Tactical focus shifting back to 4-4-2
Ten years ago, the 4-4-2 formation was an integral part of the English game. The classic 'big man, little man' combination saw two strikers employed to work in tandem with each other, one to drop deep and the other to hang on the shoulder of the last defender.
The 'Invincibles' of Arsenal in 2003-04 built on a decade of success with the formation from Manchester United, but then the winds of change blew into the Premier League with Jose Mourinho's arrival at Chelsea in 2003 and the lone, central striker became in vogue.
Mourinho brought with him a 4-3-3 built around the power of Didier Drogba up front and the pace of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff on the wings and it brought unprecedented success to the club at a time when there was a growing air of frustration at seemingly outdated tactics used by some other English teams.
With more coaches paying attention to European formations, and on the back of Barcelona's continued success with the freeflowing 4-1-2-3 (most notable in their six trophy season in 2008-09), others also found joy after a Euro 2008 competition that saw many pundits lamenting the death of the 4-4-2. The staggering success of Manchester United's Wayne Rooney in 2009-10 as he bagged 40 goals in 50 games in all competitions as a lone frontman, while showing a hitherto undiscovered aerial ability, suggested that the new tactic was here to stay.
Liverpool, Arsenal and the new kids on the block, Manchester City, followed suit but there have been signs that a return to the 4-4-2 could be in the offing as this season's campaign comes to a close.
As Manchester United and Chelsea ready themselves for a potential title decider on Sunday, the top two teams in the country have reasons to turn the clock back. While the days of David Beckham and Roy Keane, Claude Makelele and Robben, may be behind us, the current crop of stars could also find favour in a new form.
Earlier in the season, United had success by playing Dimitar Berbatov, with the distracted Rooney operating either in front of him as a 'false nine', or out on the wing. The Bulgarian was able to utilise the space created by his partner to get on the end of crosses from the likes of Nani and Giggs and was able to take the spotlight off Rooney as the Englishman recovered from his summer in tabloid hell.
However, Javier Hernandez's emergence in the second half of the season has now forced Sir Alex Ferguson into shifting his focus back to 4-4-2. The Mexican's energy and penetration creates a more potent threat on the counter attack alongside the flying wingers at the club but, more importantly, having Hernandez's pace ahead of him makes the best use of Rooney. Giving him the space to drop deeper to collect the ball, he has time to turn and run at the defence, while also having the option of finding a willing runner on the edge of the offside trap.
Rooney's vision from a withdrawn role has aided Hernandez's rapid rise and he seems to have settled into a role that suits him best. It is a sign of things to come for United, but others who will line up against him on Sunday may learn from his example. Chelsea's splashing of £50 million on Fernando Torres has raised questions about how Carlo Ancelotti will utilise him in the future. A 4-1-2-3 with a combination of Nicolas Anelka, Drogba and Torres has worked for the most part thus far as the Blues bounced back from some poor mid-season form, but the way to get the best out of the Spaniard may lie in a return to a 4-4-2 that Ancelotti has flirted with already.
Against United in March, a 2-1 win, Chelsea played their most traditional form of 4-4-2 under Ancelotti this season with Drogba benched, Torres and Anelka up front and Ramires and Malouda shunted out wide. While they struggled to assert themselves on the game in the first half at Stamford Bridge, the second half (and eventual introduction of the more direct Drogba) proved to be the difference and matching the league leaders man-for-man could be the best plan of attack for Ancelotti again.
A confident pairing of Torres and Drogba in unison, with the Spaniard's pace ahead of the powerful Ivorian, is an exciting prospect for Chelsea fans. Whether Ancelotti is there to oversee it next season remains to be seen, but a notable point is that Roman Abramovich-favourite Guus Hiddink is a champion of the 4-4-2 and may well get a chance to see it come to full fruition (after a six month spell in 2009) if the axe falls on the Italian.
Of course the argument for the 4-4-2 is something that could have implications into next season's title challenge. Arsenal's greatest successes in recent years came with two wide players [Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires] and a withdrawn Dennis Bergkamp feeding a fast and agile striker, Thierry Henry. With many Gunners fans pining for the glory days pre-2006, Arsene Wenger could also benefit from a tactical change.
Like United, the emergence of one player has altered Arsenal's shape. Jack Wilshere's ability to sit deep and break with pace alongside the more defensive-minded Alex Song has allowed Wenger to use Cesc Fabregas in a more attacking position behind Robin van Persie. The problem for Arsenal is that Fabregas is probably best suited a little deeper - as his great form alongside Mathieu Flamini at the start of the 2007-08 season showed - he is able to control the tempo of the game more from that position.
With more responsibility for attacking forays, Fabregas has struggled this season and Arsenal's moves have often broken down in front of the defence, with Van Persie's back to goal and no-one there to run in behind to give the opposition something else to think about.
With a readymade Bergkamp replacement, in Dutchman Van Persie; and a similar style of player to Henry, in Theo Walcott; Wenger has the tools at his disposal should he wish to alter the setup of his side. The one question that such a change brings [Where does Fabregas fit in?] could well be answered by Barcelona in the summer.
But Arsenal are not the only team who may benefit from a switch to 4-4-2 next season. Liverpool signed £57 million worth of striking talent in Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in January and a hint to their future formation under Kenny Dalglish came in the 1-1 draw with Arsenal. With Suarez playing off Carroll and Dirk Kuyt and Raul Meireles shunted into wide areas alongside Jay Spearing and Lucas in the centre, it is easy to see how a few personal changes could put them back into contention for the top spots.
With the returning Steven Gerrard and Meireles moved into a more comfortable central role, the purchase of a top left-winger could open things up and Liverpool would even have the luxury of shifting the workaholic Kuyt into the withdrawn striker role to help track back when not in possession. Dalglish has found favour with the formation for his clubs in the past and few would argue that he would be able to get the best out of his players should he choose to bring it back to Anfield again.
The ever changing squad of Manchester City, too, could see the best of Edin Dzeko with Carlos Tevez (should he still be at the club) or Mario Balotelli (likewise) behind him as his partner, although manager Roberto Mancini is less likely to experiment with his formation as he prefers the stability of the central three midfielders after a rather embarrassing attempt at 4-4-2 in a 3-2 win over Blackpool in October.
Still, the chasing pack were among the first to change when Mourinho's Chelsea champions introduced a new wave of tactical thinking in 2005. Six years on, it may be the next Premier League champions who dip into the past to lead the continuing evolution of 4-4-2.