Breaking Down the Tactics of World Football's Biggest Clubs
Welcome to B/R's midseason tactical review of Europe's top clubs, where we dissect and analyse the formations, tendencies and tactics the best in the business are using.
If you've got a good feel for your own team's system but remain unsure on others' you've come to the right place: 24 teams have been analysed in full, their setups explained and there are diagrams to accompany too.
What are you waiting for? get stuck in!
We couldn't provide a full analysis of every top team in Europe, but we have committed to dropping a few bonus balls here to cover some of the sides we missed.
Possession-based 4-3-3, built to control and dominate through Ander Herrara, Ander Iturraspe and Beñat. Aritz Aduriz provides a target option, with quick wingers running off him to lap up scoring chances.
With Lars Bender they try to control proceedings from a 4-3-3 shell, but without him they almost exclusively resort to the counterattack. It suits their nifty playmakers Sidney Sam and Heung Min Son.
Lucien Favre plays a 4-4-2 with two hardworking strikers in Max Kruse and Raffael. Patrick Herrman's pace on the right is a key asset, and Christoph Kramer's work-rate remains integral to the balance.
Vincenzo Montella is a serial switcher of formations, but this system will always look to dominate the centre of the pitch given the abundance of technically gifted midfielders at his disposal.
Coach: Arsene Wenger
For a few seasons Arsenal have been toying with a hybrid 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formation, but this year converted fully to the latter with great results.
The onus remains on possession football and moving the ball swiftly from player to player, as Arsene Wenger firmly believes that dominance is sourced in monopolising the ball.
The 2012-13 season didn't go well, but integrating target striker Olivier Giroud took longer than expected and he's the fulcrum of the attack. His sideline-to-sideline brief—linking play, working channels and testing full-backs—is a rather unique role, and even when he's not scoring, he's making an impact.
With midfielders pushing forward to join him, it creates sustained spells of pressure in the final third and plenty of goalscoring opportunities for those in attacking areas.
Arsene Wenger's Arsenal: 4-2-3-1 http://t.co/einnSAA0OG— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
The central defensive pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny has been the best in the Premier League this season, with the two forming a classic stopper-sweeper combination behind an improved holding midfield pivot.
Mikel Arteta is much-improved and Mathieu Flamini has eased the load. With Kieran Gibbs' emergence and Bacary Sagna's sudden realisation of how to cross to his own teammates, that's become key to locking the back door.
The Gunners have scored the third-most goals and conceded the second-least in the league. Incredible balance.
Formation: 4-4-2 (Rigid)
Coach: Diego Simeone
When Radamel Falcao departed Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2013, many predicted clear regression for the club due to their inability to replace him.
To lose such a prolific striker at the peak of his powers was a blow, but fast-forward six months and it appears to have helped los Colchoneros reach the next level. Falcao was holding them back!
Simeone actively avoided giving the Colombian touches of the ball in the defensive and middle third of the pitch, preferring to keep his legs fresh in order to thrash in strike after strike. It's the con of playing with a limited striker like him, and the post-Falcao era has seen Diego Costa rise up and take on an all-action role his old teammate simply would not have been able to handle.
Atleti play a disciplined, rigid, hard-nosed 4-4-2, with the two defensive midfielders consistently in a low-block to protect the defence and cover for the full-backs. That frees up four attacking players—usually Costa, David Villa, Arda Turan and one other—to interchange, switch and roam up front.
Most play comes through Costa, who belies the traditional tagging of a "complete forward" by playing a sideline-to-sideline relief role, taking longer balls and using his aggression to make them into attacking passes.
Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid: 4-4-2 (rigid) http://t.co/GzghB6qm0n— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
He creates as much as he scores, he's the full package, and recruiting Villa—a Roja and Blaugrana stalwart who's educated in passing accurately—has aided the team's efficiency in the final third even if he isn't scoring too many himself.
Arda injects spark and genius from the flanks and has proven to be a workhorse, while local success story Koke appears to have an unlimited array of talents.
Atletico squeeze play and use their aggression and physicality to dominate in tight areas, making it difficult for teams to play through them. Teams often resort to bombarding the box with crosses, but Miranda and Diego Godin are superlative in the air.
The 4-4-2 succeeds in stifling attacks, but it also works offensively because of the extreme mobility, physicality and and work-rate of the front four. A perfect Simeone team—one which Falcao wouldn't get into.
Coach: Tata Martino
The tides are changing at Barcelona, and in Gerardo Martino the board have appointed the first non-Spaniard/Dutchman as long-term manager since Terry Venables in 1984.
Understandably, that brings around a change in philosophy. The foundations of pass-and-move, tiki-taka football laid down by Johan Cruyff are wavering a little, as Martino prefers a more vertical, direct style of play.
Barca have been the kings of possession for a long, long time, but earlier in the season finished with less than 50 percent possession for the first time in 136 games, per The Daily Mail. They won 4-0 regardless.
"Tata" Martino has kept the principle 4-3-3 shape and instructed his team to dominate games in their usual manner; They still average 67.1 percent possession per game—significantly higher than the closest challengers Rayo Vallecano—but their attacks have become far more incisive.
Gerardo Martino's Barcelona: 4-3-3 (vertical) http://t.co/VGhKAJvqYy— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Martino is from a tactical family specialising in vertical football, moving the ball from back to front as quickly as possible and opening up channels for players to utilise.
That strand of football is synonymous with certain players, and it should come as no surprise to see Lionel Messi drifting into a permanent No. 10 role, Alexis Sanchez ripping defences to shreds, full-backs flying forward and Cesc Fabregas excelling.
Much has stayed the same when you compare this model to Tito Vilanova's or Pep Guardiola's, but Martino likes to waste less time building play and spend more time creating clear-cut opportunities.
For all the "complaints" regarding Barca's shift away from their traditional philosophy, they are top of La Liga!
Coach: Pep Guardiola
The fervour surrounding Guardiola's return to management was remarkable; fans of most top clubs in world football were baying for him to choose their beloved institution.
He chose Bayern Munich and Bayern chose him, which was ironic given the Roten fan base was one of the few who were very happy with their current incumbent: Jupp Heynckes.
He would go on to win the famous tremble, smashing every team in his path by defining a true tactical master-plan for each game. He took micro-management of space, distance between lines and points of engagement to a new level. Even Mario Gomez played a disciplined role at his request.
Then he retired, and Guardiola walked into a virtual snake's pit teeming with unsavoury predictions of failure and worried questioning: This was the man who "forced" Heynckes out of his position, yet how on earth was he going to replicate his predecessor's work?
Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich: 4-1-4-1 (false-nine) http://t.co/yBleQGongx— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Well, the Bundesliga resumed from its winter break this past week, and barring an initial hiccup in the DFL Supercup, his side are running perfectly. No Bundesliga team has ever collected 44 points from the first 16 games, and he is the first manager to remain unbeaten in the first half of the season.
He's moulded Heynckes' 4-2-3-1 formation into a 4-1-4-1—not the first of its kind, but certainly one of the best—and despite rocking the boat with some personnel, maintains a winning culture.
Mario Mandzukic has been devalued as a target man, with die Bayern favouring free-flowing movement and ball-playing forwards over a hulking figure. Their average possession figure of 71 percent for the first half of the season is a product of their relentless spells of pressure created in the final third.
Mario Goetze appears to be the chosen false-nine-esque forward under Pep, and Thiago Alcantara has helped the transition to a possession-first side. Philipp Lahm's added layers to his game by playing in defensive midfield as the "1" and looked superb.
Pretty much everything Pep has tried thus far has worked superbly, but this half-season is the real test: can the German behemoths retain the Champions League? It's almost expected at this point.
Coach: Juergen Klopp
It was initially feared that Mario Goetze's departure would haunt Borussia Dortmund's 2013-14 season, but the sheer amount of injures the club has sustained has meant focus on the former "golden boy" has been abandoned.
BVB, one of the most fluid, entertaining and attacking teams in world football, have been a shadow of the side who finished runners-up in the Champions League last season. The pile-up of ailments suffered has been so great, their Bundesliga title tilt was scuppered back in November.
Juergen Klopp has always favoured the 4-2-3-1 formation for its flexibility, and when Dortmund are at the peak of their powers, they attack you in every possible way, probing for weakness in every area.
Ball-playing, creative outlets dominate the XI, from Mats Hummels at centre-back, through Ilkay Gundogan in midfield to Robert Lewandowski in attack.
Klopp has always changed playmakers depending on the fixture, ensuring his gameplan isn't foiled by a simple man-marking job on a certain individual.
Lewandowski excels at dropping into midfield and pulling wide to receive longer passers, and not only does this give the team an aerial outlet to utilise, but it also drags defenders out of position, creating holes in the defensive line.
Juergen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund: 4-2-3-1 http://t.co/uwXx0reqeg— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
It's these holes that Marco Reus—and formerly Goetze—exploit with such deadly efficiency, hitting the gaps with pace and menace to work a route in on goal. BVB can retain the ball as well as anyone, but they're at their spearing best when working the ball from back to front in optimal fashion.
Their game has diminished a little since losing Goetze due to his replacement, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, putting together a patchy first half-season in Dortmund.
He's comparable to the Kaka of old in the way he surges forward into space, but when teams bottle up and defend deep he struggles to find room to create. He's yet to reach a stage where he can control any Bundesliga game.
Unfortunately, many hallmarks of the BVB we know and love have been swept away due to injury. Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski have been unable to link up, Neven Subotic and Hummels haven't played together and Ilkay Gundogan is yet to return from a spinal injury.
If it weren't for Nuri Sahin stitching everything together, Dortmund would be in a far, far worse position than they are already.
Coach: Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho has returned to Stamford Bridge with a typically defensive spin on the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Rafa Benitez had the club playing some scintillating stuff by the end of his reign—Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard were ripping teams to shreds in dominant displays—but "Mou" has opted to grind out results in a typically efficient way.
He's retained the same systematic shape, but the football being played is the polar opposite; defensive solidity, compact, zonal defence and lightning-fast counterattacks are the name of the game.
Mata was sold because he doesn't suit the system, and while that may sound crazy to most, the simple fact is its true: Chelsea attack by creating turnovers in the defensive phase and forcing crosses from the opposition, then handing the ball off for Hazard to tear up the pitch on his own.
Jose Mourinho's Chelsea: 4-2-3-1 http://t.co/6bYpbZJIFP— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
The offensive playmakers Mourinho has bought so far—Willian, Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah—all have blistering pace, an eye for goal and are fully capable of carrying the ball 50, 60, even 70 yards up-field on their own.
This is the standard, this is what's required to play in Jose's XI, and Mata is physically unable to replicate what those three (plus Hazard and Oscar) do for the team.
Central midfield was a concern heading into the season given its relative "weakness" in comparison to other areas of the squad, but Nemanja Matic is an extremely good signing.
He cuts out attacks early, distributes well and can also spark a vertical run—a la Ramires—from deeper areas. It shores them up defensively, yet adds an extra element to attack.
This team is a Diego Costa-like figure away from being complete once again.
Coach: Roberto Martinez
When Roberto Martinez joined Everton in the summer, speculation immediately intensified over what sort of side he'd be churning out come the opening day of the season.
Would it be 3-4-3 or 4-3-3? Will the defence be just as porous as Wigan's? Is he truly cut out for a high-profile job?
Most predictions turned out to be wide of the mark—other than those suggesting he and the Toffees could be this seasons surprise story, of course—but the one hallmark he did retain from his days at Wigan was possession-hungry, dominant football.
The system he has put in place—the system that has guided Everton to a top-four chase as we enter February—has been carefully constructed and tweaked using the peripherals available to him.
He hasn't forced a new shape on them, but instead stuck to his fluid principles from a base 4-2-3-1 formation, creatinga lopsided XI that eschews symmetry and confuses opponents.
Roberto Martinez's Everton: 4-2-3-1 http://t.co/sML1rZeeb5— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
They keep the ball on the deck, play with a back four and encourage both fullbacks to cannon forward at every opportunity. If Leighton Baines is crossing from the byline, you can bet the man at the far post will be Seamus Coleman, steaming in from deep.
Kevin Mirallas provides genuine width on the right and a combination of Brian Oviedo and Steven Pienaar have been cutting in on the left; It maintains balance and stretches the pitch, but also opens up lanes for deeper players to surge forward.
Gareth Barry's primary brief has been to to protect the back four and guard the formation as the left side tilts forward, but he can opt to enter the attack late on, making him tough to pick up and hard to stop. James McCarthy sweeps up behind him.
Romelu Lukaku provides an aerial outlet if needed and he can protect the ball in the final third, giving the Toffees a relief mechanism should they encounter a stubborn defensive outlook.
It's all going rather well; the performances, the results, the tactics and the morale at Everton are all top-notch. But can they sustain this top-four challenge, and how will the squad fare when Barry, Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Lacina Traore end their loan spells this summer?
Regardless of where they finish, there'll be no shortage of questions to answer in June.
Coach: Walter Mazzarri
The preseason hype surrounding Walter Mazarri's appointment at Internazionale is now a distant memory.
For all the good he was supposed to bring to an ailing giant, their good start tailed off fast and they've been poor since December, struggling to score goals.
Mazzarri brought his fabled 3-5-2 / 3-5-1-1 formation with him to the San Siro, and poached prime centre back Hugo Campagnaro from former club Napoli on a free transfer to boot.
The Argentine was to help ease his new side into the three-man defensive regime, but things haven't gone too smoothly despite the squad's exposure to it previously under both Andrea Stramaccioni and Gian Piero Gasperini.
Walter Mazzarri's Internazionale: 3-5-1-1 http://t.co/wsWLuEn4Ep— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Walter Samuel was a loss early on, but personnel issues have also taken their toll on an exhausted-looking side. Ricky Alvarez has been a real plus-point and Rodrgio Palacio provides pace and guile up front, but since Jonathan stopped scoring from right-wing-back the team have sloped off.
Perhaps we're too harsh, but Inter have been in the doldrums too long and Mazzarri was to be the saviour. Comparing and constrasting his Napoli side to this one, though, it looks sterile and weak.
The ball is being moved too slowly, individuals aren't stepping up and the club need January reinforcements badly. Suggestions that Hernanes is on the cusp of joining the Nerazzurri, provided by Football Italia, could transform the side's fortune as the Brazilian can replicate the Marek Hamsik role in Naples.
Coach: Antonio Conte
The tactical situation at Juventus is curious, as despite their unrivaled dominance in Serie A, they remain unable to progress in the Champions League.
Conte's 3-5-2 works like a charm in domestic games, but for the last two years its failed to make a splash against the best teams in the Champions League.
The coach is aware of this, and as such tried to switch to a 4-3-3 when taking on Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu. It didn't work, they lost 2-1, and Conte was forced into the Europa League just a few weeks later.
Domestically, though, it remains all smiles; throughout December they barely conceded a goal, as the three-man defence Conte has crafted dominated attack after attack in Serie A.
The Andrea Barzagli-Leonardo Bonucci-Giorgio Chiellini trio is formidable, world-class and provides the backbone of a stellar Italian national team too.
With Andrea Pirlo playing his regal regista role deep in midfield, Conte has had to be very particular about the type of midfielders he places alongside the maestro. They have to be full of energy, willing to run the hard yards and have an element of verticality about them.
Antonio Conte's Juventus: 3-5-2 http://t.co/wjTF8Oy5ue— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Arturo Vidal, the best central midfielder currently playing the game, partners a combination of wunderkind Paul Pogba and Juventino Claudio Marchisio—a luxury pallet for choice.
They find their width through energetic wing-backs, with Stephan Lichtsteiner in particular a valuable, yet understated, asset from the right.
The biggest question mark hanging over from last season was up front: is Mirko Vucinic plus one a world-class strike force, able to break down top teams?
The argument was unfairly concluded when the team lost convincingly to Bayern Munich, but we all know what Jupp Heynckes' side then did to Barcelona just a few weeks later.
Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez arrived in the summer of 2013 to transform this team, and after a sluggish start they've begun clicking in dangerous fashion.
The Old Lady remain favourites for the Scudetto (a third consecutive one!) and will try to win the Europa League, what with the final being held at Juventus Stadium and all.
Formation: 4-3-3, but prone to tweaks
Coach: Brendan Rodgers
Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool with an obvious passing template borne from his days at Swansea City, but over the course of his tenure, has become one of the most versatile and diverse tacticians in the Premier League.
His base system is a 4-3-3, with fast wingers, attacking full-backs and tidy pass-masters in midfield a regular feature during the 2012-13 season, but he's improved drastically when it comes to experimenting and utilising his peripherals more wisely.
Jordan Henderson is thriving in an all-action, high energy role, buzzing in and around his captain and providing much-needed verticality in attack. If Rodgers could find a physically overbearing, defensive-minded midfielder to complete the trio it'd be a match made in heaven.
Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool: 4-3-3 (one of many variants) http://t.co/MQxehtvqTw— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have been on fire all season long, and Rodgers has experimented with ways in which to keep the two paired up and scoring with regularity.
He tried a 3-4-1-2 with Victor Moses as a No. 10 in behind but it didn't last. The 4-4-2 was essentially disastrous, as it was over-run by Aston Villa and ditched ahead of the 4-0 win over Everton on Tuesday night.
The 3-5-2 has also cropped up given the luxury of centre-backs at the club, but the sub-par full-backs were targeted to devastating effect.
The Reds seem at their best in a loose 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid, attacking with a true No. 10 in Philippe Coutinho (when on form) and dropping into a 4-3-3 shell for the defensive phases.
It enables Suarez and Sturridge to take up wide roles and provide an outlet for a quick clearance, and it's through this method that Liverpool now look most potent: on the counterattack. Ironic, huh?
Formation: Fluid 4-4-2, "balanced" outlook
Coach: Manuel Pellegrini
Manchester City were in a rigid rut when Pellegrini took over.
The hangover from Roberto Mancini's era, culminating in an FA Cup final loss to a Wigan side who would be relegated just three days later, threw up some extremely obvious deficiencies.
A lack of true width in the forward areas, unsuccessfully solved by adopting a 3-5-2 formation and allowing Aleksandar Kolarov to roam the touchline, contributed heavily to their defeat to Roberto Martinez at Wembley, and central midfield was also in dire need of an upgrade.
Pellegrini's appointment was pooh-poohed by the uneducated pundits; those who hadn't seen the miracles he worked at Villarreal, and the great job he did at Real Madrid in tough circumstances, saw his poor trophy haul and sniffed.
The Chilean will always use two strikers if possible, and while that wasn't possible at Malaga last year, it certainly is at City.
Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City: 4-4-2 (balanced) http://t.co/l1iVmfgwBS— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Signing Alvaro Negredo to pair with Sergio Aguero was a masterstroke, with the Spaniard's physical, yet technical flavour complementing the Argentine's relentless running and killer instinct.
With two up front and a back four in place, that only leaves room for four in midfield, but Pellegrini's 4-4-2 is far from your typical rigid look.
It's one of the most free-flowing formations in football, with each player acutely aware that spacial spreading is the key to stretching teams—along with the width Jesus Navas provides.
It met its match against Bayern Munich at the Etihad earlier in the season, where a lack of tracking from either striker left City outnumbered in the both central and wide areas. Recent tweaks, though, have enabled the Citizens to go on one hell of a run.
Coach: David Moyes
It's difficult to know where to start with Manchester United.
Sir Alex Ferguson left an under-par squad for David Moyes to battle with, and the summer transfer window failings left the Scotsman in the lurch with regard to squad building.
He's part-way through a total rebuild, and it's slightly unfair to judge the signing of, for example, Marouane Fellaini, when he was clearly part of a two-part plan.
What we have seen from Moyes, though, is the occasional strong spark. It's enough to tell us a lot of the #MoyesOut criticism is very harsh, and that given the right utensils, he can give this job a good go.
He's favoured the 4-2-3-1 formation for the most part, with the attacking onus falling on either Wayne Rooney or the wide players on the pitch. For example, he Beat Sami Hyypia all ends up in the Champions League by overloading the flanks and picking on their suspect full-backs.
David Moyes' Manchester United: 4-2-3-1 http://t.co/6rfnl5ykbd— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
One of United's best showings came with Rooney at central midfield in a 4-3-3 at Villa Park, and the Englishman was instrumental in tearing Paul Lambert's men—and in particular Nathan Baker—to shreds.
His 4-2-3-1 at Old Trafford is rather similar to his 4-4-1-1 at Goodison Park, except he's got a far better deep-lying forward / No. 10 to work with and he's just gone and recruited Juan Mata.
Patrice Evra and Rafael have gotten forward well all season, with the former in particular averaging 1.2 key passes per game. It's left them open defensively at times, but injuries in defensive midfield and underwhelming defensive performances haven't helped.
Ultimately, balance will be Moyes' best friend for the second half of the season; then he can hit the market and sign some new defensive options.
Coach: Clarence Seedorf
For Clarence Seedorf, and for those watching Milan, the slate is clean, ready to be filled in.
Having been appointed as manager midway through January—following Massimiliano Allegri's sacking live on television—he's set about repairing a ship with hundreds and hundreds of holes, plummeting further and further down the Serie A table.
His first two results have been ideal, securing six points from an over-achieving Hellas Verona side filled with momentum and from a tough trip away to a stubborn Cagliari side, but the performances haven't.
Seedorf has moved away from Allegri's obsession with the 4-3-1-2 (and variants of) systems and installed a pretty basic 4-2-3-1. Fans have been baying for this for some time, but while the club are now on the right track in terms of results, there are plenty of improvements to be made.
Clarence Seedorf's Milan: 4-2-3-1 http://t.co/IYHSkvCX2i— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Keisuke Honda, a marquee winter signing, is yet to bed in and looks rustier than an abandoned shed, while Urby Emanuelson cannot be considered a long-term solution at left-back. Seedorf's pursuit of Napoli's Pablo Armero, as per GianlucaDiMarzio.com, is at least an indication that the manager is aware of this issue.
On paper the current team has good balance, with drive sourced in Kaka as a No. 10, speed on the left with Robinho and creativity in Honda. Nigel de Jong and Riccardo Montolivo form a good holding pivot on paper, but the latter is seriously underperforming on a consistent basis.
There is still a lot of work for Seedorf to do to heal this ailing giant.
Coach: Rafa Benitez
Napoli have put together an extremely strong first half to the Serie A season, and Rafa Benitez is doing a magnificent job in the wake of the revered, adored Walter Mazzarri.
The last time the Spaniard replaced a legend it was Internazionale and Jose Mourinho—remember how that ended?—so some trepidation ahead of the move was to be expected.
Aurelio De Laurentiis backed his appointment with cash, though, and the Edinson Cavani sale for circa €60 million helped Benitez reshape the Partenopei to his liking.
They play a very typical 4-2-3-1 formation (Benitez's hallmark), with physical strength in midfield and attacking dynamism up front the key factors in any win.
Blerim Dzemaili, Valon Behrami and Gokhan Iner man a holding pivot at the heart of the formation, with Behrami in particularly coming on leaps and bounds under the Spaniard's guidance.
Rafa Benitez's Napoli: 4-2-3-1 http://t.co/rP8VScDgYv— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Attacks are quick, direct, and piercing in their nature: Jose Callejon has been a magnificent recruit on the right side, and Dries Mertens has truly settled in on the other flank.
The confidence and killer instinct Gonzalo Higuain has given this side in the final third is remarkable, and his Real Madrid connection with Callejon helped both gel seamlessly.
Defence, though, remains a problem and Benitez is trying to address that as we speak. He inherited a side used to playing a 3-5-2/3-5-1-1 formation 90 percent of the time, and as such lacks any full-backs experienced in playing in a back four.
Pablo Armero, Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga are at their best going forward but suffer defensively, making Napoli's purported negotiations for Kevin Constant, via GianlucaDiMarzio.com, wise.
A top-tier centre-back to pair with Federico Fernandez wouldn't go amiss, either.
Formation: 4-2-3-1 / 4-2-2
Coach: Alan Pardew
Newcastle are a slight unknown at this stage, as they've just completed surgical changes to their squad and present something of an open canvas.
Almost everything the team did, from an attacking pint of view, was centered around Yohan Cabaye, but with the Frenchman sold to Paris Saint-Germain, Pardew will now require a different approach in the final third.
They started the season switching timidly between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, but in December Pardew produced a 4-2-3-1 with Cabaye playing as a suffoco No. 10—stifling the deep-lying playmakers and leading from an advanced position.
They won 1-0, and Cabaye kept his place ahead of the central midfielders but enjoyed a more creative, expansive role. He's been one of the best players in the Premier League since moving forward, with his source of ingenuity providing plenty of clear-cut chances.
Alan Pardew's Newcastle: 4-2-3-1 http://t.co/HbfKeiZr1F— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
It also allowed Vurnon Anita to enter the team alongside Cheick Tiote in his favoured holding midfield position.
In attack Loic Remy has cooled off after a blistering start, and with both Ameobis untrustworthy and Papiss Cisse struggling, Pardew has felt the need to recruit Luuk de Jong on loan from Borussia Moenchengladbach.
He's a different type of striker to those available, but is he an upgrade? His direct, Ricky van Wolfswinkel-esque style will certainly spark a change in how the Magpies attack, but will be for the better?
It's going to be an interesting half season at St. James' Park without the influences of Cabaye in midfield.
Formation: 4-3-3 / 4-4-2
Coach: Laurent Blanc
Under Carlo Ancelotti Paris Saint-Germain took months to find their groove and pick a preferred system, eventually ending up with a 4-2-2-2 that suited Lucas Moura and Javier Pastore perfectly.
Blanc settled on a system much faster, and despite initally trialing a 4-4-2, adopted the 4-3-3 on a permanent basis despite the signing of Edinson Cavani as a striker.
While that shoves the Uruguayan out onto the right—hardly his preferred spot, but he's performed superbly there—the three-man midfield is an essential feature in the way PSG operate. They play attractive, possession-based football, averaging 65.2 percent per game, but remain extremely solid at the back.
Thiago Motta's form as an anchor has been key to Blanc's early successes, and if weren't for the excellence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, he'd be their Player of the Season so far.
Laurent Blanc's PSG: 4-3-3 http://t.co/novgvWOEci— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
The solidity he provides allows Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti an attacking license, with the former in particular superior to most midfielders in Ligue 1 thanks to his power and speed.
The full-backs are extremely offensive and make important runs in the final third, with Gregory van der Wiel in particular excelling in the Champions League this season.
Ibrahimovic remains the main man at the spearhead of the 4-3-3, and with Cavani on the right flank and Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left, Blanc has constructed a system that gets the best out of at least two.
Everything PSG do, they way they move, the runs they make and they shape they utilise is to get the best out of their elite goalscorers.
The signing of Yohan Cabaye has sparked debate over whether the club might switch to a 4-4-2 diamond to accomodate him, while the poor showings of Lucas Moura and Jeremy Menez have heightened the club's interest in Antoine Griezmann and Yevhen Konoplyanka.
Formation: 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 / 4-4-2
Coach: Carlo Ancelotti
With Barcelona and Atletico Madrid locking horns at the top of La Liga, many fans outside of Spain forgot all about the force that is Real Madrid.
But January has firmly fixed the notion that they're not involved in the race for the title, as consecutive draws from both Barca and Atleti allowed los Blancos to make major ground on their rivals.
Now just one point off the pace, they're impossible to ignore, and that's a credit to Carlo Ancelotti's work in rolling a complex situation into a rather manageable, effective solution.
Imagine having Mesut Ozil and Gonzalo Higuain ripped from your grasp, being given Gareth Bale—the world's most expensive footballer, whose signing upset Angel Di Maria—and being asked to simply "get on with it"?
Like at PSG, Ancelotti experimented with his formation and cycled through the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 before seemingly settling only a 4-3-3 of late.
The front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale is scintillating when on form, but questions remain over Benzema and the Bernabeu still doesn't seem to have truly taken to him.
Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid: 4-3-3 http://t.co/nmZrxqPkQ9— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
Di Maria is currently playing centrally in a "3", but whether that was always the plan or a product of Sami Khedira's unfortunate injury remains to be seen.
The midfield three boasts excellent balance, with Di Maria a super "shuttler" offering vertical drive and stamina, Luka Modric bossing games from a playmaker position and Xabi Alonso/Asier Illarramendi providing the steel as a single-pivot.
Marcelo is back to his shining, attacking best, and the club have done well to cope with the injury to Raphael Varane. Pepe has come in and, remarkably, hasn't received a yellow card in his last seven starts. Reformed?
Experimentation within the shape has been common, with Isco taking up a false-nine role against Espanyol on Tuesday night and Jese coming in for more and more playing time (and excelling!).
Coach: Rudi Garcia
Roma's last few seasons have been absolutely crazy, and fans are now genuinely ecstatic in the knowledge that the club will retain a coach longer than one season.
It's been difficult for players to settle under the many regime changes, and with each manager a different style of football was required: Luis Enrique tried to replicate Barcelona and failed, while Zdenek Zeman had some good ideas but treated key players poorly; Aurelio Andreazzoli played some scintillating football using Francesco Totti as a false-nine, but most peripherals have now departed.
Despite the obvious talent on show, the Giallorossi were in dire need of going "back to basics," settling on a safe system and recruiting hardworking players that can shape a successful season.
Rudi Garcia faced plenty of doubts when he took control of the club last summer, but his performance so far has been terrific. Roma have 50 points already, looked nailed on for Champions League qualification and are fighting Juventus for the Serie A title.
Their success is founded in an outrageously stubborn defence, with summer signing Mehdi Benatia patrolling the line and barking out orders to his unsung teammates. Garcia has rejuvenated Maicon and dealt with unwelcome rotation at left-back, but Benatia strings it all together regardless.
Rudi Garcia's Roma: 4-3-3 http://t.co/18JspEoStc— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
The midfield three, anchored by Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman, is extremely solid, runs the hard yards and offers enough verticality to ensure Miralem Pjanic isn't overwhelmed with his attacking duties in the final third. Radja Nainggolan has been a brilliant acquisition.
Francesco Totti remains magnificent even at 37 years of age, linking play superbly and tormenting defenders with his clever tricks and flicks.
If there's one question mark, though, it's in the wide areas: Garcia's 4-3-3 can struggle to break teams down when they defend extremely deep, and with Pjanic not playing as a No. 10 and Totti not a last0man striker, the onus falls on the wide players.
Gervinho, for all his excellence in space, struggles in tight areas, and Alessandro Florenzi struggles to create without a creative full-back to work in tandem with.
The links, therefore, to Juan Iturbe make a lot of sense, and the club will want more from Adem Ljajic.
Coach: Tim Sherwood
Upon being appointed, Sherwood jumped on the 4-4-2 bandwagon, and the formation has been a great success during his short time in charge so far.
A recent thrashing against Manchester City aside, Spurs have looked fluid in attack and well organised in defence—although the latter part may be down to the presence of Vlad Chiriches and the improved form of Kyle Walker alone.
As with any 4-4-2 at this level, and similar to what we've outlined with Atletico Madrid and Man City, Spurs employ a basic shell but allow players to roam freely within.
For example, while Aaron Lennon is a true right winger, Christian Eriksen plays an extremely loose role that allows him to pop up anywhere and everywhere on the pitch.
Nabil Bentaleb is used as a signal controller, dishing out easy high-percentage passes to keep the team ticking over, and he's paired with a destroyer in the form of Sandro or Etienne Capoue. They drop deep in defence but spread expansively when on the attack, stretching opposing teams formations and creating holes.
Tim Sherwood's Spurs: 4-4-2 (loose) http://t.co/JhFBvL2kbg— Sam Tighe (@stighefootball) January 30, 2014
The key is balance. The modern 4-4-2 is all about balance: One winger to provide width, one playmaker to flat; one ball-playing midfielder, one anchor to hold the fort; one marauding full-back, one reserved full-back.
Something Spurs didn't have under Andre Villas-Boas this season was a long ball outlet, and where Christian Benteke, Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Negredo helped their teams greatly in providing relief, Roberto Soldado failed.
That's not a slight on Soldado—he's a smaller, quicker striker—but AVB misused him, overburdened him, and paid the price with his job.
Sherwood has paired him with a rejuvenated Emmanuel Adebayor, and the results have been absolutely superb. Soldado appears far more creative on the ball than his reputation stated, and Adebayor is scoring goals.
Spurs and City's approaches now intertwine greatly, and Sherwood was wise to take Manuel Pellegrini's model and reshape his XI on it. How far he can take it, though, is a different question entirely.