Football is a cyclical beast. Over the last century, we've seen formations rise and fall in line with the natural order of the game. New trends dispense with old ones and newer ones dispense with those.
A large part of a tactical analyst's interest is not only assessing what's taking off in the present, but also to preempt what will trend in the near future.
So with that, we ask the question: Could the rise of three at the back pave the way for the return of the 4-4-2?
The slow demise of two strikers
Is the 4-4-2 really gone? Not quite, but it's on it's way out.
This graphic, courtesy of WhoScored?, details the frequency of formations used across Europe's top leagues.
It's the third-most popular formation in England (the traditional bedding ground of the 4-4-2) and is used sparingly across Italy, Spain, Germany and France.
It's disintegrating before our very eyes, and only Sir Alex Ferguson is stubborn enough to make use of it out of the continent's top clubs.
As my colleague Will Tidey suggests, there's a trendy new formation on the scene. The 4-2-3-1 caught fire after the 2010 World Cup, with the Netherlands and Brazil in particular showcasing its genuine strengths.
A strong midfield holding duo, such as Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva, was enough to bring most games under your control and as the possession game became fashionable, this system has been adopted by many.
The 4-4-2, with its inability to exert serious control over games due to its inherently quick, attacking nature, is now seen as unusable by many.
Referring to the aforementioned graphic, not only will you see the demise of the 4-4-2, but a significant rise in three-man central defences.
We haven't seen this kind of infatuation with this system since the days of Carlos Bilardo's successful run as Argentina coach, so what gives?
Football is about being different, about changing and becoming impossible to predict. Teams try something a little strange to confuse other managers—an idea exemplified by the recent encounter between Sam Allardyce's West Ham and Roberto Martinez's Wigan Athletic.
I just think we have got to be tactically right on Saturday because of the system they play, we come across that system hardly ever.
So we have got to make sure we can combat that system tactically and make sure we nullify its strengths and try and expose its weaknesses, if we do that we will give ourselves a great chance of getting a result. - Allardyce
West Ham lost 2-1, salvaging a late goal after the game had been well and truly lost. While Allardyce is an example of a manager who is far from tactically flexible, Martinez represents the new age manager—the student of the game, the willing learner.
Walter Mazzarri's Napoli are credited with bringing three at the back into vogue. Since then, Italy, Internazionale, Udinese, Juventus, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and more have tried it.
Undeniably, it's growing. But how does it pave way for the 4-4-2's return?
I'm not about to suggest that once the 3-5-2 fizzles out, the 4-4-2 will be back. There's no telling how many formations could be used in between.
But what the 3-5-2 does represent is a certifiable step away from possession-based football. Two years of managers' concerted efforts to place emphasis on ball retention and we're already moving on.
Roberto Mancini's Citizens are a good example on the attack—his formation lives and dies by the fortune of his wing-backs. Aleksandar Kolarov, in particular, is critical to a system which has become much more direct over the course of just three months.
The diagram depicts a typical 3-5-2 and the arrows suggest typical player movement. The gaping holes in front of the wing-backs are just waiting to be explored, and the midfield invariably utilises one shuttler.
There's a good chance this becomes the norm, with England slow to catch up as usual, and there are obvious similarities between the two formations in question.
The direct, wider nature of the 3-5-2 lays credence to the idea that mobile, agile players are becoming highly valued in today's game.
Kwadwo Asamoah was a shuttler during his time at Udinese, but this year at Juventus he's been tried at left wing-back. Despite never playing there before, he's excelled due to his physical prowess and vertical playing style.
Antonio Conte's MVP midfield from last season's unbeaten campaign utilised two physical specimens in Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal, while Yaya Toure does the same job for Mancini.
In 2010, it seemed as though this type of player had fizzled out, and that Marcelo Bielsa's use of the 3-3-1-3 with Chile was just an anomaly, but perhaps "El Loco" was just two years ahead of the game yet again.
The added body in the defensive line automatically creates a harder workload for those ahead, especially the wing-backs who basically have two jobs.
Mancini spoke at a seminar several years ago about the next big advancements in football. He pinpointed physical preparation as the way forward, not tactical innovation.
The theory he puts across is looking pretty accurate right now, with only Pep Guardiola turning the pages in the tactical history book to find a competitive edge.
Many questioned Mancini's recruitment of Jack Rodwell this summer, but the Italian's words in Belgrade lay credence to the signing—his physique and playing style will be exactly whats required for the next decade.
In essence, the 3-5-2 robs the team of a man in midfield, making the work more physical than technical for the players further up the pitch.
It's a throwback to how football used to be played, and a move away from the possession-based 4-2-3-1 that's currently doing the rounds.
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