With the efforts and emotions of the enormously entertaining Euro 2020 still enduring, it’s hard to believe that preseason for many European clubs is already underway. To further set the stage for the impending season, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on last season’s tactical trends. Tallied below are the most popular formations in Europe’s top five leagues as per UEFA association club coefficient (Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1). Enjoy!
Employed well over one thousand times in total across these five leagues last season alone, the 4-2-3-1 is undoubtedly one of the most popular formations in world football today. A four-back system with structural stability, this setup utilizes space to a premium and can seamlessly transition between attack minded principles and defensive ones, depending on a side’s style of play. Manchester United, Tottenham, Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg, AC Milan, Napoli, and Real Betis are all European qualifiers who used the 4-2-3-1 in the vast majority of their 2020-2021 matches, and all utilize the system in different ways.
While it may not be the most creative of set ups, some aspects of the game are best kept simple. Obviously, this notion is shared by many football managers as the 4-4-2 was second only to the 4-2-3-1 in popularity last season. More meat and potatoes than sugar and spice, when well-drilled, this system can be as formidable as any. Broadcasted most prominently by Juventus last season, the 4-4-2 is actually utilized to a much greater extent in leagues outside of Italy. In fact, it was the preferred system of both the Spanish and French champions, Atletico Madrid (who also used a 3-5-2) and LOSC Lille. Fans of tiki taka football will also be surprised to hear that the 4-4-2 was the most commonly used formation in Spain’s top flight, as it was in France.
By giving the wingers a nudge and midfield a twist, a pragmatic and purposeful 4-2-3-1 can be turned into the characteristically more fluid and dynamic 4-3-3. And with the proper blend of players across each line, the 4-3-3 can also be exceptionally refined. Think of the last time you saw Liverpool, Real Madrid, or PSG flowing forward in full force. More likely than not, that was the 4-3-3 in action.
Fourth most popular in 2020-21, and the top back-three formation, was the 3-5-2. Built with passing lanes and width in mind, this setup looks to utilize its strong foundation in central defense to generate attacking penetrations with an ample measure of safety between the lines. Today, the 3-5-2 may as well be considered an Italian export, as this formation was used more often in Serie A than in the EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Ligue 1 combined. Fittingly, Italian champions Inter Milan lined up in the 3-5-2 during their title winning season. Atletico Madrid also used variations of a 3-5-2 throughout their title winning season in Spain.
Finishing off with another back-three system, the 3-4-2-1 adds a dash of novelty to the list. Obviously less prominent and arguably less established than the aforementioned options, this 3-4-3 variant really made a name for itself over the 2020-2021 season. Championed by Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, Champions League victors, the formation’s structure is perhaps best visualized as in the image: a 3-4 defensive gauntlet with a 2-1 attacking spearhead. While few other sides set this as their default, its frequent use in rotation with other formations see the 3-4-2-1 rank among the most popular in the world.
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