Once upon a time, three at the back ruled the land.
Throughout the 80s and early 90s, three at the back was rife at an international level, but the system was first deployed by Argentine coach Carlos Bilardo, leading Argentina to their second World Cup win in 1986. At the time, people called him crazy, journalists even assumed there was a mistake in his lineup:
"They told me I was wrong, that I'd named three central defenders," Bilardo said. "But I told them I was not confused. We were going to use three defenders, five midfielders and two forwards. We had practised it for two years, and now I was going to put it into practice in tough games."
Formation turned to fashion quickly, variants of the formation won World Cups for Brazil and West Germany in the 90s, even England dabbled in the formation; yes, England were trendy once. Absent for over a decade, the return of this formation to the Premier League is a breath of fresh air in a multitude of ways. For once, managers aren't being labeled crazy, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.
Before October 2016, the formation was used on 10 occasions across the Premier League, clearly a fleeting use and demonstrating a lack of belief in the system. Introduce Antonio Conte to the fold, livid at his side's 3-0 loss to Arsenal, he decided to use his own tried and tested methods - and the Premier League followed suit. Almost every team experimented with the formation, witnessing Chelsea's unrelenting dominance, leading to it being used over 130 times after October 1st.
Much has been said of Conte's system since his arrival and success in the Premier League, having won three back-to-back Scudetto's with Juventus, everyone eagerly anticipated how it would acclimatise to English football. In fact, the system has not acclimatised to England, the rest of the Premier League has undoubtedly changed and adapted to this new formation.
Much of the system's success relies on the modern defender's ability with the ball at their feet, to start attacks and literally get the ball rolling. David Luiz of Chelsea was arguably the most pivotal player across the Chelsea defence, yet ball playing centre-halves are often criticised as their role presents huge risks, with reward mostly going unnoticed.
With a tremendous range of passing, Luiz's task is to pick out the onrushing wingbacks and forwards from distance, progressing defence to attack in a route one fashion. The discipline of the wingbacks is also tested as if they are caught too far up the pitch, disaster can strike for the defence.
However, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso's understanding of the role made them nigh on perfect players within the system. Conte's Chelsea were rampant for good reason, all you have to do is open your eyes and look at the details.
So what does this mean going into the new season and the title race? Most recently, Arsene Wenger deployed three at the back towards the end of last season and in pre-season, showing his intent for the 2017/18 season. Mohammed Elneny has been converted into a centre-back during pre-season, with an arsenal (excuse the pun) of excellent defenders at his disposal, Wenger is ready to turn the clock back.
Wenger admitted back in April, "It's the first time in 20 years I've played it. It shows that, even at my age, you can change". Now with new signing Sead Kolašinac and the ever-present Héctor Bellerín, going into his 22nd season with the Gunners, Arsene has a team that looks truly exciting if he persists with the three at the back - as expected. A mix of attacking fluidity, the directness within attack, and defensive solidarity could prove to be the winning formula, as it was for Chelsea.
Furthermore, expect Guardiola to also use the system. With the acquisition of Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo, the mastermind now has fullbacks that he can trust to execute their roles within the system. Previously, Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta did not have the required pace or ability to make the defence tick over into attack.
This season we may see the best out of John Stones, who will play an almost identical role to David Luiz, picking out attacking wide-men Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane, and the aforementioned wing backs. Guardiola frequently sang the young defender's praises last season, but actions will speak louder than words in the upcoming season as the additions to the squad make Stones' role much easier.
It would come as no surprise should three at the back dominate the Premier League for years to come, in similar fashion to the 4-2-3-1 of yonder year. Football is evolving once more, with success the obvious catalyst, as Conte first season in English football may inspire the future and direction of not only the Premier League but international football as well.