Following years of Mike Bassett-like devotion to 4-4-2, followed by the dawn of the 4-3-3, it seems that English football has hit a new chapter in recent years: that of the 4-2-3-1.
Utilised to acclaim by England manager Roy Hodgson this week, the formation has also become dominant in the Premier League. Of 140 starting lineups used this season, 51.4 percent have lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
However, whilst the top seven sides have all plumped for 4-2-3-1, a considerable number of sides—generally near to the bottom of the league—are still opting for variations on 4-4-2, or for a 4-3-3/4-5-1. Is this the sign of old-school managers stuck in their ways, or is there a deeper reason for the variation?
Allowing teams to dominate possession in a way that other formations don’t, 4-2-3-1 has been deployed by all of the top nine sides in the average possession rankings. Conversely, only one of the bottom seven sides in the same ordering has used it as their most frequent formation.
A similar pattern emerges when looking at both pass accuracy and the total number of passes. The 4-2-3-1 allows teams to accommodate the creative spark of a No. 10, whilst keeping the solidity of having a central-midfield pairing clearing up from deep. It also means that teams don’t sacrifice on width, as the central trio means that wide players don’t need to tuck in to provide an extra midfield man.
This balance means that midfields can keep the ball better than a central two or three with one deep player, providing the moment of magic that unlocks stubborn defences. A 4-2-3-1 is the most prolific formation in terms of chance creation this season. The 102 chances created by Tottenham this season is almost triple the number created by Fulham, who deploy their personnel in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
However, if 4-2-3-1 proves so popular with the top teams and provides more chances and possession, why do some managers continue to snub it? Of the bottom five sides, none have started with it more than any other formation. The answer lies in personnel.
Far from being the Claude Makelele-esque “enforcers” that many view holding midfield players to be, the deep-lying pair in a 4-2-3-1 are required to take on a creative role in addition to their defensive duties.
A quick comparison between the Spurs' deep-lying pair of Moussa Dembele and Paulinho and the Fulham pairing of Steve Sidwell and Giorgos Karagouni, who play in a 4-4-1-1, shows how much more the midfielders do in a 4-2-3-1. Dembele and Paulinho have created 13 and 10 chances, respectively, whereas the Fulham pair have one each. Even accounting for the fewer chances created at Fulham, Dembele and Paulinho have created 23 percent of Spurs' chances, compared to five percent between the Fulham pair.
It is a luxury formation that allows teams to dominate possession—if they have the players. This explains why lower teams without the midfield options to utilise it are choosing to ditch the No. 10 role and play two up front or an extra central midfielder.
Of the top eight teams whose average pass length is 20 meters or above, only West Ham could be said to play a 4-2-3-1, showing the tendency for weaker sides to play a more defensive midfield and hit slightly longer to the forward and wide players. The likes of Sidwell and Karagounis may not be able to split open a defence, but they can keep it tight and pass the ball on to the likes of Berbatov, Duff and Bent.
Twenty-five percent of lineups this season have stuck with a variation of a 4-4-2 (4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1), whilst 16.4 percent have played either a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. Norwich, Fulham, West Brom and Sunderland have all plumped for 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 most regularly, whilst Aston Villa and Crystal Palace have favoured a 4-5-1/4-3-3.
Potentially the most interesting of this season’s formations has been Liverpool’s recent flirtation with 3-5-2. Having seemingly died in England since the national side ditched it, Liverpool have followed Wigan’s example from last season in bringing it back from the dead. Could we soon see the most popular formation in Serie A become a feature on our shores?