It is difficult to understate the importance of a manager at a football club; their tactics, team selection and their relationships with the players. All have a huge impact on performance, and the changing nature of both football and the world itself means that this is an ever-changing process. Today, the Premier League is blessed with some of the sharpest managerial minds in world football, the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel. In fact, the latest Premier League odds have their three teams as the current favourites to win the title this year, with very little separating Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea when it comes to these betting lines.
While star players may make the headlines, managers are the ones pulling the strings and dictating how the game is played. Over the years, the Premier League has seen countless shifts in the trends of managerial tactics, though there is one man who proved himself a world-leading shot-caller over the span of three decades: Sir Alex Ferguson.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s DominanceEmbed from Getty Images
Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure at Manchester United remains the gold standard of a truly great manager. He led them to 38 trophies over 28 years at the club, including a staggering 13 Premier League titles, and two UEFA Champions League trophies.
He joined the club in 1986 but it wasn’t until the early 90s that his presence was truly felt. Though he was by no means the first manager to use a 4-4-2 formation, he was certainly one of the most influential in establishing clear principles of play around the system, and mastering it in a way others simply could not replicate.
At times, Fergie’s 4-4-2 would look more like a 4-4-1-1, with one of the strikers dropping slightly behind the other. Further, one central midfielder would always fulfill a more active box to box role. These variations were not uncommon during the early 2000s, but Ferguson was one of the best at the art. The Red Devil legend morphed his side into a dominant force with his system, and it had ramifications across the league, as other clubs attempted to copy his style stride for stride.
What marked Fergie out as perhaps the greatest manager the sport has ever seen was his ability to adapt over time. As the game evolved, Sir Alex shifted his formations, tactics, and made radical overhauls to his system at United.
Arsene Wenger’s LegacyEmbed from Getty Images
Sir Alex was not the only legendary manager to grace the early 2000s. In fact, the best example of a league winning 4-4-1-1 formation was perhaps displayed by Arsene Wenger. The French manager altered the landscape of the Premier League by playing more of a play-making ‘number 10’, usually Dennis Bergkamp, in the attacking midfield role rather than a true second striker.
Wenger’s system encouraged attack-minded football and creativity, but would often rely on the brilliance of individual players like Bergkamp and Thierry Henry. Defenders were forced out of position to double team these star men, and space naturally opened up out wide for Arsenal’s wingers to expose. The Arsenal legend was so successful during his time with the Gunners that they even went an entire season without losing a game. To this day, Wenger‘s tactics make him one of the greatest managers to ever grace the Premier League.
A few years later, ‘The Special One’ made his mark on the Premier League. Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Chelsea was a seismic event for the league, and not just because of his unwavering confidence and charisma.
Mourinho Makes His MarkEmbed from Getty Images
Just as the 4-4-2 became the dogmatic way to play football, in came Jose Mourinho to tear that all apart. Recognizing just how deadly another midfield man could be to dominating football matches, Mourinho helped inspire the game’s shift to the 4-3-3. Jose’s system had a clear emphasis on a strong backline and strong spine, with one holding midfielder, Claude Makelele, sitting in front of the defenders.
This allowed the other midfielders to push up, create, and score more goals than ever before. Frank Lampard was a clear beneficiary of this, regularly scoring for Chelsea. So while an attacking midfielder supporting an out-and-out striker remained similar in practice, that midfielder’s role still became one that was more defensive, and deeper on the field. It was now up to a lone striker to truly lead the line, a role Didier Drogba well and truly made his own. Jose cannot be given credit as the first manager to introduce a 4-3-3, but like Ferguson with the 4-4-2, he was certainly one of the most influential in making the formation something every other manager wanted to try.
THE MODERN DAY 4-3-3 IS BORNEmbed from Getty Images
Moving into 2010 and beyond, Guardiola emerged as one of the world’s most prolific managers at Barcelona. With a focus on pressing and possession, the Catalans produced breath-taking football that very few could replicate or contend with. He evolved his tactics to look more like a 4-1-4-1 at Bayern Munich and even his early days at Manchester City, and can also be credited for the shifting nature of formations to become increasingly redundant. There is now less emphasis on any one formation, and Pep instead encourages fluid and rapid football, embracing a frenetic energy that has become a hallmark of the modern game. The same could be said about Jurgen Klopp, another proponent of the 4-3-3 who has won both the UEFA Champions League and Premier League deploying a high-pressing, high-tempo, high possession system. As the 4-3-3 and its close cousin (the 4-2-3-1) continue to dominate the footballing landscape, managers are still working out the very best ways to beat these dogmatic systems and change the footballing future.
But when it comes to tactics and formations in the Premier League so far, the likes of Ferguson, Wenger, Mourinho and Guardiola are all revered as pioneers of modern football, and each changed the landscape of the Premier League in their own way.
So there it is! From Ferguson and Wenger to Guardiola and Klopp: How Formations Evolved Over Time. Be sure to check out more from our Tactics section, and follow on social media using the links below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!