Understanding The 4-4-2

Picking a formation in Football Manager can be a daunting task at times, do you go with the unknown and try a 343 and be a bit adventurous or do you stick to the good old 442. The reason why so many people use 442 is because it’s familiar and always a safe bet for any side to use, its also very flexible and allows you to change into other systems during a match if you need to shake things up a bit. Another reason why the 442 is so popular is because of the balance between defending and scoring, you can create a very solid 442 that is tight at the back but lethal when going forward. There are many types of 442 and variations of the system though so what I’ll do is outline them below and give a brief overview of their strengths and weakness.

A Flat 442



  • Plenty of width and general wide play from the wingers
  • Two solid banks of 4
  • Cover down the flanks
  • Doubling up down the flanks both in defensive phases and attacking phases of play
  • The 4-4-2 can change into many different tactics which can add different kinds of aggression to your play


  • You can get out numbered in the centre
  • No real DMC cover
  • Vulnerable to quick counter attacking tactics that can focus on direct balls behind the two MC’s
  • Strikers can get isolated from the other 8 outfield players at times
  • Strikers can also be found too far apart and not able to link up cohesively at times

This is the more neutral focused 442 that concentrates on the defending and attacking ability of your team, this is a very good starting point for any side to see what you’re team is capable of. This type of formation should produce a fair amount of goals as well as keeping it very tight at the back if set up correctly. The wingers in this formation are vital for providing crosses into the box for your strikers. A lot of people also like to play one attacking midfielder and one defensive midfielder to make it a lot more balanced.




  • Numbers in the centre and the protection of a DMC
  • Can become really compact and tight defensively
  • Plenty of attacking intent especially with the AMC
  • Rampaging full backs to provide the width


  • Lack of players on the flanks
  • The team is vulnerable to fast changes of play and can get caught out of position especially if the opposition use the width of the pitch
  • Too narrow at times
  • Full backs can get exposed or even doubled up on

The 442 diamond normally consists of a flat back four, two central midfielder, a defensive midfielder, an attacking midfielder and 2 strikers. This set-up is very dependant on your fullbacks as they will be responsible for getting forward at every opportunity available because you have no wingers. So at times if the fullbacks are struggling to get forward you might find your strikers could get isolated for periods in the game. The wings can be a problem area at times, especially if you’re playing against two very good wingers as they will have lots of space and time on the ball. If you do use this formation ensure that your fullbacks are good going forward but extremely good at defending duties too

Diamond Wide



  • Plenty of width and general wide play from the wingers
  • Cover down the flanks
  • Able to create overlaps in attacking phases of play
  • Has a DMC for protection to the back four


  • Lack of central players can mean lots of space in the centre for the opposition to really grab hold of the game.
  • Struggle to play any kind of possession game due to lack of central players
  • Can sometimes be very one dimensional play
  • Strikers and the AMC can find themselves isolated if the wide players can’t provide the required support

Unlike the diamond one above, this set-up does have wingers and is a good system to use if you want to use overlapping full backs (these are explained further down). The vital part of this formation is the attacking midfielder’s position and the defensive midfielder. The attacking midfielder will have both attacking and defensive duties; if he does not track players back when your side is not in possession of the ball then you will have a huge gap in middle of the park. This can cause big problems as your defensive midfielder will then move forward to try and win the ball and if he doesn’t win it your defence will have all sorts of problems to deal with.

Understanding The Basic Principles

It’s vital that whatever formation you use that you learn what the strengths and weaknesses are as this can be a deciding factor in what kind of style you are trying to create at the club. By understanding the strengths and weakness it should allow you to eliminate a few of the available roles for certain positions depending on how passive or aggressive you want to be in the set up. Not only that but it’ll allow you to quickly identify the issues you might face when playing certain formations. For example if you use the flat 4-4-2 and come across a formation that uses an attacking midfielder, then you’ll know you need to make sure he is picked up by the midfield or he’ll have lots of unguarded space to play in just in front of your back four. I know it sounds really simple but something like making one of the midfielders man mark or making them less attacking to deal with the threat can be the difference between a good or a bad result.


The fullbacks are one of the main strengths of this shape as you can have many different types of full backs in this shape. Some of them are; overlapping fullbacks who are very offensive minded and provide a very attacking option to the team.. Another way is to make them mark the opponent’s forwards or wingers. These players have to be dependable and willing to give up any kind of offensive play as they will be very defensive minded so don’t expect them to contribute on attacks. A third way to get them to work would be to have them work with the wingers (not overlapping though) and get forward to get crosses into the box at every chance possible for your strikers. The fourth way is more of a mixture between attacking and defending, the settings of this specific way really depends on how neutral you want to be, a good idea would to be to not over do it on the player instructions as that is more neutral.

One thing to keep an eye on when viewing this formation in the match engine is to make sure your defence isn’t sat too deep watching the game and are basically spectating. As this can cause players to either switch off or allows a gap to appear between the defence and midfield making it harder to work as a unit. So if you feel this is happening in your game then try and do something about it by either pushing the defensive line up or using different roles or duties.

Ideally the full backs should be supporting and joining the midfield regardless of what type of football you are playing. This will then allow the wide midfield players to bomb forward and make runs down the flanks. This is a very important part of the 4-4-2 because it uses width and the wide men need to provide the support to the strikers. If this doesn’t happen then the game can be a struggle.


A sweeper can be used in any formation or system but is mainly used for a back three rather than a back four and is mainly used in real life by the Italians. For this type of system to work you need the sweeper to be very good for the level that he is currently playing at. If he is not then it simply will not work how it should and be more of weakness that a strength. A sweeper in the DC position on FM isn’t allowed (unless its announced in FM15 remember I am writing this in advance so ignore this if its changed) so if you did use one it would be behind a central defender on the formation screen rather than in-line with him.

The stopper/cover combo can be really good too but there is a downside to using this. If you use this combo and you face a team with a striker who drops off or an attacking midfielder who pushed us this can make your defence vulnerable at times due to the stopper pushing up to deal with the threat or dropping off to follow the deep striker. This will then mean a gap appears between both your centre backs so you have to be visually aware of late runners or through balls because they can really expose you. I personally favour the stopper/cover combo against long strikers for this very reason.

The Sweeper and Stopper systems are very similar and from a positional sense can look the exact same, but it’s what they do that makes them different. You have the sweeper set to where he’ll push up and mop up any balls that the defenders in front of him cannot deal with and does what the name “sweeper” suggest and sweeps up any mistakes your front defenders might make. Were as the stopper system uses his marking to either mark a striker or a central attacking midfielder of the opposing team. Plus he is expected to play quick and early balls to your midfield to start early counter attacks.


The midfield of a 442 formation can be very variable indeed; you can play a flat four midfielders which is very stable and safe. You can use two wingers, one attacking midfielder and one defensive/wide midfielder which are a common thing on Football Manager to do. Or instead of using two wingers you can bring them in to the middle of the pitch so you have two central midfielders. This way makes you a lot narrower but is good if you have very attacking fullbacks who like to venture forward. You can also use two wingers and two defensive midfielders if you wanted to as well. There are also lots of other ways like using a flat three midfielders with one defensive midfielder behind them.

In a 4-4-2 formation, it is common to have one defensive midfielder and another whose job is to get forward and join the strikers in the penalty area.

The defensive midfielder is charged with breaking up opposition attacks, and when the team is on the back foot, act as an extra member of the defence. Most good teams have a player capable of screening the defence, acting as an insurance policy should the team surrender possession. Three of the best defensive midfielders currently in the game are Michael Essien, Javier Mascherano and Yaya Toure. It is players such as these that allow the team’s more attacking players to push forward.

The other midfielder still has defensive responsibilities, especially when his team does not have possession. But it is key that he gets forward to support the strikers when the team have the ball, otherwise there is a risk that the front men would lack support, particularly if the wingers are not of the required quality.

More attack-minded managers may opt to have two midfielders who go forward, particularly against weaker teams, but it is considered the norm to field one more defensively-minded player.

If a manager is looking to surprise the opposition, he may tell his midfielders to take turns in going forward.

Defensive Midfielder

One of the more popular 442 systems to use is one that implements a defensive midfielder. This offers extra cover in front of the back four and when used right you should find the opposition’s chances can be limited to longer ranged efforts as playing against a back 4 and a defensive midfielder can be very hard to break down if you stay compact. This is an extremely useful set-up if you need to keep clean sheets and dominate the game in the midfield areas.

The defensive midfielders job is to break up play and distribute the ball up field as quick as possible or hold onto the ball and wait until a clear cut pass arises, however holding onto the ball for too long can cause problems especially if he loses possession from dwelling on the ball. Remember though that using one of these in this shape can take something away from the tactic in an attacking sense especially in terms of support from the centre. It’s about finding the right balance between defending and attacking so keep a close eye on the game and the stats so you have a real understanding of how the game is actually going.

Wingers/Wide/Defensive Midfielders

The wide men are vital for providing support to the strikers and will be one of the main sources of your attacking threat. If not then maybe you might be best using a different shape as the 4-4-2 (a flat one obviously) is width dependant. They will provide crosses, runs from deep, run at the defence, cut inside and even score goals depending on what you use and the settings they have. You have many varied roles to choose from and player instructions that can make the roles even more varied and custom tailored to suit your needs. As you’ll likely not have much support from the central players in terms to continually supporting through the centre this means you have to be aware of how your wide men are playing and what they are doing in a game. if someone is playing badly then don’t stand by and watch it happening either sub them or try a different role. If you use the analysis tab you should be able to see why they might be doing poor.

Attacking Midfielder

Another popular choice on the Football Manager series is the use of an attacking midfielder. A lot of people use this system and play through the attacking midfielder letting him get forward and create chances. A free role can work well in this position for the correct player as it allows him the licence to roam and wander looking for the ball so this would be a role like the Treq. However if you play through the attacking midfielder the opposition might soon see this and make it incredibly difficult for you to get the ball to him or are closing him down heavily.  If you see this happening then try and find out why its happening and again change the role or the player. If its a case of the opposition not allowing him time on the ball then changing the player is not likely to help so I’d focus more on the role of the player and give him something else that either makes him play higher or drops deeper in the hope it gives him the space needed.


As for the strikers in a 442 formation you have a lot of options and variable partnerships you could use. It is common in this system to have one striker playing high up the field capable of holding the ball up and laying it off to his partner. This player furthest up the field is often a big target man, with the physical strength to hold off defenders and bring his team mates into play or someone more pacey who can push the defensive line high up the pitch making it harder for them to pick up the striker who dropped off the front.

But the front two does not have to comprise a big man and another striker running off him. Often teams choose to deploy a withdrawn striker, capable of playing in the ‘hole’ (the area behind the main striker) and using his creative skills to set up those around him, primarily his strike partner. Former Netherlands international Dennis Bergkamp was a prime example of this type of player.

If you opt to field a creative player in the ‘hole,’ the formation transforms into a 4-4-1-1.

Whichever front two combination you choose to field, the player who is not a big target man or a withdrawn creative player, is likely to be a goalscorer, with the nous to sniff out and score chances in and around the penalty area.

You can play anything really as it really does depend on how you’ve set up elsewhere on the pitch and were the support will come from. But the above are some of the more popular ways to play. So the next time you set up and attempt to use a 4-4-2 remember to decide how you want to play and try and choose the roles that compliment this way of playing.

5 thoughts on “Understanding The 4-4-2”

  1. Excellent stuff (as always) Cleon – just subscribed and I look forward to more help with FM in the future…I’m dipping in and out of ’15 at the moment as I can never leave my two mammoth ’13 saves alone for too long (2114/15 & 2120/21) it looks like 442 is a very popular starting point at the moment possibly due to their use at the two Madrid clubs, will you be looking to evolve towards something like the Yorkshireman Libero or a similar back three in the future?

    1. I’ll probably end up using a 2 or 3 at the back system and that is the long term goal for when I hit the top leagues. But I don’t really have anything specific planned, I’m hoping I get a player who inspires me or maybe read something that makes me want to try it. I will definitely have a starting point and an end goal that I’ll be looking to achieve tactically 🙂

  2. I’m hoping you’ll do something on the 3-5-2 (and other 3-at-the-back variants) soon. I’ve always been able to knock together a decent 4-4-2, but I really want to create a 3-5-2 that works and I’m finding it quite a challenge at the moment.

    My main problems seem to be:
    1. Protecting the gap in front of the defensive line without stringing the midfielders out vertically
    2. Getting width in attack without leaving myself vulnerable down the sides of my defence.
    3. Solving #1 by switching to a 3-3-2-1-1 and then leaving my striker stranded.

    Any advice would be gratefully received!

    1. It can be tricky to get the balance right at times. Do you watch games in full? It will help to give you a proper ideas of what the players are actually doing and highlight both the strength and weakness of the shape you use. With regards to the questions you asked;

      1. What have you tried to combat this? Have you thought about pushing the d-line up to bring defence and midfield closer together? I also find a CM on defend can defend the space well enough as they drop further back on FM15 compared to FM14.

      2. When attacking the width should be coming from the wingbacks. Are they not currently offering you that width? if you want width and to be less vulnerable then don’t use the complete wingback role as that’s quite aggressive and can lead to him being to advanced at times.

      3. If you have a lone striker then you need to ensure he gets the supply, so you have to bases his role around what the rest of the team is doing. Lets for example say your wingbacks are supplying crosses and two of the MC’s offer support on the edge of the oppositions box then the striker would more than likely benefit from being one that allows him to be attacking so he can actually get on the end of crosses. He shouldn’t be isolated as he’d have support from the MC’s. And so on, you really need to watch a few games and keep pausing it at random times to see how the players you are having issues with are actually playing and to see their movement as well as looking to see how they link up with the other players.

      1. Thanks for such a detailed reply!

        I’m playing this in an old FM11 save with Ternana in Serie C/B, but trying to apply your logic to it. I do watch matches in full, and I’m using the Zoomed Vertical Scrolling view to have a view of the action which mirrors the orientation of the tactics pitch most closely so I can best see how the team’s shape relates to the formation, roles and duties I have given the players.

        I don’t want to hijack your 4-4-2 post with discussion better suited to a 3-5-2 post, so if you’re likely to post one soon, I’ll hold off until the comments are more relevant…

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