Champions League technical report 1: How 4-3-3 overtook 4-2-3-1

During each UEFA Champions League season, a panel of coaches examine and analyse the action to discern trends. Here we see how 4-3-3 overtook 4-2-3-1 in 2015/16.

A tactics board in a dressing room
A tactics board in a dressing room ©Domenic Aquilina

The variety of game plans blurred a lot of the labels applied to teams.

How many teams used each formation in 2015/16? (2014/15, change)
4-3-3: 13 (8, +5)
4-2-3-1: 10 (14, -4)
4-4-2: 6 (10, -4)
4-5-1: 2 (0, +2)
3-4-3: 1 (0, +1)

Highlights: Wolfsburg v Gent
Highlights: Wolfsburg v Gent

The 2015/16 season highlighted the increasing difficulty in cataloguing playing structures. Gent were the only side to adopt a 3-4-3 formation, with Renato Neto and Sven Kums in holding roles in front of the back three and Thomas Foket dropping back rapidly into 4-2-3-1 defensive structure when possession was lost. However, Hein Van Haezebrouck switched to 4-4-2 in Wolfsburg, having used 4-2-3-1 during the group stage.

Wolfsburg themselves posed problems. "I chose to describe their formation as 4-3-3," commented UEFA technical observer Gareth Southgate after watching Dieter Hecking's side in Gent. "But their midfield lined up differently. Gustavo played deep, with Christian Traesch and Max Arnold operating on different horizontal and vertical lines in front of him."

In the following tie against Real Madrid, the Wolfsburg system was more readily seen as a 4-2-3-1 in the home leg and more clearly definable as 4-1-4-1 when defending a 2-0 lead in Madrid.

Highlights: Man. City v Paris
Highlights: Man. City v Paris

In addition, Paris Saint-Germain switched from their habitual 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 when they took on Manchester City in England; PSV Eindhoven successfully implemented the same variation when they travelled to Spain to face Atlético Madrid. Manuel Pellegrini's team adopted a 4-1-4-1 structure instead of their more habitual 4-2-3-1 when they visited the Spanish capital to play Real Madrid in the semi-final.

Benfica, having relied more heavily on a 4-4-2 structure, drifted towards a 4-2-3-1 when Rui Vitória's side entertained Zenit and Bayern München in the knockout rounds. Roma, having preferred a 4-3-3 set-up, injected a second screening midfielder into a 4-2-3-1 when they visited Real Madrid.

Josep Guardiola's Bayern performed multiple variations on the 4-3-3 theme, both between and during matches. At home to Dinamo Zagreb, the line-up was much more akin to 4-2-3-1; Thomas Müller played wide right away to Arsenal and behind Robert Lewandowski when the Londoners travelled to Munich.

At home to Olympiacos, Kingsley Coman, Douglas Costa, Müller and Arjen Robben operated behind the main striker. The observer who saw their home game against Benfica commented: "Bayern used a variety of attacking and defending systems throughout the match, which is one of their big assets. They control the game and produce some very interesting movements of their players."

Among the teams eliminated at the group stage, Dinamo, Porto and Olympiacos mixed 4-3-3 with 4-2-3-1; Maccabi Tel-Aviv's 4-2-3-1 evolved into a clear 4-5-1 in away games; while Bayer Leverkusen, Manchester United and CSKA Moskva made occasional switches between 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2. The permutations endorsed Rudbæk's comments on versatility and underlined the need for the modern player to be equipped to move seamlessly from one system to another.

With all the provisos outlined above, it could be argued that half of the top 16 teams had 4-3-3 as their default setting, with four clearly preferring -2-3-1 and three usually opting for 4-4-2. As mentioned above, Gent were the only team to favour 3-4-3.

The above article appears in the new UEFA Champions League technical report for 2015/16: download now