As a result bundesliga.com has delved in the data banks to investigate the rise in popularity of 4-2-3-1, the role of the lone striker, the effects on the rest of the system and whether all these factors indicates the end of 4-4-2 as we know it.
Over the summer, again and again, Pep Guardiola was asked about the tactical schemes he had in store for Bayern Munich. His repeated affirmations that ‘the system is not important’ fell on deaf ears. It quite clearly was. Bayern’s recent success has by and large come from a fluid 4-2-3-1, now ubiquitous across the Bundesliga (11 sides are expected to line up with the formation on the Matchday 1) and one turned into a well-oiled machine by his predecessor.
4-2-3-1 requires a talented centre-forward, who boasts a broad range of attributes. The ideal centre-forward is physical, technically gifted, aerialy adept and capable of pressing as the first line of defence. The likes of Mario Mandzukic and Robert Lewandowski encompass this skill-set perfectly, proven by their ability to score goals whilst also acting as a fulcrum around which their team-mates can provide support. They remain a rare breed amongst their fellow strikers though.
Stefan Kießling and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, however, are the Bundesliga’s most natural finishers, but at times struggle to provide a forward pivot for their team-mates to play the ball into feet. In a league where the average number of goals scored by an out-and-out striker has decreased (from 59% of a team’s total in 2002/03 to 39% in 2012/13), the trend continues to lean towards a 4-2-3-1 formation, in which the importance of centre forwards like these four cannot be understated.
Furthermore the system is less adaptable compared to a 4-4-2, as it requires personnel with specific skill-sets that aren't always easy to come by. Hamburg employed a 4-4-2 diamond last season, while FC Augsburg's resurgence in the second half of the season came following a switch from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. Indeed, teams who changed systems most often last season (1899 Hoffenheim, 1. FSV Mainz 05, Greuther Fürth and Augsburg) found themselves fighting for survival, highlighting that tactical tinkering isn't always the best policy.
Taking the big clubs on at their own game can be costly, and instead of trying to counteract more dominant sides with different formations, sides in the bottom half can often be seen employing a similar, albeit a more deep-lying version, of the formation. This new style of play naturally creates more space, but reduces the number of one-on-one situations (the last time this number was so low was 1996/97), as well as fouls, which decreased from almost 13,000 in 2002/03, to 9,511 in 2011/12.
Unsurprisingly, when more modern, fitter and mobile No. 10's are afforded space, more goals tend to materialise from midfield. Over the last ten years the number of goals from attacking midfielders has almost doubled from 220 to 427. These players operating 'in the hole' are not only filling the gaps created by the movement of the lone striker, but also utilising them to provide through balls, leading to a record number of goals (782) being scored inside the box in 2012/13.
Although 4-2-3-1 may have overtaken 4-4-2 in the popularity stakes, this does not necessarily mean that it is more effective. Indeed, Hamburg’s aforementioned system inflicted one of Borussia Dortmund's six defeats last season, while at Euro 2012, Germany’s 4-2-3-1, which had produced a four-game winning streak, came undone against Italy’s 4-4-2 midfield diamond, proving that X's and O's can only get a team so far.