An Exploration of the 4-3-3’s Flexibility

Part One: The Rise of the 4-3-3 alongside our obsession with possession

Ever since Barcelona and the Spanish national team’s domination of top level soccer from 2008-2012, the 4-3-3 formation has become synonymous with possession orientated soccer, especially at youth level in the United States. Playing a high possession style doesn’t just come from selecting a particular formation and the 4-3-3 isn’t the only formation a possession orientated team can utilize either. Why then is it used to suit teams who seek to play in this way?

Surely, utilizing a 4-3-3 as a team’s base formation goes beyond the fact that if Barcelona and Spain used it, then it must be the way forward. Before going into it’s flexibility and debating just how useful a formation it is for a team looking to dominate possession, let’s first look at what the formation offers in it’s most basic form.

What does the 4-3-3 offer?

Three players in central midfield

This is often cited as a major benefit of the formation as it allows better ball circulation centrally against a two player midfield. When defending it also allows for one player to screen the back four and still leave two center mids in more advanced areas to press or mark opponents.

Four players in the wide areas

With fullbacks and wingers on both sides of the field this allows for a team to open up in possession and attempt to stretch their opponent’s defensive shape. Unlike a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, which also utilize four players in wide areas,  the high initial positioning of the wingers occupies the opposition fullbacks and limits their ability to disrupt build-up play. The fullbacks can then also operate in more room in the wide areas and seek to provide support both to central midfielders and centerbacks.

Centerback Partnership

The ideal setup for dealing with a lone center forward. It also allows centerbacks to form a diamond shape with their goalkeeper and holding midfielder in possession, which can be used to the advantage of teams with a goalkeeper comfortable on the ball.

Lone Center Forward

The one area of the field in which the 4-3-3 is usually at a numerical disadvantage. The lone center forward is either left to deal with two centerbacks who can mark and cover him or three centerbacks who can pass him off to one another as he moves around the back, if their opponent uses wingbacks to deal with the wingers.

 

The above describes what seems like a very useful template for a team looking to dominate possession and territory. The wide players can stretch the opponent’s defensive shape, the three player midfield can combine with one another and the wide players to advance the ball and break defensive lines in key central areas.

If a constant holding midfielder is used, he can provide defensive cover while in attack and facilitate changing the point of attack from a largely fixed position.

However, how easily can these advantages be countered and turn the team using a 4-3-3 into one that may be able to keep possession but not pose a goal scoring threat?

The 4-2-3-1 offers the near perfect counter system to the 4-3-3. It deploys two holding mids to limit the space in front of the back four and coupled with an attacking mid, matches the 4-3-3’s three player midfield. The wide midfielders can sit a bit deeper and narrow and allow the 4-3-3’s fullbacks possession, yes, but not in threatening areas.

As a unit a team in a 4-2-3-1 can allow initial possession and press aggressively when the ball is played into the wide areas. This can be most easily done when a fullback is in possession. A team in a 4-3-3 with limited access to it’s midfield players, inability to use the wide areas and an isolated center forward can easily be blunted into playing around the back line in the dreaded “U shape” Pep Guardiola derided in Pep Confidential. 

An extremely narrow 4-4-2 defensive shape can also blunt the 4-3-3’s ability to be used as an effective tool for controlled build-up play as the center forward pairing can press the 4-3-3’s centerbacks, the fullback nearest to the ball can be pressed by a wide midfielder and the opposite side wide mid can tuck in and create a 3v3 centrally against the 4-3-3’s three midfielders. This can force a team in a 4-3-3 back to the keeper quickly and into a long  clearance.

The 4-3-3’s ability to stretch the opponent’s defensive shape only works if the opponent wants to deny possession in the wide areas. A common tactic is to defend in a narrow block and squeeze out the space centrally while allowing for space out wide in less threatening areas. Being compact while defending can refer to both vertical and horizontal compaction. A defensive block that doesn’t get stretched in either direction and can maintain it’s discipline can completely blunt a possession orientated attack.

These different shapes and pressing tactics have been well, well, spoken about, documented, written about and analyzed over the last couple of years. Pressing became the next big thing in coaching circles, then pressing triggers, counterpressing(gegenpressing) and so on and you could argue possession turned into a dirty word.

That’s a whole other discussion in of itself. As Pep has said, possession was never the purpose of his Barcelona. That was what was most easily seen, however, and thus became the easiest part of what Barcelona did for coaches to replicate with their teams. Possession for possessions sake, the over use of the phrase tiki taka, became prevalent in youth soccer circles.

Just as now we hear coach’s screaming “press press!!” or counting off the five seconds in which the team has to win the ball back every time possession is lost. These coaches mostly though have not provided their players with how to press or when or what to do when those five seconds are up. They blend pressing and running into the same thing. Pundits jump up and down about which Premier League team ran the most at the weekend, distance covered has become the replacement for yesterday’s dominant statistic, possession percentage.

The true identity of what is happening on the field is never fully understood. Pep demanded far more than just possession and Mauricio Pochettino does far more than just simply tell his players to run around like maniacs until possession is regained.

As Jonathan Wilson has stated, this is the history of the game’s tactical developments. Hurbert Chapman’s W-M was misinterpreted as being a defensive, more negative system than the 2-3-5 it replaced. Helenio Herrera’s infamous catenaccio wasn’t as defensive as it became known to be. Herrera himself sums up this phenomenon of misinterpretation quite well:

The problem is that most of the ones who copied me copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my Catenaccio included. I had Picchi as a sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward

Replace “catenaccio” in that quote with “system” and it’s a quote that Pep, Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and many others would readily stand behind. “They forgot to include the attacking principles” can be said for those who played tiki taka and thought they were playing like Barcelona or those who think they’re playing like the current Liverpool and Tottenham sides by screaming “press!!” upon loss of possession.

What does all that have to do with the 4-3-3 formation? In the way the style of play was misinterpreted, so is it’s favored formation. In that keeping possession was never really just about keeping possession, the 4-3-3 is never really a 4-3-3. It’s true capabilities lie in it’s ability to change and adapt.

In Part two we’ll look into the 4-3-3’s ability to change it’s shape with specific examples of tactical options from Europe, Australia and even the state of Maine in the US…