The fashionable 4-2-3-1 formation is largely thought to be prevailing in the Premier League, although many argue that the strategy du jour is merely a 4-4-2 with wingers slightly further on and tucked in, one of the forwards required to be at least 6ft, and the other a step back and able to pass.
A back three is often tried sporadically, with Brendan Rodgers giving it a go on occasion at Liverpool, while Roberto Martinez and Steve Bruce also dabble, but multiple strategic ‘innovations’ at the World Cup have reinvigorated this once dormant thinking.
There is, at least, a discernible difference between 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2/3-4-1-2, with one promoting width and pace on the flanks, and the other somewhat more concentrated on driving through the middle.
However, the key component these formations share is the number ten – that is, the second striker who has dropped back and now supports the lone centre-forward/two centre-forwards from a deeper position.
Clubs currently have players described as number tens coming out of their earholes, with many having to be recategorised as they drift over to wide-forward positions or back to central midfield.
Manchester City’s David Silva and Samir Nasri are characterised as attacking midfielders, wingers or number tens depending on who you talk to.
New Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos and Chelsea’s former Arsenal man Cesc Fabregas have both played as and are often still mistaken for number tens, but operate in deeper roles these days.
Louis van Gaal claims he has inherited four at Manchester United in Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj, and the Dutchman’s 3-5-2 system means there’s less scope to move these stars around the forward line than in a 4-2-3-1.
In general terms, 4-2-3-1 operates with two sitting midfielders, one of which takes a pitch slightly more advanced than the other, who holds, with the number ten collecting the ball off the furthest forward and splaying it about in the direction of what becomes a three-man forward line.
Andre Villas-Boas’ thinking post-Gareth Bale at Spurs seemed to have been along these lines, with Danny Rose and Kyle Walker supporting the attack from full-back.
Sadly for the Portuguese, 17 wins – many of them narrow and unconvincing – in the north Londoners’ first 26 games of last season could not save him, as three of their five 2013/14 defeats under Villas-Boas were by a combined score of 14-0.
The 4-2-3-1 currently being practiced at Chelsea is a markedly different beast.
New signing Fabregas played a significant part in all three goals in a 3-1 opening day win at Burnley – producing the pass of this and many a season for one – despite being situated behind nominal number ten Oscar.
Indeed, respected website WhoScored.com identified Fabregas as a defensive midfielder in their analysis of the Turf Moor clash.
I don’t doubt their logic, as WhoScored will have come to a decision as to how Chelsea set up (4-2-3-1), and placed Fabregas accordingly. There were four attacking players directly in front of him, so he’d have to at least be categorised as a central midfielder.
Of course, anyone who watched the game, or indeed anyone who has ever watched Fabregas play, knows that defensive midfielder is not his role.
The 27-year-old made the joint-highest number of Chelsea tackles alongside Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic, with three apiece, but John Terry, Gary Cahill and Oscar all managed two, so this seems a poor barometer.
Fabregas wasn’t quite as influential in Chelsea’s less-than-stellar 2-0 win against Leicester at Stamford Bridge, although he did put Oscar in for a first-half chance and was accredited with an assist for Eden Hazard’s second.
In all honestly, Fabregas is a special case because he is a do-everything player, who has posted combined all-competition goal/assist stats of 19 or more for eight seasons running, and 29 or more in half of those campaigns. It remains a mystery as to why Barcelona sold him.
Clubs that own players like Fabregas, Kroos or Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho have the required platform to launch 4-2-3-1 without sacrificing pace behind the striker. If you don’t, it can be a long slog towards top-four recognition.
Mauricio Pochettino is currently trying to work out how to reconfigure Spurs into an outfit that can implement his Marcelo Bielsa-esque pressing style (Click here).
Last season’s biggest flop Erik Lamela has been nominally played as a number ten, while continually switching with Christian Eriksen at right-forward.
In many ways, Eriksen is an ideal number ten (he was utilised as such under Villas-Boas), in as much that his delivery is sharp from set pieces, his feet are quick, his passing is incisive and his finishing is decent.
The Dane’s problem, however, is that he doesn’t possess the ability to beat players at pace that Hazard, Luis Suarez and others do.
This clear variation in player-type is the reason why ‘number ten’ has become a catch-all term, like bespoke and sustainability, barely representative of what it once meant.
The modern attacking midfielder is quick, skilful, a deadly finisher, under 6ft, links the play, can go wide but more likely to feint and cut inside before blasting towards goal or laying the ball off.
To put a fine point on it, playmakers can no longer be the luxury players that they were considered in the past (think Juan Sebastian Veron, Juan Roman Riquelme, Eric Cantona or even Zinedine Zidane to a point).
These players didn’t run much, didn’t tackle, but got picked for being able to make occasional game-changing impacts. Recent examples include PSG’s Javier Pastore and Lyon’s Yoann Gourcuff – two stars who have palpably struggled to shine in recent seasons.
Eriksen may need to drop back, as Fabregas and Kroos already have and Coutinho looks likely to. This quartet seem best suited to the role Paul Scholes performed from midfield in a 4-4-2 for Man Utd. It seems we have come full circle, if we ever left.
With regard to 3-5-2, we just don’t know yet.
A Netherlands side who many expected to crash out at the group stage of the World Cup were within penalties of the final, and while it’s important to keep in mind Arjen Robben’s role in the demolition of Spain, Van Gaal’s men managed to find an inordinate amount of space in behind La Seleccion.
If the ‘Iron Tulip’ can make the system run smoothly at United they will challenge for top-four honours, which they’re currently priced up at 3/4 to achieve, as few doubt there will be plenty of goals in a Mata/Robin van Persie/Rooney triangle. Building a team, and a formation, around this attacking fulcrum ranks as a no-brainer.
As for the title, Chelsea began the season generally available at around the same price as champions Man City, with both touching 2/1 depending on where you shop.
Chelsea were cut to a top-price 6/4 with bwin after the first round of fixtures. City went out to 9/4. Both teams won by two goals away from home, while Manuel Pellegrini’s men kept a clean-sheet, which Mourinho’s didn’t. I guess you just had to watch the games.