Once ubiquitous, the 4-4-2 has fallen somewhat out of vogue in the modern game, its place as the default formation usurped by the 4-2-3-1 currently employed by Stefano Pioli’s Fiorentina. Whilst no longer the go-to for the word’s best teams, a well-implemented 4-4-2 can still help a middling team carve out a niche that their opponents will struggle to adjust to, which is exactly what Fiorentina should be looking to do this season.
Where 4-4-2 excels is with its versatility, having a target man and second striker allows for talented distributors such as Davide Astori or Milan Badelj to advance play quickly, whilst the two strikers provide targets in the box for the wide players to find.
This style of play, whilst perhaps not the most aesthetically appealing, suits the current options up top far better than any other formation. 6’3” Cyril Thereau is predictably reliable in the air, having won 3.8 aerial duels a game since joining Fiorentina this season, good for joint second in the league, and possesses the quality on the ball to release a runner whilst holding up play. Less immediately obvious is the aerial prowess of Giovanni Simeone and Khouma Babacar, who finished joint fourth in terms of goals headed in, behind Kalinic, Icardi, and Belotti. Babacar’s strength and knack for being in the right place at the right time, and Simeone’s explosiveness and timing are valuable assets that aren’t fully exploited by having either as a lone striker. A pair of Thereau and Simeone would cause problems for a defense, who’d have to deal with the physical presence of Thereau and still cover Simeone’s runs, whilst Babacar’s holistic talents make him a suitable second option for either role.
Though it’s critics note that teams playing 4-4-2 often cede the centre of the pitch to their opponents, and in particular against teams with particularly talented central attacking midfielders invite a lot of pressure, Fiorentina’s high line means that Astori often finds himself in the space traditionally occupied by a defensive midfielder naturally, mitigating the risks of having just two central midfielders.
Fiorentina also have natural rotations for the central midfield pairing. Badelj is well-suited to lying deep, collecting the ball from the defense, and finding men in space, whilst Benassi could occupy a more adventurous role finding space and linking up play in the opposition third. Off the bench, Veretout is a talented enough player to challenge for Benassi’s place, and Carlos Sanchez can do a job against the lesser teams in Serie A, though he has looked out of his depth against classier opposition.
The biggest issue la Viola would face with a move to 4-4-2 would be the fit of wide players. Federico Chiesa is more suited to playing as an inverted winger, cutting inside to create chances, rather than beating his man and floating a ball in. Gil Dias is much the same, and in fact has yet to play a single cross this season. However, neither of the young wingers have yet shown themselves to be consistent enough to justify building around their weaknesses, and instead should be challenged by Pioli to develop their ability to create chances out wide. In the meantime, Valentin Eysseric can operate as a more traditional left midfielder.
Another potential issue regarding fit is Riccardo Saponara, whose weak defensive contribution, deft touch, and eye for a killer ball make him make him a natural CAM. If Saponara can keep fit, then fitting him into a 4-4-2 would prove a headache, but until he proves he can stay healthy, planning around him is a mistake.