In football, there is no right or wrong way to approach a game: each tactical system has its strengths and weaknesses. while some coaches will line up defensively and try to limit opponents’ chances, others will push aggressively, looking to win the ball high up the field and create plenty of chances. One of the most important aspects of any tactical system is the choice of formation. In this article, we will explore one of the most popular formations: 4-3-3. what does this setup look like in action? And why do trainers choose it?
How do you play a 4-3-3?
This formation is made up of 3 key layers and is generally considered an attacking formation. behind, the goalkeeper is protected by 4 defenders (a right back, two center backs and a left back). in front of them are 3 central midfielders, which can be arranged in various ways (we will expand on that shortly). finally, the attack is led by a forward 3, which is usually made up of two wingers (or in some cases, inside forwards) and a central forward as a central axis in the attacking phase.
This layout allows teams to cover the pitch evenly and ensure a healthy balance between defence, midfield and attack. That said, different coaches will choose different ways to organize players within the 4-3-3 formation. Probably the most common variation used involves placing one of the three central midfielders in a defensive position where he can provide protection for the back four as a holding midfielder. for a more offensive option, it is also possible to push one of these midfielders to support the attack, while the other two midfielders sit behind.
As football formations continue to evolve, an ingenious variation of the 4-3-3 has been gaining more and more prominence. this is the development of the ‘false nine’. in this form of 4-3-3 formation, a team’s centre-forward will take on a slightly deeper and more creative role, uniting midfield and attack and allowing the two wingers to cause trouble further up the pitch. this has the advantage of confusing opposition defenders by blurring the lines between midfield and attack and making it difficult for them to know who to score. but this is just one of many examples of the tactical flexibility it provides. Let’s spend some time investigating why people choose to play 4-3-3.
what are the strengths of a 4-3-3 formation?
One of the key benefits of the 4-3-3 formation is that it allows teams to put pressure on the opposing defense high up the pitch until the final third. It is this purpose that makes it the favored build of bosses like Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp (an advocate of intense gegenpressing strategy). forward 3 will complete a lot of pressing work, forcing the opposition to make mistakes that can be capitalized on. but the front 3 aren’t the only creative contours within this setup.
The midfield 3 don’t just cut off opposition passes coming their way, they provide cover for the back 4. they also look to dominate possession in central areas and push the ball forward. a variety of passing angles can be created using this form, allowing for the development of the ‘tiki-taka’ style of football (more on this later). full-backs can also offer alternative attacking routes, who within this system will often push forward beyond central midfield 3 to offer width in attacking areas with overlapping runs. Liverpool full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are masters at this, but it’s only possible thanks to the defensive protection and passing opportunities provided by the central midfield 3.
source: bbc sport
Because of these key aspects of the 4-3-3 formation, it is often considered an attacking approach. but does this ever leave the weaker teams in the back? the answer is sometimes yes. Let’s dig into that by taking a deeper look at the main weaknesses of the 4-3-3 formation.
what are the weaknesses?
the 4-3-3 form can sometimes leave teams slightly short of defensive areas, especially if their full-backs push up. this is particularly true of opposition counter-attacks, which can be especially dangerous if a team is playing a high defensive line. An example of this came during Aston Villa’s remarkable 7-2 victory over Liverpool during the 2020-21 season.
Fitness is also a key issue here. if the players are not fit enough to press properly, it can be difficult to make a 4-3-3 system work, as they can be particularly susceptible when faced with quick counter-attacks. Full-backs and central midfielders must have particularly high levels of energy and stamina, as their jobs involve a lot of movement up and down the pitch. There is also an important element of discipline involved in full-back roles; if this area of the field is the weakest, a 4-3-3 probably isn’t the best formation for you. this fits a more general rule, which is that this formation can lead to an over-reliance on top-quality players in key areas of the pitch, such as the central defensive midfielder.
However, in recent years, teams that have those world-class ones have increasingly used the 4-3-3 to get the best of them. Let’s explore some of the most effective examples of this training in action.
Which clubs and coaches prefer the 4-3-3 formation?
There are several great modern teams that have used the 4-3-3 to great effect. however, the roots of this system go back a long time. Variations of the 4-3-3 form were cleverly used by both Brazil and England in the 1960s, though it was not until the following decade, when the legendary Dutch tactic of “total football” began to make an impact on world football, that 4 -3- 3 became truly transformative. During his influential time at the helm of Barcelona, Dutch maestro Johan Cruyff passed this system on to Pep Guardiola, who shaped his iconic Barcelona team of the late 2000s using the 4-3-3 system. Guardiola’s Barcelona team are perhaps the most famous defenders of this formation, their treble-winning 2008-09 season underlining the system’s strengths in terms of dominating possession, stifling opposing teams and playing fluid, accurate and passing football. . That said, it always helps to have Lionel Messi.
guardiola has also used the 4-3-3 to great effect at manchester city, including during the centurión’s record-setting 2017-18 season. His top division rival Jurgen Klopp has enjoyed great success with a similar system at Liverpool, most of which have been using a 4-3-3 ‘false nine’ variety. Given the incredible teams that have perfected this popular formation, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this form may be nearly impossible to stop. but that is not strictly true. let’s see how you can defend against 4-3-3.
How do you stop a 4-3-3 formation?
The 4-3-3 structure ticks most boxes both in and out of possession. however, there are ways to stop even the best-oiled 4-3-3 machine. One way to counter a high-pressure 4-3-3 structure is to play around the pressure, rather than through it. Thomas Tuchel’s PSG provided a great example of this by beating Liverpool 2-1 in the Champions League in 2018. By playing an unorthodox 3-3-4 system in possession, he extended play and made the central midfield of liverpool 3 was narrow and ineffective. By developing numerical superiority in wide areas, this system counteracts the impact of wing players in a 4-3-3.
Getting the best out of a 4-3-3 team depends on defensive players having a lot of patience and making sure they pick the right passes, even under intense pressure. therefore, having good ball-playing central defenders is key to stopping a 4-3-3 system. once the ball goes higher up the pitch, it is often possible to exploit the high defensive line of the back four by playing early balls behind that create one-on-one situations with the opposing goalkeeper. while the high defensive line has its benefits, exploiting it is also one of the best ways to hurt a team organized in a 4-3-3 structure.
Another crucial aspect to face this formation is the physical form; you have to be able to match or, ideally, improve on the stamina and energy levels displayed by the opposition. doing this, while employing a focused strategy in terms of limiting your opponents’ chances and overcoming their pressure to advance, gives you the opportunity to prevent the 4-3-3 formation from being effective.
Is 4-3-3 the best in football?
Tactics for lining up against the 4-3-3 vary from coach to coach. ultimately it’s up to the staff and playing to their strengths, while thinking hard about the opposition’s weaknesses. achieving this balance is at the heart of football coaching (see our article on being a football manager in the uk for further guidance on this).
It’s hard to say if the 4-3-3 form is the best in football. It has been the foundation of some of the greatest teams of the modern era, including Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Zinedine Zidane’s Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired three-time La Liga winner Real Madrid. but at the same time, it has its weaknesses, and today, there are many top teams that choose to go for other systems, such as the 3-5-2 formation and its variations. There are a number of ways to find success. however, 4-3-3 is certainly one of the most reliable.
If you’re interested in learning more before you jump into training, you should consider building up your knowledge base by reading some of the best books on soccer coaching and tactics.
fred garratt-stanley is a freelance writer and long-suffering norwich city fan with experience reporting on football for various titles. He also has a background in music and cultural journalism, with firms at NME, The Quietus, Resident Advisor and more. Currently, he works as a content writer for a variety of online health and fitness publications.