Talking Tactics

Season trends: Back fours on the rise

By Adrian Clarke 24 Nov 2022
Newcastle cele

Adrian Clarke examines why managers are moving away from three-man defensive units

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Adrian Clarke looks at tactical trends from the 2022/23 season so far. 

Back threes on the decline

Premier League managers have felt less inclined to use a back three during the first part of 2022/23.

Last season Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Brentford, Brighton & Hove Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers used that shape as their first-choice formation.

The latter three teams have moved away from this system in recent months, opting for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation instead.

With 13 of the 20 teams starting with three at the back in at least one fixture in 2022/23, it remains a popular tactical option among head coaches who want to adapt their shape on a match-by-match basis.

Only Antonio Conte and Graham Potter currently use a back three as their preferred system, with an overall drop in usage from 28.6 per cent to 22.2 per cent, or down from 217 of 760 team selections in 2021/22 to 69 of 292 starting line-ups this season.

Back three v back four times used
Defence 21/22 % used 22/23 % used
Back three 217/760 28.6% 69/292 22.2%
Back four 543/760 71.4% 223/292 77.8%

Leaders Arsenal are one of nine clubs to have deployed a 4-3-3 as their first-choice formation so far this season.

Neither Mikel Arteta nor Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe have deviated from that system and, with both enjoying outstanding starts to the campaign, that is no surprise.

Jurgen Klopp has started with a 4-3-3 much less than usual this term, which is also a sign of the difficult period Liverpool have been through in the opening months. 

Most popular shapes this season
Team 4-3-3  Team 4-2-3-1 
Newcastle 15 Fulham 15
Arsenal 14 Leeds 14
Brentford 9 Man Utd 12
Crystal Palace 9 West Ham 10
Man City 9 Wolves 7
Everton 8 Southampton 6
Liverpool 8 - -
Aston Villa 6 - -
Nott'm Forest 6 - -

Indeed as six clubs have adopted a 4-2-3-1 formation, three-quarters of Premier League teams (15 out of 20) have made one of these two classic frameworks their most-used set-up.

Marco Silva and Jesse Marsch are the most dedicated advocates of this system, using it in every match.

Overall, we have seen the popularity of 4-3-3 rise to 31.5 per cent this season from 24.3 per cent usage in 2021/22.

The ever-popular 4-2-3-1 has leapt from 21.4 per cent to 29.4 per cent.

Why the trend towards four at the back? This may in part be down to an attack-minded mentality of managers.

In recent seasons there has been a fall in managers adopting defensive deep-lying tactics. Leeds United, Brentford, Fulham and AFC Bournemouth are good examples of promoted teams who have had a positive style of play. None are defensive. Swapping a central defender for an extra forward player makes sense when your focus is on scoring goals. 

The sight of more opponents lining up in a 4-3-3 will also put off some managers who prefer back threes. Most would feel more comfortable with a four-man defence facing three forwards.

It's a similar story for the 4-2-3-1. In the case of Brighton, Brentford, Wolves and Nottingham Forest, who ditched a back three early on this season, they were all short of goals. Bringing in an extra creative player was needed to provide a greater threat. 

Starting formations compared
Formation 21/22 total 22/23 total
4-3-3 185 92
4-2-3-1 163 86
4-4-2 (classic) 90 17
3-4-2-1 68 24
3-5-2 57 16

The five most-used shapes remain the same this season. The only change in the order from the end of 2021/22 is the 4-4-2 (classic) being replaced in third spot by 3-4-2-1.

Former Burnley manager Sean Dyche consistently used 4-4-2, which explains this change in light of his departure and the Clarets' relegation.

Meanwhile, ex-Southampton head coach Ralph Hasenhuttl opted to try new formations this season before he left St Mary’s in early November.

In general we have seen a drop in top-flight managers using two centre-forwards.

Last season 28 per cent of formations contained a twin strike force, but during the early weeks of this campaign, the figure stands at just 19.5 per cent.

Also in this series

Part 2: Home wins close to a record high
Part 3: How corners are a growing threat
Part 4: Fewer crosses and more clinical finishing

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