Football is a cyclic sport. Every few years, a tactic will emerge that is a solution to a current problem. Over a period of a few years, it will peak and dominate the sport before being replaced by the next problem solver.
In the 1990s, the 4-4-2 was the favoured system in England until the 4-2-3-1 system was introduced in the 00s. This had a period of success before the 4-3-3 displaced it as the fashionable choice.
A tweak to this had a number of teams deploying a false-nine as managers looked at subtle ways to improve how they controlled possession and space.
To counter this, more and more teams started to embrace the park the bus tactic. They would give up possession in favour of controlling space. It wasn’t always successful but teams were getting some joy with it.
This season, we’ve seen a number of top teams adopt a 3-2-2-3 tactic. It isn’t too dissimilar to the formation used by Herbert Champman in the 1920s. He is credited with the famed ‘W-M’ shape and we’re now seeing it again in action 100 years later. It is known as the ‘W-M’ formation as the team is split into two sets of five. From a birds-eye view, the players form those letters.
Pep Guardiola has been flirting with this idea for a number of years now in one way or another. His Manchester City side have used Fabian Delph as a left-back in the past while Kyle Walker has been known to operate as an inverted full-back on occasion and Aymeric Laporte has been used as a left-back against certain opponents.
It has been different this term though with the Catalan-born coach committing to this system.
He isn’t the only one.
Xavi at Barcelona and Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, both apprentices of Guardiola at some stage of their careers, have both deployed a similar tactic while Liverpool’s upturn in form recently which has seen them take 13 points from a possible 15 coincides with Jurgen Klopp having his side play in an almost identical way.
All four teams start the game with a 4-3-3 shape but morph into this 3-2-2-3 shape when in possession. What is interesting though is that there isn’t a one-size fits all for this.
For example, the Gunners have Oleksandr Zinchenko starting out at left-back but shuffles into midfield alongside Thomas Partey. Gabriel, the left-sided centre-back, then covers the space on the left with Ben White doing the same on the right.
Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli hold the width for Arteta’s men while Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka support Gabriel Jesus.
Liverpool flip this. Trent Alexander-Arnold pushes into midfield to partner Fabinho. The Reds have had a back three made up of Andrew Robertson, Virgil Van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate in the majority of matches since the switch.
Curtis Jones and Jordan Henderson have then worked with Cody Gakpo, Diogo Jota and Mohamed Salah to create a functional and free-scoring attacking unit.
This way is much closer to that of Guardiola’s at Manchester City.
Barcelona, like Arsenal, have their right-back turn into a right-sided centre-back in a three in possession, but there is a big difference to the way they position others.
Instead of having the left-back move into midfield, their system sees the full-back turn into more of a winger. In the screenshot above, the widest players for Xavi’s men are Alejandro Balde and Raphinha.
Though Gavi starts on the left side of a front three, he drops into the left side of midfield when Barca have possession. The double pivot is made up of Frenkie De Jong and Sergio Busquets with Pedri essentially mirroring what Gavi does but on the opposite side of the pitch.
So, we have what is happening. Now let’s have a look at why it is happening.
There are many different ways to arrive at this shape but the idea is always to create a box midfield.
With many teams playing a midfield three, a box in the middle third gives you a numerical advantage. It is easier to retain possession as there are more passing options and it is also easier to progress play as a result of having a free man.
The box midfield is integral to generating space.
In the screenshot above, you can see Liverpool’s double pivot of Fabinho and Alexander-Arnold. White has followed Jota into a deeper area and there’s now space behind him.
Rob Holding can’t step across to cover it because of the position Gakpo finds himself in and Jones is able to attack the vacant area where the right-back should be.
Jones finds himself with this sort of freedom as a result of the system.
In Manchester City’s 4-1 win over Liverpool in early April, the hosts put on a clinic on why this system is so effective.
In the screenshot above, Liverpool have six players in the City half as the visitors look to play out from the back. Normally, the left-back would step up to press Kevin De Bruyne and this would allow Henderson to cut off John Stones as a passing option.
However, the position being taken up by City’s wide forwards almost pins Liverpool’s full-backs. Jack Grealish is at the top of the screen while Riyad Mahrez is hugging the touchline on the right flank for the home side.
If Robertson commits too soon to pressing De Bruyne, the ball to Mahrez is on. Likewise, if Henderson moves too quickly towards the Belgian, the pass into the fee of Stones is on and he could turn and feed it into Ilkay Gundogan.
Liverpool aren’t snookered but they have to time it to perfection.
But they don’t.
De Bruyne pokes the ball past Robertson and towards Mahrez. The former Leicester City man is in space, Grealish is in space on the opposite flank with Alexander-Arnold having to cover centrally while both Gundogan and Julian Alvarez are in space between the midfield and defensive lines.
Possession is nothing if you aren’t able to control space. This new 3-2-2-3 shape allows superior teams to generate space in every phase of play. But it does require certain profiles in key areas. Wide players almost need to have winger-like traits now.
They need to be comfortable on the touchline and adept at carrying the ball while midfielders are almost a bit of a throwback, playing box-to-box roles while flitting between their in-possession shape and their out-of-possession shape.
Finally, one of the full-backs needs to be a third centre-back, so the demand for these players will increase, as will their price tags.