How a modern formation defined a generation of heroes and their demise.
In the early 2000s, Europe was tactically obsessed with a classic Number 10 creators. As we journey through time and take a look back how the most revered brood of footballers became a dying breed.
Coming of the 4-2-3-1 and the age of ‘Fantasisitis’
To begin with, 4-2-3-1 is lone striker system supported by the inside forwards on either side two midfielders creating a double pivot usually playing deeper roles to guard the four man backline and carrying the ball to the no.10 right behind the striker operating as the creator-in-chief. The system has been around almost two decades now. With Arrigo Sacchi and Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Sir Alex Ferguson independently developing it. A much dynamic descendant of a rigid 4-4-2 , bringing interchangeability across the attacking trident.
In the 4-4-2 one of the two strikers would drop into midfield and procure ball from two of the central midfielders who would often share their duties of being creative hub and putting in a fair share of defensive shift as a rear guard. The two traditional wingers would run along the flanks and try to get the crosses in.
"Sacchi changed Italian football. He got rid of Catenaccio by proposing a high pressing game."- Sir Alex Ferguson
As it would turn out, Arrigo Sacchi's signing of the 'Dutch Trinity' would change the game forever. Bringing in a fresh verve of attacking football in league known for conservative and defensive game play. His AC Milan remain history's one of the most iconic sides. With Ruud Gullit playing second striker role in a 4-4-2 starting formation. He was described as the ‘Dutch Maradona’ for his incredible ability to shoot from distance, dribbling and graciously gliding past defenders, beautifully worked in tandem with van Basten’s intelligent runs, who would take defenders away from goal. Causing confusion and chaos in any backline. They would go on two win the European Cup back to back.
Fast forward to 1994, Manchester United vs Barcelona. Johan Cruijff's 'Dream Team' would batter Manchester United 4-0. This would turn out to be cathartic. In a way, Johan fanned the flames of an Old Trafford revolution. As Steve Bruce recalls, this would signal the end of an uni-dimensional 4-4-2. Ferguson experimented with an extra man in his midfield by splitting the two strikers.The forward pairing at the time, Mark Hughes and Cantona complemented each other perfectly. Cantona playing the ideal number 10 role and the force of nature that he was, dropping a bit deeper, collecting the ball and dribbling past defenders. Setting his strike partner up or taking the chances himself. Gary Neville was left in awe by Cantona's ability. He said "You've never seen one player win the league [all by himself] but this is as close as it gets."
Cantona and Ruud Gullit very similar in their roles forged a glamorous brand of football that would soon take over the world. They presented the world a well balanced act of style and substance, often the talismanic figure and visual feast that fascinated fans and critics alike. Soon enough the world started taking notice,conventional ideas shattered and orthodox methods were dropped for a more creative approach.
“Fielding five midfielders was for a long time considered a negative tactic, but that is dependent entirely on the make-up of the five. Take, for example, France in the Euro 2000 final with Youri Djorkaeff, Zinedine Zidane and Christoph Dugarry playing off Thierry Henry, or Portugal in the same tournament with Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Sergio Conceicao playing off Nuno Gomes. Take Spain in the final of Euro 2008, with Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregás, Xavi and David Silva arrayed behind Fernando Torres.” - Jonathan Wilson (Guardian) 
Valencia and the turn of the century
Rafa Benitiez, isn’t the most celebrated coach of our time. Yet described once as the most “Sacchian” manager, he brought home a formation that would bring nations and clubs immense success. It all started in Valencia, where the first traces of actual 4-2-3-1 can be found. Initially criticized for being too defensive Benitez masterminded it to be force to reckon with.Valencia effectively utilized three central midfielders at a time when the rest of Spain was only fielding two. In 2003 they scored just a goal less then highest scoring team [Real Madrid]. Rafa using Pablo Aimar to capture the imagination of Mestalla faithfuls were overjoyed when he broke the duopoly to win La Liga twice in three years and Uefa Cup to add to the trophy cabinet. All this success was enough to convince Liverpool management to bring Benitez to the club.
“Benítez's conversion to 4-2-3-1 more recently has given Gerrard licence, because he has two holders behind him. Gerrard started as a complete midfielder, might have become a holding midfielder who get forward, and has become instead an attacking midfielder who can put in the odd tackle.”- Jonathon Wilson (Guardian) 
Even if the majority of the people believe that Chelsea Champions League triumph was happenstance. Chelsea’s subsequent Europa League can certainly be not seen in the same light. Fantastic Europa League win which ensured they return to elite competition the following year. With fundamentals of what we have previously seen for the better part of his tenure the 4-2-3-1 was deployed and Juan Mata came to the fore becoming the Chelsea’s player of the season and gathering personal record breaking 21 assists.
The Jose Way
"He is a phenomenon worthy of study, a single copy and his replacement or clone does not exist. He is the team leader, the lightning rod and the catalyst, the manager and the creator. He is a leader capable of bringing to light the hidden human resources and give everyone confidence and conviction. Mourinho masterfully directs teams from both tactically and psychologically. He is a great coach, denying it would be like denying that after day comes night." -Arrigo Sacchi 
During his time at Porto, Mourinho was given the task to improve a team which was at time considered a bunch of ordinary players. After assembling a team of largely unknown players the task was to establish a system. Mourinho heavily inspired by former mentors Van Gaal and sir Bobby Robson would deploy a variant of 4-3-3 (4-3-1-2). A formation which was in fashion at the time (perhaps dead now).
It is hard to believe that any would have predicted the storm that was about to hit the European football and at the center of this storm, Deco, the little magician pulling the strings. As he sat ahead of consolidated triad of Maniche, Costinha and Mendes, effectively sniffing out danger and offering Deco to weave his magic. As fate would have it, they go on to win the champions league with Deco named the man of the match in final and wrapping the season as the best player in the European competition as well.
"If I wanted to have an easy job I would have stayed at Porto. Beautiful blue chair, the UEFA Champions League trophy, God, and after God, me.” - Mourinho on taking Chelsea job
It seemed at that time, nothing could stop Mourinho. Playing a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3) with Makelele sitting the deepest aided by Essien/Tiago while Frank Lampard being the furthest forward. He explained -"I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things"
Chelsea would made history, as they conceded the fewest goals and winning the league a landslide of 12 points. Lampard proving instrumental in this campaign. Finishing behind Ronaldinho for Fifa's player of the year award.
With Inter things changed, Mourinho had now established himself as one of the greatest. And despite winning the league in his first year, many of supporters felt the performances were still underwhelming. For his next campaign, Mourinho engineered a makeover plan. Bringing in Eto'o, Milito and Sneijder among others. Deploying a 4-2-3-1, it seemed rejuvenated side.
With Eto'o and Pandov on the flanks and Milito revelling as the sole striker. Sneijder was shouldered the responsibility of feeding them.This is when the world would witness Sneijder's finest moments. His clever passing and striking from distance made him worthy classic no 10. Inter would write history by completing the treble. While Sneijder was denied of a Ballon d'Or which he rightfully deserved.
Effective. Influential. Infectious.
It was the period when people began taking notice and adopting the system and it spread like an epidemic. In Euro 2008 Michael Ballack played in the ‘hole’ after Coach Low changed the formation to 4-2-3-1 right after the Group stage and reached the finals. World Cup 2010 the formation was on display with three of the most successful sides in the tournament saw Xavi, Ozil and Sneijder thriving in the playmaker role.
In the German league, coaches realized the devastating attacks it could unleash on the counters. The German 'blitzkrieg' became synonymous to lightening fast counters, with wingers and attacking midfielder bombarding and breaching the oppositions defensive lines.
Jurgen Klopp an anarchic figure in the bundesliga's history. Ending Bayern's reign by deploying a highly fluid and counter pressing side that used Mario Gotze and Marco Rues. Kevin de Bruyne’s Wolfsburg adventures was a testimony to his incredible playmaking abilities. Gathering a tally of 26 assists. Perhaps highest ever by any player in the top 5 league.
“With intuitive understanding and movement so impressive that it seemed orchestrated by God himself.”-Pirlo on Guardiola's philosophy
While in the Spanish peninsula, Jose Mourinho masterclass would deny a fourth straight La Liga title against a Barcelona side that remains shrine of grace and dominance. It was when 4-2-3-1 was effectively put into use as a defense mechanism.To prevent being overrun by Barcelona's midfield trio, Jose instructed Mesut Ozil to put on defensive shifts. What remains Ozil's best ever defensive display till date.
‘I want you to play as well as you can,’ Mourinho yells. ‘I want you to go into tackles like a man. Do you know what it looks like when you tackle? No? Let me show you.’ - Excerpt from Mesut Ozils biography, incident from during their time at Real Madrid
The decline and the shift of paradigm
“It is important for a number ten to win the ball back in the modern game. There is such little space that you cannot allow the opponent to even initiate their attack.”- Marcelo Lippi 
Pep Guardiola, as we know him, one of the beautiful game’s very own son and the romanticist of football. For Manchester City heavily rely on a 4-3-3 formation and it has been so effective that this year  he is winning the league by a landslide. Stating that 4-2-3-1 isn’t attacking enough!
The game has become a lot faster than before. The more cutting edge technology they bring in, the more optimum performances get. The distance covered by the players has definitely seen hike in numbers, clear indicative of the hard pressing implemented by the likes of Klopp and Pochettino and others those share the same philosophy. Now, this inhibits the luxury of an extra man staying further up while the rest of the team is dealing with the opposition in their final third.
Majority of the teams are now set up in a 4-3-3 primarily across the top 5 leagues. A high energy and possession hungry formation which requires ridiculous amount of energy to smoothly function or the classic 4-4-2 which is back in vogue. Using a double pivot in center of the park to effectively balance the workload between the two high octane midfielders.
The great demise and the return of box to box midfielder
“There was no project; it was about exploiting qualities," he said. "So, for example, we knew that Zidane, Raúl and Figo didn't track back, so we had to put a guy in front of the back four who would defend. But that's reactionary football. It doesn't multiply the players' qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplier effect on the players' abilities. In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have [Claude] Makélélé, he can't do that. He doesn't have the ideas to do it, though of course, he's great at winning the ball. It's all about specialists.” –Arrigo Sacchi 
What was wrong the this brand of glamorous football was the fact that creative liberty cannot outweigh the defensive responsibility. Not even the greatest could escape the criticism. Tracking back was crucial. And its negligence could distort the structure when the teams is on the defensive and hands opposition enough space to launch an attack.
To put it in Sir Alex Ferguson's words, in football, everything works in cycle. Changes are inevitable and imperative. Since pressing is so fundamental to football it certainly needs player that can play with that intensity. Somebody like N’golo Kante fits the bill perfectly and being virtually everywhere on the pitch with his relentless running. Along with Pogba, Moussa Dembele, Naby Keita and Radja Nainggolan are some of the tactical linchpins of the today’s game.
At the moment the world feels devoid of the classic playmakers. An entity revered by all factions. The beautiful games, most iconic and graceful characters. Gods for some, idols for others. Players we always wanted to be. Even Messi idolizes Aimar and Ronaldinho. While Ozil and Hazard have expressed their admiration for Zidane. Its hard to tell when the age of our beloved heroes will return. Yet there remains a distant hope, something that says they are more than sweet childhood memories because after all, everything in football works in cycles, doesn't it?