The title of the thread is over-stated, but hear me out: So the 4-4-2 with a flat midfield is dead, that much we know. It's been replaced by 4-3-3, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1, and 4-5-1. But as I was thinking about it today (the discussion about City in the Spurs prediction thread is what got me thinking about it) I couldn't help wondering if all four of those formations are basically the same thing, just tweaked slightly to suit the needs of the team using it.
What they all have in common: the possibility of a three man midfield bossing the center of the park, skilled and versatile wide men, a lone striker up top, and someone playing off the striker in the hole who can link up play between the midfield and the target man. Of course, it gets deployed in lots of different ways. United and Spurs run 4-4-1-1 b/c that suits our personnel best. Save Nani, all of United's wide players are best off playing in a deeper role and Rooney is a top class SS. For us, our wings would be wasted in a more advanced role and Rafa is best deployed in the hole. Clubs like Barca and Chelsea run 4-3-3, but that's simply a modification of the same core principles: The ability to play three men in the center, using your wide men to build the attack, etc. For Barca and Chelsea, they have wide men better deployed up top b/c they're better pure scorers, aren't as pacey, and they use their fullbacks to provide the width. And in Chelsea's case, I think the argument really works b/c Lampard usually floats up to play in the hole. Barca is not quite there b/c they essentially have three men in the center of the park full time, use Messi in the hole and don't have a true #9 in the box. But then you look at teams running 4-2-3-1 like Madrid and City: Ozil/Silva in the hole. Ronaldo/di Maria or (last year at least) Balotelli/Dzeko and Toure out wide. But if they need to, Ozil and Silva can both drop deep and essentially turn it into 4-3-2-1, which isn't all that different from a straight-up 4-3-3.
Obviously these are all different formations, but I'm inclined to think the differences are rather minor in the big picture. They certainly aren't as pronounced as the differences between a flat 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, and a 3-5-2 (like what Liverpool used twice last year). As they're being used by Europe's elite, the 4-4-1-1, 4-3-3, and 4-2-3-1 are not too terribly different. Really, if you swapped Johnson for Lennon (as was being rumored awhile ago), I could see us moving toward 4-2-3-1 rather than 4-4-1-1. Bale is versatile enough to play in that role, but Lennon probably isn't, so we do 4-4-1-1 b/c that works for both of them.
A couple possible ramification for this: Potentially it makes it that much easier for the big money clubs to bring in talent that will fit their overall program. With the lone exception of the striker up top (see Torres, Fernando and Drogba, Didier), the five other attacking spots are very flexible and can be shifted around a ton based on personnel. Modric is actually an ideal example of this: Chelsea lines up, hypothetically, in a totally different formation from what we run at Spurs. But they could slot Modric into that deep-lying role and play him with Mikel and Lampard and I don't think anyone would feel out of place. (And when Essien comes back... wow. That's a midfield.) Or look at Nasri's move to City. City runs a totally different formation, but again, the transition could be quite seamless. Instead of playing a striker out of position in an attacking mid role, you put Nasri in there. Now you're running Barry, De Jong at the back, Nasri/Silva/Toure up top with Aguero or Dzeko leading the line. It's a different formation, but it wouldn't require a ton of work to make it work with Nasri.
One other: The two striker systems are dead. So when you're shopping for attacking players, you want one marquee striker, serviceable back-ups (guys like Kalou, Sturridge, Walbeck, etc.), and the rest of your budget needs to go toward versatile midfield players. You don't need a lot of squad spots taken up by strikers b/c these formations only leave room for one. I think Liverpool and Chelsea are both going to have a hard time this year finding a way to use their strikers well. I don't know how Liverpool will make Suarez/Carroll work without destroying their chances of winning the midfield battle. If they play Suarez/Carroll up top, they're asking Lucas to basically handle midfield on his own b/c we all know that Adam, Gerrard, Henderson, and Meireles are all going to try to attack as well. Could be a major headache for them. And we already know all about Chelsea's issues up top. In today's footballing world, I think the best value players are guys like Silva (hole, deep lying playmaker), Nasri (wide or in the hole), Bale (LM in 4-4-1-1, LB in a 4-3-3), Nani (wideman in 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3), Sanchez (ditto), Modric (in the hole, deep lying playmaker, or even out wide), and Fabregas (deep lying playmaker or in the hole). They are the sorts of players that can be plugged into at least two different roles and that give you the most creative possibilities in the attack. I really think Liverpool will regret spending so much money on Carroll b/c I just don't think they have room for him in their first 11 right now. You have to play Suarez but you can't afford to play two strikers w/ the way midfields are these days. Will be very interested in seeing how Dalglish handles that situation. I also think this means that people clamoring for us to sign two or three strikers might be mistaken in their thought. If we add Adebayor and subtract Pav or Crouch, I think we've got a solid group of attackers. JD and Adebayor can battle for that starting spot, Pav/Crouch is available off the bench, and if we really really get into a pinch and need a 4th striker (unlikely, but possible) I say we give Kane or Coulibaly a run out and use the money we would spend on a 4th striker to add a CB or perhaps some cover for Lennon on the right. (Someone like Jarvis would be worth a shout, I think.)
So what do you all think?