There has been a lot of talk concerning Nick Montgomery’s use of 442 since arriving at Hibs. While there weren't too many complaints when he first arrived and shook things up, as results and performances began to dwindle, more and more supporters began to question and criticise the shape.

The recent home game against  St Mirren was the last straw and there was a notable shift in set-up against Celtic in the next match. Montgomery opted for a 4231 and although the game ended in defeat, the performance was very encouraging. Since then Hibs are unbeaten, winning away to Inverness CT in the Scottish Cup and picking up eight out of a possible twelve points in league games against Aberdeen, Dundee, Hearts, and Ross County.

The recent Edinburgh derby performance produced our highest Expected Goals (xG) this season, a game we really should have won. This was sandwiched in between two back-to-back home wins against Dundee and Ross County put us back into contention for a top-six finish. 

I thought I’d take a bit of a deep dive into the 442 set-up and explain why we are better suited to the 4231, especially after our January recruitment. 

Before we start, it is important to set some ground rules for a discussion about formations and tactics. Nowadays, it is becoming more apparent that managers don’t want to discuss specific set-ups and shapes, but would prefer to talk about ‘controlling space’ and adapting to their opponents in-game to cause the most disruption and create better attacking opportunities.

So a shape or set-up can be misleading because teams may change how they attack throughout a game but out of possession, shapes are usually clear to see and against different teams, you will notice that sometimes we will press quite high and be aggressive while in other games we may sit back and try to be hard to break down while looking to counter-attack. 

In this piece, I will refer to the change between 442 and 4231, which is the way I see it. 

Throughout the article and accompanying videos, I will break down the set-up, how we play out from the back, midfield rotations, how we attack, and what we do out of possession. 

Why go with 442?

Nick Montgomery would be the man to ask but we know he favoured a 442 set-up with Central Coast Mariners and rarely deviated from this set-up and when he did, not by much. It is simple, easy to coach and implement and provides a good defensive cover of the pitch. It naturally funnels attacks into the wide areas, keeping things tight in the middle of the pitch. Hibs' set-up promoted the idea of a 244 when we were attacking, with the full-backs pushing up to support and our central midfielders forming a square with the centre-backs to deal with any counter-attacks. 

442 - Building from the Back

When playing out from the back in any shape, the initial aim is to make the pitch as big as possible. Montgomery pushed Jordan Obita and Lewis Miller high, which should force the opposition wingers deep, disjointing them from their pressing centre-forward (i.e. making the distance too big to effectively join the press). Montgomery positions our centre-backs on the corners of the six-yard box, forming a box shape with the two central midfielders and goalkeeper. This creates a 5 v 1 against the opposition's striker, the opposing team's first line of pressure. The wingers can stay high and wide but usually, they narrow and come inside the pitch - ideally looking for the ball directly from the centre-backs. The wingers become essential, if not critical, to getting the ball forward and for the ball to stick. Before January, this responsibility fell to Élie Youan and Jair Tavares, who I think found this part of the role extremely challenging. They were asked to continually find space and hold up the ball, make a quick combination, and then join the attack. When they struggled, we ended up going long - which we weren’t quite set up for, leading to Dylan Vente running aimlessly and a turnover in possession. 

One of the two centre-forwards should drop deeper to support the build-up and receive a ball to feet, whilst the other aims to pin and stretch the opposition centre-backs. Josh Campbell, Martin Boyle, Adam Le Fondre, Youan and even Vente were all tried with little success. Le Fondre looked our best fit, with his movement and link-up play, but his injury ruled him out for a few months. It then became a case of square pegs in round holes, which meant we struggled to develop any real consistency with that second striker position. For example, Campbell would naturally be able to drop back into the midfield and do his defensive work but struggled with the attacking part of the role. Youan and Boyle would take up good attacking positions and make good runs but would struggle defensively, meaning Vente would drop back in, taking him away from his main role. However, January would see the arrival of a true number ten and that signing would be part of a change in fortunes for us - more on that later.

442 - Attacking Structures and Rotations 

The 442 set-up is really about creating triangles to keep the ball and move it forward. The centre-backs need to step forward with the ball, driving forward into the half spaces and creating overloads in the wide areas. To do that, one of Joe Newell, Jimmy Jeggo or Dylan Levitt needed to drop in between the centre-backs or to the left or right of them and create a back three. This opens more spaces for the wide players and it allows them to see the game in front of them, rather than receiving the ball under pressure in tight areas. Receiving the ball under pressure, back to goal, was still an important role for our central midfielders, as they would need to play bounce passes back to the centre-backs to start the opposition press or play around the corner to the full-backs to progress the attack.

Opposite-side wingers and full-backs need to stay wide for a switch of play. Either can be the widest option. Miller, at times, would come inside to allow Boyle wide - this works as Boyle is quick and pacy. But on the left, it makes more sense for Obita to be our widest option as Jair and Youan are arguably more effective inside. And again, you're relying on one of your strikers dropping deep and trying to link the play while the other runs in behind and stretches. At times, I felt we looked too rigid in possession; there was a lack of movement and rotations and that forced us long, or forced us back. 

442 - Out of Possession

We were somewhere between a high-pressing / mid-block team. As previously mentioned, the aim of the 442 out of possession is to force the ball wide: keep the spaces between the units tight, and stop the ball from going through the lines. I always felt out of possession we looked okay, but we weren’t able to maintain our high pressing in the second half and at times we were caught between high-pressing and a mid-block. This meant that spaces appeared and our opponents were able to get the ball between the lines and cause us problems. Because most teams play with a midfield three, we were often outnumbered in the middle, unless the supporting striker or number ten dropped back into the midfield to support. This was a mixed economy depending on who played the role. In addition, without a natural ten there can be a disconnect between the midfield and attack that can lead to fewer passing options in the build-up and middle to final third. 

Why shift to a 4231?

We could get lost in the debate of 442 vs 4231, but after that home defeat to St Mirren, we began to get key players back from international duty (Miller, Boyle and Rocky Bushiri) and got more minutes into the legs of our new signings (Myziane Maolida, Emiliano Marcondes, and Nathan Moriah-Welsh). This was very important as things then shifted to getting the right players in the right positions and, with the greatest respect, better players in the right positions. 

However, it’s worth looking at the set-up. It’s adaptable and gives you good attacking and defensive coverage across the pitch. The two holding midfielders give good balance and the centre forward is supported by two wingers and the number 10. Overall, the set-up feels more ‘connected’ but as many will point out, it doesn’t look too different from a 442, aside from the positioning of the number ten and the wingers. 

Drawbacks of a 4231?

We rely on our full-backs and wingers being involved in our attacks, therefore a vulnerability is being caught on the counter-attack down the flanks (similar to a 442). The defensive solidity also depends on the discipline and quality of the two deep-lying midfielders and there is some potential for the lone striker to become isolated - which has sometimes been the case for Vente. Finally, despite how connected the formation looks, if you don’t move the ball quickly or have effective rotations with the wingers, striker and number ten, it can feel very congested and flat. 

4231 - Building from the Back

I haven’t noticed any major changes to how we play out from the back. We still set up the same way and our centre-backs look to play forward into our inverted wingers or our full-backs. With Emiliano, he is often dictating and leading the rotations across the front line and I think his presence, along with Myziane, has been the biggest impact. He drops into little pockets of space and more importantly, uses his body well to protect the ball, allowing others to get forward as well as progress our attacks.

Myziane is similar. He gets into the little half-spaces between the midfield and defence, taking the ball under pressure, rolling his defender and switching the play. Having players like Myziane and Emiliano helps the players in possession, most notably the centre-backs and our two deep-lying midfielders. Myziane and Emiliano attract players to them, freeing up space elsewhere, allowing Levitt, Newell or Moriah-Welsh to switch the play or play forward. 

4231 - Attacking Structure and Rotations 

Once we are in the opposition half, Emiliano and Myziane‘s quality and expertise take hold. Their ability to find and exploit space has been crucial to our recent uptick in performances and results. We still attack in the same way, trying to get the ball from our centre-backs into our inverted wingers, getting our full-backs high and attacking the goal as quickly as possible.

When we can't break through, we go back and rely on Newell, Levitt, Moriah-Welsh or Luke Amos to be able to get on the ball quickly and switch the play. Therefore, Miller and Obita as the full-backs must stay wide.

4231 - Out of Possession

With Emiliano dropping back in and supporting the midfield, we look more solid and more difficult to break down. Everyone else who played that number ten role struggled with either the defensive or attacking demands.

Emiliano can do both, allowing Levitt, Newell, Moriah-Welsh or Amos to be braver and more aggressive when trying to win the ball back. We still look to force teams wide, but if teams get inside, we are better placed to win possession back and counter-attack.

So is it the formation, the players, or a bit of both?

After reviewing many of our games, which involved looking at our average positions and comparing them to our most recent games, I do believe there has been a subtle shift in our shape: we are now a more defined 4231 with Emiliano transforming us with how he plays in that number ten role. He can drop into the midfield and compete, supporting our deeper central midfielders and going forward, he combines effectively with Boyle, Myziane and Vente.

The return of Boyle and acquisition of Myziane has been crucial; they both offer different abilities on either flank and our attack looks more potent with them in it. Emiliano’s discipline and positioning out of possession also help our wide players as he drops back in, strengthening our midfield and allowing our deeper midfielders to push out and support. 

Many supporters feel we were already playing a variation on 4231 before the Celtic game and it has just been the personnel that has made the difference but for me, it’s a little bit of both. 

We got players back from international duty, recruited incredibly well and tweaked the roles and responsibilities of our players and Montgomery is reaping the rewards. All in all, the debate around shapes and formations will probably be long forgotten if we continue to improve performances, pick up results and secure our place in the top six. We’ve given ourselves a chance and are moving in the right direction.