Predicting tactical trends for the season to come before any of the sides have actually played a competitive match inevitably means offering hostages to fortune, but it does seem that at least three and perhaps four of the sides likely to be challenging for Champions League qualification could be shaping up to play—or could at least have the option of—operating with a 4-2-1-3.
Numerical designations are always crude—no more than building blocks for the start of debate—and it should be said straight away that the 4-2-1-3 is only fractionally removed from the 4-2-3-1. Perhaps it's best thought of as a cross between that formation and a 4-3-3—or, to put it another way, a hybrid of the two formations that have dominated football at the highest level for the past couple of seasons.
Take Manchester United.
Robin van Persie leads the line with two of Wilfried Zaha, Nani, Danny Welbeck, Luis Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young wide. At the back of midfield, Michael Carrick sits deep alongside Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley or Ryan Giggs.
If Wayne Rooney plays, he operates just behind van Persie—although he is, of course, more than willing to track back and operate as a ball winner.
Rooney at his fittest often seems like a frustrated full-back, always looking to regain possession, a role that is rare enough that it often goes under-appreciated. So that’s a 4-2-3-1 but with the central player in the three charging back to join the two.
But Shinji Kagawa could come into that role. If he did, he would naturally sit deeper, functioning closer to the two holding midfielders than the centre-forward—a role that would suit Marouane Fellaini perfectly were he to sign (and would have fit Cesc Fabregas if United had managed to prise him from Barcelona).
Look at Arsenal.
Much, obviously, depend on injuries. There, more than almost anywhere else. But they could function with, say, Olivier Giroud as the central striker, Santi Cazorla on one flank and Theo Walcott on the other with Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta holding.
If Jack Wilshere then plays as the central creator, he, too, will naturally drop back to support the midfield, nearer Diaby and Arteta than Giroud. To an extent, when Tomas Rosicky operated in that position last season, that was how the shape looked.
Manchester City, too, could play with two wingers, a central striker and then Gareth Barry and Fernandinho deep in midfield with Yaya Toure breaking from deep to join the front three.
However, they appear more likely to play in a lop-sided 4-4-2, with Sergio Aguero just off Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas wide on the right and David Silva or Samir Nasri tucked in a left-sided attacking creative role.
What Tottenham have planned with their fleet of central midfielders is harder to say, particularly with Gareth Bale’s future still undecided, but Mousa Dembele certainly could operate in that slightly deeper, shuttling creative role.
The advantages of the system are clear.
From a defensive point of view, there is an extra body deep. That third midfielder, by playing 10 metres or so deeper than in an orthodox 4-2-3-1, becomes an additional line of defence.
But there can also be advantages from an attacking point of view, particularly against an orthodox 4-2-3-1, because it draws the central creator away from the oppositions' two holders, in theory, giving him more time and space to assess the game and measure his passes.
It may not happen, or teams may use the shape only in specific circumstances, but the possibility at least is there, and its potential is intriguing.