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…

 

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AS Roma in Boston 7/25 Training Session

AS Roma’s week of preseason preparation at Harvard University’s Ohiri Field continued on Monday evening. The session ran from 5:30pm to about 7:00pm and like Sunday evening’s session, the focus was on team play. It was Roma’s second field session of the day. The first session at 10:00am, according to Roma’s website, involved the players doing fitness work, sprints, ball work and small sided games.

ASRoma725Lead

Double sessions are an occasional controversial topic for soccer coaches as there is much debate as to how much these sessions can hurt a team’s fitness over the course of a long season. The foremost opponent of double sessions across Twitter is Dutch fitness coach, Raymond Verheijen, who has made a habit of attacking coaches who use double sessions.

Be interesting to see if AS Roma has a run of injuries or poor form this season if Verheijen swoops in and takes a knock on Luciano Spalletti’s training methods. He’d be joining a long line of top coaches mind you, Mauricio Pochettino of Tottenham Hotspur drew the ire of Verheijen this past spring when Spurs did their annual collapse on the verge of achievement. However, Tottenham did have one of the best injury records in the EPL last year despite (or perhaps because of?) double sessions.

While every approach to training is open to critique and doubt and praise and so on, the session put on by Spalletti last evening was quite interesting to take in and provided another night of possible useful exercises for coaches to put into practice with their teams this year. Let’s get onto to the session itself.

Straight from the off the session was interesting as the AS Roma players spent a short amount of time juggling and then went straight into a 12v12 exercise. There was no formal warm-up or stretching prior to this.

The setup had full size goals with a keeper in each at the top of the penalty areas and eleven outfield players per team, for a total of 24 players, 12 per team. There were five cones splitting the playing area in half vertically. The extra player in each team was a second center forward and the teams were set out in a 4-3-4 with one center forward from each team either side of the cones splitting the field.

ASRomaPattern12

What looked a bit odd, the extra center forward, quickly made more sense once Spalletti explained the exercise and the players got underway. Each goalkeeper would roll a ball out to their right centerback, thus having the teams moving the ball up opposite sides of the field, and the teams would simultaneously play up their right side and finish with a shot in goal. Then both teams would play up their left side. The ball and players involved in the passing were restricted to one side of the field and the center forwards alternated their involvement accordingly.

There was no defending, there were players from the other team in the way of the passing and movement but they did not actively defend the play. It is not uncommon for a team to go out and work through various passing patterns against no one(shadow play) but this twist of asking two sets of players to do so at the same time did add an element of difficultly.

Shadow play with plastic men as defenders is used as well but the advantage to actual humans is that their positioning would alter slightly, giving at least some movement to deal with and more of a fluid element to the exercise.

Now many coaches may love this idea but not all of us routinely have twenty-four players at one session in which to try it out!

The patterns used both involved the winger checking in from a wide position into the half space and then either the fullback or centermid making a run into the space vacated by the winger. From there a ball was put into the center forward who then laid off to the same winger who had checked into the half space as he would then make a central run into the center forward’s space.

Afterward, the teams then played a game of 11v11, the extra center forwards now gone. The restriction in this game was that once the ball had moved into the defending team’s half, only the back four could defend. The three midfielders could drift into their half but could not actively defend. The forwards had to wait at the midfield line. Initially, both teams looked to get into the opponent’s half as quickly as possible and then use the 6v4 advantage to patiently create a chance. This seemingly allowed them to work both on fast transitions out of their half and then patience in creating chances further forward.

ASRoma6v4

About two-thirds of the way through the approach of both teams changed, as Spalletti looked to begin instructing them to play back to the keeper, open up and build methodically out of the back upon regaining possession. The language barrier, of course, made knowing exactly what Spalletti was asking difficult but he did shout repeatedly at one point while pointing back to the keeper and the team obliged and played back to him.

From there, once again as on Monday, four players dropped out of the main group and did some running and jogging on the far side of the field. These were returning players from the Euros, Daniele De Rossi, Alessandro Florenzi, Stephen El Shaarawy and Radja Nainggolan. This was their last involvement for the session.

The main group then played a half field game of 10v10 with no apparent restrictions. Both teams seemingly played a 4-2-3.

ASRomaHF

For the second night in a row, after working together largely in one group, they split into smaller groups to finish out the session. The goalkeepers and some of the forward players worked on finishing and some of the midfielders worked on playing either passes or chipped balls through or over two lines of four plastic men.

The two back fours, with the help of four other players, worked on defensive shape again. The back fours took turns defending an empty goal against a 1-3. The focus was on pressing the wide player on the ball and then dealing with a ball chipped into the center forward from the lone midfielder after the winger laid off to him. The key seemed to be on quickly stepping the line on the back pass and then tightly marking the attackers as they made their run onto the chipped ball.

The above group of twelve then finished with a game of 4v4v4 in which one line of four played between the other two. The two outside lines had to keep possession and attempt to play through the middle line to the group on the opposite side. Interception of a through ball from the middle group got them out of the middle as they would switch with the group who’s pass they picked off.

ASRoma4v4v4

At the conclusion of the session just about all the players went over to the supporters and signed autographs and took selfies. The Roma associate working the check in said they had made a point of telling the players they needed to go over after each session for a bit. The previous evening only Florenzi made an extended effort to go over. Even Spalletti was coaxed into posing for a selfie by one overzealous coach taking in the session 🙂

Right before the above, Spalletti was alone with one of the younger looking defenders talking to him for several minutes about something from the previous exercise on defensive shape. Apologies to AS Roma fans who may find who this was to be interesting but my familiarity with the squad is not the best! A picture of their chat is below, if anyone can identify the young lad, let me know in the comments!

SpallettiChat

Another evening of great insight into how top teams prepare for a coming season along with some excellent technical ability on display, the likes of which is not seen in person around here all that often! Worth the trip to Harvard if you can make this week.