The 4-3-3 is set out in three lines on the pitch – four defenders and a keeper, three midfielders and three forwards.
The beauty of the 4-3-3 is that it is a stable formation that assists some of the best teams in the world and also gives a chance to some of the worst to compete on a more equal footing, with the proviso that their fitness can compensate for their lack of finesse or ability as footballers.
The composition of the team lines are as follows: two centre-backs and two full-backs, three central midfielders who typically form a compact triangle and three forwards (that is: one central striker and two wide forwards on the flanks).
The key to the formation is what the full backs and wide forward players do going forwards and defensively. Their mobility creates a series of passing triangles all over the field that gives the man on the ball passing options and then players defending some nearby assistance whether pressing or tackling.
The theory is simple: make the pitch as big as possible when you are attacking and make the pitch as small as possible when you are looking to retain possession by hunting in packs to win back the ball within seconds through concerted pressing of the man in possession and his nearby passing options.
The wide players (forwards and defenders) must be all-round footballers they need pace and hopefully technical and shooting and crossing ability. They use their pace and stamina to create overloads going forwards, overlapping and under-lapping opportunities, and cover when tracking back. Cristiano Ronaldo is the outstanding example of a modern all-purpose forward – neither, winger, nor striker. A free role creator who also works tirelessly for the team to regain possession.
The lone central striker himself may be a powerful number nine who can hold the ball up with his back to goal or a small, mobile forward who drops deep or wide to drag defenders away and leave space for the wide forwards or he can take the ball on himself and drive in on goal at petrified defenders with pace and support on either side. Generally these small-type centre forwards will receive the ball on the half turn or in space. The best example is the ´False Nine´ style of Lionel Messi .
The forwards are aided by at least two of the central midfielders and in some sides all three who support attacks. The central midfielders form a tight triangle in the middle of the pitch. Historically in a 4-3-3 they usually fell into the roles of ‘one creator – one destroyer – one passer’, to attack, defend and maintain possession.
Nowadays a well-balanced midfield is key to the formation and it requires three versatile all-purpose midfielders that can pass, tackle, shoot, head the ball, initiate attacks, read the game and break up opponents’ possession.
With a compact central midfield, the full-backs can also bomb forwards into the wide expanses in front of the high positioned wide forwards. This creates lots of options: sharp passing combinations through midfield and in the final third, natural width, an overlap. For poor teams it offers easy short passing options at all times – forwards, back, left or right – and usually support no more than 10 yards away.
The 4-3-3 is arguably the most potentially overwhelming of all modern formations. There’s a reason why many of the most dominant sides of European football use it or a variation of it. It is the mark of the entertainers bristling with offensive power and dynamic, mobile players. It can also be the ultimate team formation for a young, fit, hungry squad playing at a low technical level.
In possession, the 4-3-3 allows at least seven players to attack. The wide forwards squeeze the opponents’ back four, the full-backs adopt a position behind them, or bomb beyond or inside them and then two of the central midfielders push forward. If possession is turned over their are three ‘defenders’ covering but the beauty of this system is that instantaneously the seven attackers become instant defenders looking to win the ball back deep in the heart of enemy territory. If they do so instantly then there is lots of support near them and a clear run in on goal.
The special quality of a good 4-3-3 is what it gives both in possession and without the ball. This comes from the combination of a three man central midfield which can dominate possession via passing triangles and three strikers who can press high up the pitch with the support of four other players (midfielders and full backs) behind or beside them.
Naturally enough, under this sort of instant pressure opponents find it hard to win the ball and even harder to keep it once they do. Midfielders picking up the ball in midfield from their back four are pressured quickly when they turn into a wall of opponents pressing in on them. It is the same story for enemy defenders taking the ball from the keeper. The defenders are faced with three men pressing instantly up against them and there are no easy balls to the wings when the full-backs push up to cover a sideways pass. Most commonly, the ball is played back to the keeper who boots it long before position is turned over and another attack can start – in waves if the opponents are a top, sharp passing team.
A lot of good judges claim that there has never been a better functioning 4-3-3 than the Barcelona side of 2008-09 under Pep Guardiola in his first season. The flamboyant treble winners who dominated Manchester United in the Champions League final and Real Madrid in the league.
So whether you’re Gardner Speirs-era Queens Park in Scotland’s League 2 or Barca in a Champions League final at Wembley there is something you can exploit in the 4-3-3 both going forward and defending. As long, that is, that your players are well drilled and fit enough to play the system.
Without supreme fitness or with lazy players 4-3-3 simply won’t work.
The flip-side is that a 4-3-3 which can’t keep hold of the ball while attacking is potentially very vulnerable to a sucker-punch counter attack, sometimes with as few as two passes (one sideways, one forwards). This is the bad dream that haunts Louis Van Gaal when he goes to sleep and explains the over-controlled, pedestrian football being played by his Man United side at their worst and least fluent.
This systemic weakness of 4-3-3 to a sucker punch break arises precisely because the only players left back exclusively to police a turnover of possession high up the field are the centre-backs and the defensive midfielder. And this creates a very dangerous situation on the counter as opposing wide players (think about the likes of Ronaldo and Di Maria for Mourinho’s Real Madrid) have acres of uncontested space to break into.
Anything less than a top defensive midfielder, who is physically strong, has great positioning , lots of pace and accurate passing can leave the centre-backs very exposed. One misplaced pass and the opposing team have a dangerous counter – especially so if the attackers lack discipline and have too many men ahead of the ball when possession is relinquished.
The 4-3-3 also requires a huge amount of discipline and great energy from its wide players. The potential to be exposed by having wide forwards who fail to track back is enormous. Full-backs who storm up in support of an attack must also have the energy to race back and defend for 90 minutes. If not, opposing wide players will run riot on the flanks.
But with fitness, a desire to attack and defend as a team and dynamic movement supporting the man in possession at all times, a good 4-3-3 really can offer a very great deal of assistance to teams at all levels of ability.
With thanks to: Football Tactics Basics: The 4-3-3 formation explained