There is no such thing as the perfect formation, system or tactics in football. However, there are tactical trends and ideas constantly being developed, tweaked and evolved each year.
The Premier League this season has seen several nuanced tactical ideas. Examples include Ange Postecoglu’s inverted full backs at Tottenham and West Ham’s effective transitional countering under coach David Moyes. Nevertheless, one tactical idea that seems to be quietly winning the most points is the 4-2-4, specifically being deployed at both Liverpool and Manchester City.
Liverpool’s current tactics
Liverpool this season is somewhat in a transitional phase, as coach Jürgen Klopp is slowly integrating not only new players but a new system. Liverpool havs dabbled with the box midfield formation this season, an innovative central overload from Trent Alexander-Arnold inverting from right-back. However, what has worked best for Liverpool this season, particularly when fighting back from a losing position, has been Klopp’s radical decision to switch to a 4-2-4 system.
Perhaps best highlighted in the recent 3-1 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers, during which Liverpool scored three unanswered second-half goals, Liverpool’s ability to flip a game on its head through the introduction of multiple attacking players is game-changing.
Naturally, not all teams are blessed with Liverpool’s depth in attacking options. However, the secret to the success of the 4-2-4 is its high intensity and unpredictability. For instance, the growing trend in recent seasons has been to build play from the back and play in central zones. The best example is Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and their success using a midfield box of four players.
This reliance on central areas has left the wide spaces open, and Liverpool has looked to exploit this. Two central forwards can occupy central defenders, which often leaves defending full backs isolated against dangerous wingers and overlapping full-backs. Furthermore, a 4-2-4 can press a backline aggressively and pin the opposition, either forcing the ball long or winning the ball in dangerous areas.
Klopp looks to have stumbled upon this formation to a degree, as he has often begun games in his traditional 4-3-3, before throwing caution to the wind and playing aggressively when losing. Nevertheless, it has worked well and players such as Darwin Núñez and Cody Gakpo have thrived up-front, whilst new midfield recruits such as MacAllister and Dominik Szoboszlai are effective midfield orchestrators. This tactical switch to a 4-2-4 may be something Klopp persists with as the season progresses.
Manchester City’s tactics this season
Manchester City, on the other hand, approaches the 4-2-4 from a different and more measured approach. Manchester City, naturally with Guardiola as their coach, has not stuck to one system, however, as the 4-2-4 approach is new to their arsenal. On paper, Manchester City has lined up this season in variations of a 4-2-3-1, but crucially, striker Julian Álvarez has been deployed as the number 10 behind Erling Haaland.
Often these two have played almost in line with each other, similar to how Klopp has played the likes of Gakpo and Nunez as two strikers, with Gakpo deployed slightly deeper. Similar to Liverpool, City doesn’t play in a flat 4-2-4, however. Unlike Liverpool, whose shape looks more of a 2-2-6 when the full-backs join the attack, City opts for a more central approach.
Manchester City’s 4-2-4
Guardiola remains tied to his box midfield and central overloads, and therefore often creates a 4-2-4 with one winger and one full-back, with the other winger, often Phil Foden, tucking into midfield. This provides more central passing lanes and more control than Liverpool’s approach, but the principles are largely the same: overloading opposing backlines with two central attackers, without compromising threats from wide areas.
This is exemplified by City’s decision to sign winger Jeremy Doku, who excels at beating his man in wide areas and is also capable on both wings. The success of this can also be seen in Álvarez’s numbers, as he has contributed seven goals in eight starts across all competitions, whilst Haaland’s rate of goals has remained outstanding.
The potential of the 4-2-4
So how has the 4-2-4 changed these two sides? For Liverpool, whether by decision or not, it has allowed Klopp to get the best out of his players whilst exploiting areas of the field currently underused in many opposition tactical set-ups. For Manchester City, it has added another bow to their string. Guardiola still has his preferred central protection, can play his two best finishers and new signings, and once again, exploit weaknesses in opposition defenses in wide areas.
Moreso for Guardiola, there is irony to his team exploiting opposition who are over-committed to central areas, as this was a trend he largely inspired. With both Liverpool and Manchester City utilizing the 4-2-4, and also through different approaches, this new tactical setup could well tee up a tightly run race for the Premier League title this season.