gracia at Valencia and Emery at Villarreal. Both are strong sides pushing for Europe and even the top four, but have made changes in the dug-out and in their squads this summer. Whether the new players they bring in will fit into the same system will be intriguing to follow, with a switch to a Real Sociedad or Sevilla style 4-2-3-1 perhaps more likely, only further inviting the idea that 4-4-2 will remain limited to a few sides towards midtable and fighting against the drop.