The standard 4-4-2 employs four fullbacks, four midfielders, and two attacking players. Among the fullbacks, two are center halves (playing together in central defense) and two are wide defenders to the right and left of the center halves. In a standard 4-4-2, the outside fullbacks can play even with the center halves (a "flat" back four) or in more advanced positions than the center halves. The four midfielders are arranged in a diamond shape with one holding midfielder (the "6") in the space in front of the center halves, two wide midfielders (right and left), and one attacking central midfielder (the "10") in the most advanced midfield position. The two forwards play to the right and left in the most advanced positions on the field, rarely in very wide areas.
The 4-4-2 generally is used by more conservative, defense- or possession-minded teams. In the attack, the forwards make runs into attacking spaces and try to exploit gaps in the opposing defense. The attacking central midfielder (the "10") is the focal point of the attack, serving as a target for the other midfielders and the fullbacks and as the primary distributor for the forwards. The outside midfielders work closely with the attacking and holding midfielders to maintain possession and to move the attack from the fullbacks to the forwards. Wider outside midfielders often make attacking runs to increase pressure on opposing defenders and to cross balls into the box. The holding central midfielder (the "6") is the primary distributor when moving the ball from defense to attack. The holding midfielder often dictates the focal point of the attack moving forward. The center halves serve as support in the attack. Like the holding midfielder, the center halves often work to move the focus of the attack in possession. The outside fullbacks are responsible for widening the field in order to open as much space as possible for the attack by moving into very wide positions. Outside fullbacks in a 4-4-2 tend to play somewhat less wide than the more aggressive outside fullbacks in a 4-3-3. Occasionally, the outside fullbacks make attacking runs along the wings to add more options for the attack, to send crosses into the box, and to put more pressure on the opposing defense.
When played well, the 4-4-2 is an effective formation for maintaining possession and limiting the aggressiveness and possession of the opposition. Because not as many players are committed into advanced positions as frequently, the 4-4-2 is not as vulnerable to counterattacks as the 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 promotes creativity between the forwards as they have a great deal of freedom of movement, often switching from one side to the other or sliding behind and in front of each other.
Because it is a more conservative formation, the 4-4-2 doesn't provide as many scoring chances as the 4-3-3.
When to Employ the 4-4-2
The 4-4-2 is effective for teams seeking to limit the possession and scoring opportunities of their opponents. A highly-skilled player in the "10" and intelligent, creative, and speedy forwards can make the conservative 4-4-2 a strong attacking formation.
Derivatives of the Standard 4-4-2
The 4-1-4-1 is a version of the 4-4-2 used by more aggressive teams. The fullbacks are in the same positions and have the same responsibilities as in the standard 4-4-2. The midfielders and forward in a 4-1-4-1 are arranged in a large diamond shape with a holding midfielder at the base, a center forward at the top, and wide midfielders at the sides. The two midfielders in the center of the diamond move interchangeably and serve as the focal points for the attack. The 4-1-4-1 features frequent passing in tight spaces and, when played well, maximizes the possession benefit of the standard 4-4-2 but in a more advanced position on the field.
The 4-1-3-2 is a more aggressive form of the standard 4-4-2. In the attack, the wide midfielders play higher up the field, even with the attacking central midfielder. The diamond shape of the midfielders in a 4-4-2 becomes a "T" shape in the 4-1-3-2. The 4-1-3-2 is used by teams with a highly-skilled player in the holding midfield ("6") position.