Talking Tactics

Season trends: Inverted full-backs providing tactical flexibility

By Adrian Clarke 17 Nov 2023
Arteta Zinchenko lead

Adrian Clarke explains why fewer Premier League managers are using a three-man defence

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Adrian Clarke looks at tactical trends of the 2023/24 season so far.

Changing defensive shape

The popularity of back threes has dwindled yet again during the early stages of 2023/24, continuing a trend.

During the 2020/21 campaign, a record-high 30 per cent of Premier League formations featured a central defensive trio, but head coaches have gradually begun to lose interest in that shape since.

After 12 matches this season, only 19.2 per cent of starting XIs contained a three-man rearguard, the lowest figure on record since 2016/17.

Top defensive formations
Season Back four* % Back three* %
2020/21 532 70.0 228 30.0
2021/22 543 71.4 217 28.6
2022/23 603 79.3 157 20.7
2023/24** 194 80.8 46 19.2

* Matches used
** After 12 matches

Inverting full-backs

Part of the reason that managers of possession-heavy sides avoid back-three systems is because they morph into that shape on the ball.

Pep Guardiola was the first to start inverting his full-backs into central midfield during the build-up phase, but now it is commonplace among the leading sides.

Mikel Arteta, Jurgen Klopp, Ange Postecoglou, Roberto De Zerbi and sometimes Erik ten Hag all encourage this practice from a starting formation that is either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.

Teams that spend long periods inside the opposition half with the ball see no need to include a third central defender, preferring an extra attack-minded player in the side.

Technical full-backs who are comfortable receiving the ball in tight areas are now more valuable than ever.

The same two systems of play dominate this season with 4-2-3-1 remaining the most used shape by Premier League managers.

At the end of the 2021/22 campaign, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 represented a 45.8 per cent share, rising sharply to 63.6 per cent last season.

Climbing in popularity again, they now boast an aggregate 65.4 per cent representation, as reflected above.

In total, 14 of the 20 clubs used either of these two shapes as their first-choice set-up.

Most used formations 2023/24
Formation Total (12 matches) %
4-2-3-1 88 36.6
4-3-3 69 28.8
4-4-2  17 7.1
3-4-2-1 17 7.1
4-4-1-1 13 5.4
A useful plan B

So far in the 2023/24 campaign, 11 of the 20 top-flight managers have used a back three.

Only two of them, Luton Town’s Rob Edwards and Paul Heckingbottom of Sheffield United, have deployed a three-man defence as their first-choice formation, but many of their contemporaries like to dip in and out on a match-by-match basis.

A 3-4-2-1 shape is the most popular in this genre, but the rare use of a 5-4-1 is of particular note in 2023/24.

That defensive set-up was used once by AFC Bournemouth's Andoni Iraola and Vincent Kompany of Burnley – both in matches against Manchester City.

And Nottingham Forest’s Steve Cooper has started with a 5-4-1 twice, at Man City and Liverpool!

It appears Guardiola’s champions are the side that prompt opposition coaches to consider cautious one-off game plans most often.

Two-pronged attack

Twin strike partnerships were relatively popular last season, with three clubs deploying a classic 4-4-2 as their main formation.

Yet as we stand almost a third of the way into the 2023/24 campaign, the use of front two’s has dipped by a sizeable 12.7 per cent, as reflected in the table above.

One v two strikers
Season One striker* % Two strikers* %
2022/23 547 72.7 213 27.3
2023/24** 205 85.4 35 14.6

* Matches used
** After 12 matches

Eight of the 20 managers have experimented with two up top so far, but Heckingbottom (in eight of 12 matches), Unai Emery (6/12) and Thomas Frank (5/12) are the only head coaches to do this on a regular basis.

Tactical volatility among promoted sides

Sheff Utd, Burnley and Luton are still searching for a winning formula at this level, so it is perhaps no surprise all three head coaches have experimented with their tactics during the early months.

Edwards and Heckingbottom, using five shapes apiece, and Kompany (four), have been content to chop and change their approach.

Nott'm Forest head coach Cooper and Gary O’Neil of Wolverhampton Wanderers both used seven different formations last season and they are already up to five each for the current campaign.

Full of ideas and a willingness to adapt their system to suit certain opponents, they are natural tinker men who like to keep their opposite numbers guessing.

Most shapes used 2023/24
Manager Total
Steve Cooper 5
Rob Edwards 5
Paul Heckingbottom 5
Gary O'Neil 5
Unai Emery 4
Pep Guardiola 4
Vincent Kompany 4

On the flip side, Newcastle United, Liverpool and Arsenal are the most settled in terms of their system of play.

All three set up as a 4-3-3 and are the only sides to have stuck with the same formation for every match this season.

Also in this series

Part 1: Inverted full-backs providing tactical flexibility
Part 2: Why Premier League teams are scoring more goals
Part 3: Why goals from free-kicks and corners are down

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