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Talking Tactics

Season trends: Back threes on the rise

Adrian Clarke 27 Apr 2020
Man City v Sheff Utd

Adrian Clarke says three-man defences are on the up in the Premier League as 4-2-3-1 replaces 4-3-3 as the most-used formation

Adrian Clarke looks at tactical trends of the 2019/20 season so far. 

New formation on top

Premier League managers are always looking at new ways to get the better of their opponents and this season they have mixed and matched in their attempts to do so.

Across the competition, clubs have used 18 different formations from the start of matches this season.

And interestingly, the most widely-used formation has changed from the previous campaign. 

In 2018/19 4-4-3 was the most popular shape but it has now been superseded by 4-2-3-1.

The 4-2-3-1 is the primary system used by Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Norwich City and Watford 

Most popular shapes last two seasons
2018/19 Times used 2019/20 Times used
4-3-3 160 4-2-3-1 143
4-2-3-1 134  4-3-3 94
4-4-2 98 4-4-2 87
4-4-1-1 63 3-5-2 48
4-1-4-1 50 4-1-4-1 44

A number of managers who did not feature in 2018/19 have contributed to a resurgence of three-man defences.  

Chris Wilder has sent out his Sheffield United team in a 3-5-2 formation in every match this season. He is only of only two managers, along with Nuno Espirito Santo, to start with three at the back all through the campaign.

Brighton & Hove Albion’s Graham Potter has also shown a liking for a 3-4-3, while Steve Bruce has been happy to continue with the 5-4-1 he inherited from Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United.  

Meanwhile, Frank Lampard, Carlo Ancelotti and Dean Smith have all experimented with that type of shape and picked up some excellent results in the process 

These factors have helped to increase the use of three central defenders to 26.2 per cent compared with 21.3 per cent in the previous campaign.

Biggest users of three-man defences
2019/20 Times used Type of shape
Nuno Espirito Santo 29 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 3-4-2-1, 3-4-1-2 
Chris Wilder  28 3-5-2
Steve Bruce 26 5-4-1, 3-5-2, 3-4-2-1 
Graham Potter 11 3-4-3, 3-4-2-1, 3-5-1-1, 5-3-2 

Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea all still favour 4-3-3 but its usage across the rest of the competition has tailed off.  

But 4-4-1-1 is the shape that has had the greatest decline. 

Last term several managers adopted that system, using it 63 times in total. But just 13 of 576 starting formations have lined up that way this season.  

Using a second centre-forward in preference to an attacking midfielder, many sides have turned this 4-4-1-1 into a 4-4-2.

Climb in two up top

The option of starting with two strikers has enjoyed a steady resurgence in recent years 

Thanks to Sheff Utd, Burnley, AFC Bournemouth, Southampton, Brighton and Everton, 30.6 per cent of starting formations have included two up top.  

That represents a small rise from 28.9 per cent last term.  

Only four Premier League teams have chosen not to start at least one contest with twin strikers.  

They are Chelsea, Norwich, Liverpool and Man City. 

It is encouraging to see the tactical landscape of England's top flight is as varied as ever.  

See: Adrian Clarke's season trends

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