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Pep’s Revival of a Classic Tactic – And How it Could be Vulnerable Next Season.

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

Man City boss Guardiola has been leading at the forefront of Europe's tactical evolution in recent years.

Pep’s Revival of a Classic Tactic – And How it Could be Vulnerable Next Season. [Getty]
Pep’s Revival of a Classic Tactic [GETTY IMAGES]

Man City boss Guardiola has been leading at the forefront of Europe's tactical evolution in recent years.

The world’s greatest innovators have historically shared a number of characteristics, not least intellectual humility and a willingness to accept the limits of their own knowledge. This mindset also enables them to borrow from other great thinkers, as they look to evolve existing ideas rather than constantly reinvent the wheel.

This is true across multiple disciplines too. Just as there are only 12 major guitar chords and a finite number of combinations in which they can be played when constructing songs, for example, football coaches face determinate restrictions in terms of the formations that they deploy and how they can be adapted in and out of possession.

Current Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola can lay claim to being the most seminal innovator in modern football, especially with rival coaches like Mikael Arteta and Erik Ten Hag having learned directly from the Spaniard. Pep has also been at the forefront of tactical evolution in Europe in recent years while crystalising his own ideas about how he wants his teams to line up in all phases of the game.

More recently, Guardiola has become wedded to a 3-2-4-1 shape when his team is in possession of the ball, with this essentially a contemporary interpretation of the classic ‘W-M’ formation that was used until the early 1960s. But how exactly is this shape constructed, and could its vulnerabilities be exploited next season?

What is the W-M Formation? Pep’s 3-2-4-1 System Explored

The traditional W-M shape was first used way back in the early 20th century before being gradually phased out by the evolution of the 4-4-2 formation in the 1960s and prior to England’s World Cup win in 1966.

In numerical terms, this shape resembles a 3-2-2-3, while it evolved out of a necessity to combat the attack-oriented 2-3-5 formation that most teams deployed in the late 19th century. It also arguably represents the first example of a balanced and well-structured on-field formation and one that focused on creating overloads in central areas of the pitch.

Historically speaking, the W-M formation comprised three central and relatively narrow defenders, who lined up behind two ‘half backs’. A pair of inside forwards then dropped slightly deeper to support a front three, creating four lines or units that could simultaneously commit five men to the attack while retaining a solid foundation.

Of course, Pep’s modern take on this classic tactic is nuanced, while it should be noted that his treble-winning side only adopts this shape when in possession of the ball. During defensive transitions or phases of the game, they revert to a more familiar 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 shape, with one player performing a pivotal hybrid role that sees them switch seamlessly between defence and midfield.

When they have the ball, Guardiola’s side also plays with three narrow central defenders, while one full-back steps into the midfield to support the anchorman or deep-lying playmaker (typically Rodri).

The next line comprises two roving eights (which is a staple of Guardiola’s tactical approach), with players like Kevin De Bruyne and the departing İlkay Gündoğan creating central overloads while supporting two wide forwards and a single, central striker.

Thanks to the clarity of Guardiola’s tactical thinking and the positional discipline of his players, this shape has proved highly successful and integral to City's success in 2022/23, while it should be noted that Arsenal, Manchester United and now Liverpool are adopting their own iterations of the 3-2-4-1 when they’re in possession.

Looking for Vulnerabilities – Why Was the W-M Shape Abandoned?

As we can see, the modern 3-2-4-1 formation can be hard to counter when it’s deployed well, thanks largely to the balance that it provides and its ability to create a wider range of passing options. In this case, the question that remains is why did the system fall out of fashion in the first place?

The simple answer is that the formation fell prey to the continual tactical evolution that has characterised the game for more than a century, particularly when former England manager Sir Alf Ramsay began to evolve the 4-4-2 shape that had been pioneered by Soviet coach Viktor Maslov.

Maslov himself evolved this formation from Brazil’s flamboyant 4-2-4 formation at the end of the 1950s, as teams looked to strike a far greater balance between attack and defence. As the 4-4-2 took hold, the narrow defensive shape of the W-M formation became compromised, with the wide central defenders constantly vulnerable to quick switches of play and the machinations of wingers.

With full-backs also able to push on and create overloads in the wide areas, teams would become stretched in transition, especially without the deployment of wing-backs (who would typically provide defensive width when playing with a back three).

So, coaches gradually began to employ four-man defensive lines and systems such as the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with Inter Milan’s defensive ‘Catenaccio’ set-up in the 1960s perfectly embodying the switch to a more pragmatic and balanced tactical approach.

The Bottom Line – Beating Guardiola’s 3-2-4-1 Shape

With Guardiola pioneering a modern iteration of the W-M shape and a formation that remains

incredibly narrow from a defensive perspective, we’re seeing a continual restoration of space in wide areas. At the same time, teams are deploying increasingly compact blocks both in and out of possession, creating even more space both on the flanks and in behind defensive lines.

This creates an obvious angle of attack for the opposition, who could revert to iterations of the 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 shape and ensure that their wide forwards play as high as possible while remaining tight to the touchline.

These players could then provide focal points during rapid transitions and direct switches of play, enabling teams to maintain a constant threat of their own and stop City from sustaining wave upon wave of attacks.

Some teams have already had success with this tactic, even during City’s lavishly successful 2022/23 campaign. Take Newcastle, for example, who earned a thrilling 3-3 draw with the Citizens at St. James’ Park back in August and made good use of their wide forwards Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron throughout.

Supported by a compact defensive shape and the hard-working midfield three that provided cover in front of the full-backs, these players (especially Saint-Maximin) wreaked havoc on the flanks, benefitting from quick switches of play to penetrate space or isolate defenders in one-on-one duels. Saint-Maximin assisted two goals in the game, while full-back Kyle Walker struggled due to his starting position and lack of defensive cover in front.

Manchester United also enjoyed similar success in a 2-1 win over City at Old Trafford in January. Here, United relied on clear pressing triggers once City had started to build attacks and move the ball through midfield in their 3-2-4-1 shape, immediately looking to turnover possession and play rapid balls into the vacant right-back space for Marcus Rashford and (later on) Alejandro Garnacho to exploit.

It was this passage of play that led to United’s winner when the precocious Argentine winger was released into space on the left and eventually crossed for Rashford to sweep home.

Clearly, the 3-2-4-1 shape that Guardiola now favours in possession offers numerous advantages, especially for tactically evolved sides who tend to dominate the ball and territory during games. Like all systems, however, it also has weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities, and I’d expect City’s opponents to probe these further once the 2023/24 campaign gets underway.

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