Why 4-3-3 became popular again
During the early 2000's most Premier League teams adopted the 4-4-2 formation. Many teams with significant success. But when and why did 4-3-3 become so trendy?
From the point of view of an Arsenal fan, I fondly remember the days when our sexy brand of football took us to Premier League success. With the solid back four of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Martin Keown (and occasionally Steve Bould); and a continental midfield of Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, then on either flank Robert Pires and Fredrik Ljungberg. Up front, the duo of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. This team would normally operate in an attacking 4-4-2 formation, with Bergkamp sitting just behind Henry up front.
At that time, elsewhere in the Premier League, even our biggest rivals were playing a similar tactic; Manchester United enjoyed plenty of success with their 4-4-2 formation. Their midfield for years had Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in the middle, and then Ryan Giggs and David Beckham on the flanks.
Arsene Wenger, when he first came to England, he was somewhat of a visionary. He brought changes in footballer's diets, English tactics and introduced a batch of foreign players who dominated the league. Unfortunately for Arsenal, it wouldn't be long until the other teams would catch up with them in terms of player fitness and diet; rival teams looked abroad for inspiration and added new coaching staff to catch up with Arsenal, who in the late 90's had completely changed the way English teams do business. Even with their top class training ground and the facilities, Arsenal were amongst the first.
That's why it hurt so much during 2005, when the visionary Wenger missed the boat on such a simple level - the tactics that he employed. I remember it clearly, Arsenal went the season previous unbeaten (invincible if you will), then Manchester United would end their undefeated run at Old Trafford. That day there was a shift in the balance of power, and Arsenal were apparently doomed. What was the reason? Quite possibly Tactics. Manchester United had switched to a 4-3-3 formation, with Cristiano Ronaldo on the flanks destroying the Premier League's best defences, and on occasion the evergreen Ryan Giggs would be played on the left. In the middle, United would only need one striker - sometimes Wayne Rooney - as much of the attacking strength would come from the wings.
It took Arsenal over a year before Wenger would become increasingly frustrated as his team succumb to regular defeat and he stubbornly would stick with the 4-4-2 formula. By the time he eventually switched to 4-3-3, it was too late, most of the most successful teams in the league were already playing it. Then, even once the Gunners had adopted the formation, there still would be a lengthy period of time before the team was comfortable playing with it.
So, to today. Manchester City and Manchester United have been dominating the Premier League for the past two to three seasons. Mancini interestingly mixed up his tactical styles, but Ferguson still kept faith in a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 variant. Interestingly enough, the season that City won the league they were playing a more balanced 4-3-3 formation, with Aguero/Balotelli/Dzeko/Tevez up front and Silva and Nasri sometimes operating on the flanks. This year, City have turned to a 4-4-2 side; often preferring to play two strikers up front as opposed to players on the wings - clearly it didn't work - United have outclassed City this year.
When you think of players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; the 4-3-3 formation is just made for them. Both players arguably are not outright strikers, they like to operate all over the pitch. Sometimes Ronaldo will cut in from the left, other times he'll be in the middle and score a simple header or tap in. The reason why is because you need to give players like this complete freedom up front. The 4-4-2 formation is not catered to offering freedom to a striker, it's too rigid. That's where United have been benefitting from having a striker like Robin Van Persie, who appears to have complete freedom up front to do his job.
Throughout history, teams have always been tinkering with their formation. If you ever read about football back in the 1930's, you'll probably know something about some of the crazy tactics that were used back then, 3 defenders and seven attackers, for example. One of the defenders would be a sweeper, of course, getting the ball forward up to the attacking players.
The time is coming for another shift. This year we've seen German teams enjoy success in the Champions League. The 4-1 victory for Borussia Dortmund over Real Madrid and the thumping of Barcelona by Bayern Munich indicates the balance of power might just be switching again.
So what kind of formation are the German teams playing? A very attacking one, of course, but it seems that most of their attacking outlets come not just from the front, but from the centre of midfield as well. You see what I like to call the 4-2-3-1 formation. Bayern have two wingers cutting in - pick a name from Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Shaqiri and soon Mario Gotze - a wealth of talent. Then one up front on his own, and just behind the striker is what we like to call the "central attacking playmaker". This position at Bayern generally belongs to Thomas Mueller, who has been doing fantastically well this year. The teams that have enjoyed success this year all over Europe have been using this attacking outlet. Think Borussia Dortmund when Shinji Kagawa was pulling the strikers in the middle - he's now doing the same at Manchester United.
So, when I think of my beloved Arsenal, I see one position that we MUST fill this summer if we are to compete - the central attacking playmaker role. The Gunners have the strikers, they have an abundance of wingers, they have some very useful central midfielders who can operate defensively or as an attacker - but they miss the man behind the striker in midfield. Who do I think would be perfect for that role? Marouane Fellaini. He gets goals. That's why he is sure to be one of the most sought over players on the transfer market this summer.
For now, I'll remember he days of when 4-4-2 used to be effective, and just keep my fingers crossed that the Gunners will tinker with their tactics and formation and maybe the glory days will once again return.