Football is a cyclical beast, and every few years we witness a trend-setting year in terms of footballing philosophies and formations.
The 4-2-3-1 formation has been king since 2010, when both Jose Mourinho's Internazionale and Dunga's Brazil—among others—showcased its undeniable strengths on the world stage.
Since then, the template for success has been set out before our very eyes, ignoring Barcelona's age-old traditions, and the rise in importance of certain positions has been indicative of this.
Powerful, surging holding midfielders such as Yaya Toure and Fernandinho have become hot commodities, while tempo-setting, deep-lying playmakers like Ilkay Gundogan are catching the eye more and more.
Last season, half of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinalists used the 4-2-3-1 formation as a default setting, and the two finalists—Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich—both excelled in this shape.
Upon Bayern's crowning as champions of Europe last May, it would have been difficult to argue the 4-2-3-1 was on its way out, but the work of a number of young managers is threatening to make that the case.
The prominence of certain roles in the 4-2-3-1—namely the surging holding midfielder, the complete forward and the deep-lying playmaker—dictated which system would rise to the fore next to an extent.
Another important factor in the evolution is the rise of the hybrid CM/AMC player, who encapsulates all the strengths of both a No. 10 and a flat central midfielder.
In short, the directness of emerging key players meant the new rising system was going to be 3-5-2, 4-4-2 or 4-3-3.
Juventus blew the 3-5-2 experiment out the window in losing to Bayern Munich so convincingly in the Champions League. The 4-4-2 is rising once more—Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have all used it—but it's been pipped to the post, it seems.
The 4-3-3 has made it, Europe-wide, and looks set to become the de facto "best" formation for the next several seasons to come. Its one challenger will be the "balanced" approach presented by the likes of Manuel Pellegrini and Mauricio Pochettino, so it should be interesting to see which trend catches fire first.
No league epitomises this rise more than Serie A, which has garnered itself a reputation for being a prime platform for cutting-edge tactical experimentation.
Roma's record-breaking start to the season, which has seen Rudi Garcia's men win each and every one of their first 10 games, has been founded on a spectacularly solid 4-3-3 formation. Miralem Pjanic is the hybrid CM/AMC, a deeper No. 10 if you will, while Daniele De Rossi sweeps up behind Kevin Strootman.
Fiorentina, too, are making waves after seeing off both Juventus and AC Milan in the space of three weeks. Vincenzo Montella flipped between a three-man system and a 4-3-3 last season, and his settling upon the latter has aided their rise to relevance.
The technical talent in the Viola midfield is absurd and few can rival it, as Borja Valero, David Pizarro, Matias Fernandez and Alberto Aquilani all shared a pitch during the 4-2 win over the Bianconeri.
The two managers, Montella and Garcia, are both young, forward-thinking and eager to stay ahead of the curve. They've struck gold early in the season, and although Fiorentina are a little off the title pace in Italy, they've proven themselves a formidable opponent.
Pep Guardiola has opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation this season with Bayern, but when you break that system down, just how different is it from a 4-3-3? Laurent Blanc, Carlo Ancelotti and Paul Lambert all favour the 4-3-3. Antonio Conte turned to it last month when visiting the Bernabeu.
Expect to see more and more managers latch on to the 4-3-3—not the 4-2-3-1—from this point on, and if all the requisite tools are in place, success is bound to follow.
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