Talking Tactics

Season trends: Favoured formation emerges

By Adrian Clarke 9 Jun 2023
Pep Guardiola speaks to John Stone

Adrian Clarke explains why popularity of 4-2-3-1 formation soared among Premier League managers

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Adrian Clarke identifies tactical trends from the 2022/23 Premier League season.


Only three of the sides who finished inside the top 10 used 4-2-3-1 as their first-choice formation, but it was by far the most on-trend shape right across 2022/23.

Of the 39 managers who took charge of at least one Premier League match, an incredible 31 used that system at some stage of the campaign.

Compared with last season, when it trailed in second behind 4-3-3, we saw an increase of 61.1 per cent in the usage of 4-2-3-1.

Favoured formations 2022/23
Formation  Times used Compared with 21/22
4-2-3-1 261 +61.1%
4-3-3 222 +20.0%
3-4-2-1 64 -5.9%
4-4-2 (classic) 62 -31.1%
3-5-2 23 -59.6%

Last season, the two most popular formations represented a 45.8 per cent share of all the shapes that started matches.

Remarkably, that figure shot up to 63.6 per cent this time around.

Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, arguably two of the most underperforming teams, were the only clubs to go with three centre-backs on a consistent basis.

This led to a marked drop-off in the number of occasions that featured teams playing three in defence.

Only 20.7 per cent of all starting line-ups, the lowest on record since 2016/17 (18.8 per cent), used wing-backs, continuing a downward trajectory since they hit a peak in 2020/21.

Back four/three use last three seasons
Formation 20/21 21/22 22/23
Back four 532 543 603
% used 70.0% 71.4% 79.3%
Back three 228 217 157
% used 30.0% 28.6% 20.7%

It was title-winning head coach Pep Guardiola who bucked that trend during the second half of the season, by frequently sending his team out in an unfamiliar 3-2-4-1.

In the entirety of 2021/22, it was not used by a single top-flight manager, but he used it on 12 occasions.

It is a formation which features two defensive midfield pivots (Rodri and John Stones), with a pair of attacking central midfielders ahead of them to form a box.

This framework seemed to add more control to Manchester City’s play, on and off the ball, during an impressive run-in.

Part of the reason behind such a dramatic rise in back four usage, is an increasing willingness among coaches to transition into a back three when they are on the ball.

Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal do this expertly, with Oleksandr Zinchenko sliding into central midfield to form a double pivot with Thomas Partey, and Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka pushed on to form a box within a shape that resembles 3-2-4-1.

Liverpool experimented with this towards the end of the season too, using Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield, while Brighton & Hove Albion under Roberto De Zerbi also switched to this type of shape in possession.

Potter most flexible

While in charge of Brighton and Chelsea earlier on in 2022/23, Graham Potter retained his status as the most tactically flexible head coach in the Premier League. He used 10 different formations in 28 matches.

West Ham United’s David Moyes rotated eight differing systems, while Guardiola’s experimental season featured seven.

Steve Cooper and Gary O’Neil also proved to be highly variable in their respective approaches.

Copper, the Nottingham Forest head coach, regularly flitted between a back three and four.

Managers using most formations 22/23
Manager Formations used
Graham Potter 10
David Moyes 8
Pep Guardiola 7
Steve Cooper 7
Gary O'Neil 7
Frank Lampard 7

As a set of players, it was Chelsea’s squad who had to be the most adaptable. Under four different head coaches last season, they were asked to play in 13 variant formations.

Favourite formation

Three head coaches stuck with their preferred formula in all 38 fixtures.

Looking at the names on that list, Arteta, Eddie Howe and Marco Silva, they were correct to do so, with Arsenal, Newcastle United and Fulham all enjoying better than expected points returns.

It will be interesting to see if they all persist with the same tactical ideas next season.

Same formation in all matches 22/23
Manager Formation
Mikel Arteta (ARS) 4-3-3
Marco Silva (FUL) 4-2-3-1
Eddie Howe (NEW) 4-3-3

While the classic 4-4-2 was not used prolifically by Premier League managers last season, it did become the favoured formation for a trio of Spanish head coaches.

Unai Emery’s superb campaign with Aston Villa saw him regularly use this system, playing an attacking midfielder up alongside Ollie Watkins in attack.

Out of possession this helped his side press with greater efficiency, and his narrow four-man midfield also offered a level of extra protection behind.

On the ball we saw a lot of excellent in-to-out runs from the two strikers.

It was a similar story for Julen Lopetegui’s Wolverhampton Wanderers, and for Southampton under interim head coach Ruben Selles, who both used 4-4-2 as their preferred shape.

First-choice formations among PL managers 22/23
Formation used Managers
4-2-3-1 10
4-3-3 9
4-4-2 (classic) 3
3-4-2-1 2
4-1-4-1 1
4-5-1 1

*Only managers with 10+ matches

With back-four set-ups proving so popular it will be fascinating to see if any more top-flight coaches elect to follow the successful 4-4-2 formula that worked so effectively for Villa.

Whether it is designed to solidify the spine and protect against counter-attacks, or to assert greater control in central midfield - or a combination of the two - narrow four-man midfields have certainly become more fashionable in the last 12 months.

Also in this series

Part 2: Record low number of red cards
Part 3: Comebacks on a high
Part 4: Corner goals on the rise
Part 5: How fast breaks produced a goal rush 

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