Talking Tactics

Three-man defences reaping rewards in 2016/17

By Adrian Clarke 4 Jun 2017
Gary Cahill tackle

In the last of a three-part series, Adrian Clarke looks at the Premier League's most popular formations in the campaign just gone

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With the dust settling on another exciting Premier League season, Adrian Clarke is reviewing the story of 2016/17.

His three-part analysis of tactical trends in the last campaign concludes with a look at formations.

Three in fashion

Premier League managers experimented with 17 different formations during the course of 2016/17 as the use of three central defenders was catapulted back into fashion.

While 20 of the 27 PL managers tried out a three or five-man rearguard from the start of a match at least once, it was interesting that very few made it their primary system.

See: How the art of tackling was challenged

Arsenal v Sunderland, Rob Holding
Arsenal's three-man defence helped the Gunners have a strong finish to the campaign

Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte settled on it from early autumn onwards using a 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1 to great effect, but Watford's Walter Mazzarri was the only other manager to line up in the majority of contests without a traditional back four.

Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur switched in and out of a three-man defence, producing some sizzling displays in that shape; Arsenal's Arsene Wenger ended the season with seven victories from eight in a 3-4-2-1, and Slaven Bilic was another who liked to dip in and out, deploying three centre-backs 16 times with West Ham United, winning seven of those matches.

Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal's success with back threes skews the figures a little, but in terms of win percentages, back threes comfortably outperformed flat back fours.

Back three v back four 2016/17
  Back three Back four
Times used 143 617
Wins 70 226
Win ratio 48.9% 36.6%

With almost a 50% success rate, I expect plenty of coaches to be contemplating the use of a three-man defence as their first choice set-up at the start of 2017/18.

Many teams will use pre-season to work tirelessly to perfect their shapes.

4-2-3-1 comfortability

The 4-2-3-1 remains the PL's most predominant formation, almost exactly a third of teams starting in that shape.

Thirteen managers made it their most used system, with 4-3-3 the next closest on six.

With a respectable 40% win rate, the 4-2-3-1 is a formation that a lot of players are comfortable in.

Formation Winning sides
4-2-3-1 100
4-3-3 66
3-4-2-1 33
3-4-3 23
4-4-2 21
4-1-4-1 15
Others (11 various formations) 38

Who were the division’s most prolific tinker men?

Rather surprisingly David Moyes finished joint-top of the pile, trying out 12 shapes throughout the course of Sunderland's relegation campaign.

His constant tweaking outlines the difficulties Moyes had in developing a formula that suited his squad.

Another former Premier League head coach, Walter Mazzarri, used a dozen formations.

Hull City manager Marco Silva
How will Watford line-up under Marco Silva next season?

See: Full marks for finishing in 2016/17

Changing the Hornets' set-up from one week to the next, often with minor positional changes, the Italian always kept rival managers guessing. The downside to these alterations is that the side never really found a consistent rhythm.

New Watford head coach Marco Silva is cut from a similar cloth. The Portuguese tactician experimented with eight formations in only 18 matches in charge of Hull City.

These tactical shifts set us up for a compelling start to the new season.

See: How the art of tackling was challenged in 2016/17

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