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…



Spurs Stall Out Away to Hull, 1-1

After Tottenham’s midweek disaster at home to Manchester City, Spurs were hoping for a quick three points and a rebound away to Hull City(Tigers). Any one of the bottom ten teams would have done following Man City, with everything so tight in tenth through twentieth position there’s plenty of reason for optimism when facing any of them. But Hull were tough for Spurs to breakdown at the Lane earlier in the year only able to come away with a 1-0 victory thanks to a Roberto Soldado penalty. There would be nothing to save Spurs this time around, however, and Tottenham had their worst performance in the Sherwood era.

The match saw a return to Tactical Timmy’s much maligned 4-4-2 formation, which initially looked like a major tactical blunder as Hull have fielded a 3-5-2 formation at times this season. A back three came into popularity as the preferred counter to two striker systems and subsequently went away with the trend towards 4-2-3-1 and other single striker systems that made three centerbacks redundant. Luckily, Sherwood was spared being outclassed from the get go by Steve Bruce, as Bruce also opted to go 4-4-2. Hull paired their new strike force of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long up top, with the two operating together with good effect.

Despite the similar formations, the approach in possession of the two teams could not have been much more different. Spurs dominated possession with a 77% percent pass completion rate and 61% of the ball and looked for chances on goal with both slick passing counter attacks and sustained build up play. Tottenham’s two forwards, Soldado and Adebayor, worked the channels or dropped off into midfield to assist the build up play on a regular basis. Hull’s front pairing stayed higher up the pitch looking to get onto the end of long balls and attack Spurs directly. Jelavic made himself useful with his physicality and Long used his excellent pace to good effect.

The main tactical feature of the game was space in between the defensive and midfield lines, for both teams , when defending. It is no surprise to see this from Spurs in a 4-4-2 as their lack of a holding midfield player in four or five man midfields has been well, well, documented. But Hull allowed too much space in between their two banks of four as well and it’s a bit of surprise neither side took advantage of this more, as the two goals came from a sequence starting with a goal kick and a free kick.

The opening goal came in the opening fifteen minutes of the match as both sides created excellent chances one after another in short order that perfectly exploited the other sides weakness. Unfortunately for Spurs, Adebayor’s volley was saved but Long was able to chip Lloris and put Hull ahead. The snapshot below shows, perhaps, Spurs best chance from open play, a series of short combination passing followed with a short cross from Soldado and an outstanding volley from Adebayor.


Shortly after, Hull exposed Spurs’ lack of a holding midfield player and got their goal by pulling Vertonghen and Dawson, Spurs centerback pairing, apart vertically from one another as Vertonghen went forward to challenge Long in the air from a Hull goal kick and Dawson marked Jelavic. Neither Vertonghen or Long won the ball in the air but it fell behind them, came to Jelavic who flicked it into the path of Long who easily raced by Dawson and away from Vertonghen to score with a nice finish 1v1 with Lloris.


Hull were content to keep playing the long game with both Jelavic and Long looking effective. And their long passing game was quite succesful, they completed 24 of 53 long passes(45%) while defensively, Long and Jelavic took away Spurs short passing options and were able to force them long. But Spurs only completed 12 of 39 long passes, 30%, and were poor taking free kicks inside their own half, completing just 3 of 10.

Shane Long was an outstanding nuisance in this match, he committed five fouls in and around Spurs area, created two chances, scored a goal, received fifteen passes from Hull’s half into Spurs half, recovered possession twice, won five of his twelve aerial duels(four in Spurs half) and was fouled three times himself. He showed exactly why Hull brought him in, pace, good finishing and an ability to be generally very energetic and annoying to his opponents for 90 minutes.


Hull setup their front pairing in their initial defensive block in between Spurs centerbacks and central midfield pairing of Bentaleb and Dembele while their midfield four took up positions around the halfway line. This was a more proactive defensive block than that set out by Tony Pulis when Palace played Spurs, Pulis allowed Spurs central midfield pairing plenty of possession and took away their other options, here, they were pushed further back and not allowed to easily receive passes from the back. But it did create the potential weakness of, again, space between the lines for Eriksen to operate freely. Eriksen received 47 passes, including ten that crossed from Spurs half into Hull’s.


Eriksen was able to complete 17 of 20 passes in the final third, 40 of 50 passes overall and had three shots from outside the area. Unfortunately, two of those shots were off target and one was blocked. He did hit Adebayor with six passes, two received inside the area, and also found Soldado with a pass eight times. But Hull did a solid defensive job inside their own area and Eriksen’s ability to roam didn’t end up hurting Hull.

Spurs also showed an ability to counter effectively, at least in terms of getting from their own half into Hull’s defensive third, with rapid sequences of passes on the ground. In the snapshot below Spurs move from their defensive third into Hull’s area with five well placed passes and win a corner.


Adebayor showed yet another dimension to his game against Hull, his ability to hold up back to goal against a centerback and take passes into feet and then look to layoff. Yet again, in this match Spurs were able on several occasions to hit Adebayor with a pass in or around Hull’s area from a central position because of the space in between the lines. Below, one such instance shows Adebayor receive a pass and then lay it off moments later to Eriksen(who’s not in screen) at the top of the area who then gets his blocked shot off and it goes out for a corner.


The goal scored by Hull highlights well enough why there is a need for a more defensive minded midfield player on the pitch for Spurs, despite Les Ferdinand’s comments this week that he doesn’t like holding midfielders. He wants his midfield players to be more complete players, capable of contributing to the build up and attack play and also playing a role defensively. But that’s what all managers want, ideally, yes, you would want complete players in the central areas, but they are not so easy to find or cheap to acquire, there are only so many Sergio Busquets type players to go around.

What can be done in  to replicate this type of player? One, is to play a double pivot, two deep mids who take going forward in turns, with a strong understanding that if one goes, the other one stays. Spurs haven’t been able to find a partnership that has worked in this capacity so far, as it does for Man City and Chelsea quite well. Secondly, the creator/destroyer central pairing in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, which Spurs fans will remember Harry employing with Sandro and Luka Modric to great effect in the past, Sherwood hasn’t really given this a go yet either, that even Harry recognized the need for a Sandro or Scott Parker type in midfield is damning even more of Sherwood’s nativity.

Those are two options to avoid the holding midfield player being run out in a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 that Sherwood and Ferdinand fear doing so badly. Or they could just play a holding mid and admit they do not have a Sergio Busquets type player kicking around at the Lane at the moment. So long as they continue with this preference of selection, Spurs will continue to see problems in the middle of the park. Spurs interception chart below shows a glaring lack of interceptions made in the particular area of the field where a holding mid would take up his position.


The match did display the contrast in styles that two teams can have while playing the same basic formation, no 4-4-2s are the same and we saw that clearly in this match. But just because Spurs version of 4-4-2 is not “orthodox” does not mean it can and will always be effective. Sherwood moved away from it for a while and fielded a 4-1-4-1 to good effect against Swansea but it will be interesting to see if he will break away from it again. And once Sandro is fit he will have the option of pairing him with his Brazilian counterpart, Paulinho, or his buddy from last season, Dembele, in the center of the park. If he chooses not to use the creator/destroyer tandem with a fully fit Sandro, who has proven himself in the Premier League, at his disposal, serious questions will start to be asked about Sherwood.

In the meantime, Hull City can come away from this match the much happier of the two sides, as they took a valuable point from a relatively in form, big club and having done so by executing their game plan better than the boys from the Lane. Bruce’s approach created a goal and stifled Spurs creativity and open football well enough to take something from the match, he succeeded where Stoke, Palace,Swansea and even Manchester United failed, putting the breaks on Sherwood’s free flowing football and making them pay for their defensive shortcomings.

Check back later in the week for a closer look at Bentaleb’s and Soldado’s performances against Hull City

The Similar Influences of Adebayor and Bony

On Sunday when Spurs came out on top against a struggling Swansea side, one of the more interesting subplots of the game was the similar play of Wilfried Bony and Emmanuel Abedayor. Both were operating as the lone front man for their respective teams and were able to influence their team’s buildup and attack play effectively down to their excellent work rates.

Spurs won the match fairly easily and Adebayor outscored Bony as well, 2-1, on the day but it’s safe to say Bony deserved at least the one goal and Adebayor certainly had the better supporting cast. All else being equal between the sides, which it is not, the simple fact that Adebayor had Christian Eriksen working behind him and Bony had Jonjo Shelvey as his supporting attacking mid certainly goes a ways in tipping the odds in Adebayor’s favor.

Both were on the receiving end of plenty of passes, with Adebayor receiving 56 passes to Bony’s 48. The chart below shows that they both were able to help the buildup but also still wound up in positions in and around the area to finish attacking moves with shots on goal. They were essentially able to cover two jobs typically assigned to a center forward pairing on their own. We saw this from Adebayor against Crystal Palace as well, when he made Roberto Soldado look redundant. Bony is always left on his own and must certainly miss the attacking qualities from Michu who has been out injured.


Bony was on the end of a pass inside the area four times against Spurs and from those passes he mustered three shots and a goal. Likewise, Adebayor took in four passes in Swansea’s area and had three attempts for two goals. Bony added two shots from outside the area after receiving a pass, one of which hit the woodwork, possibly the one threat he was able to offer that Adebayor was not. Most of the passes into Bony were from wide positions, where as Adebayor’s movement was more varied and he took passes from all over. But looking back at the chart, neither of them spent much time operating in front of the opposition area, they were both working the flanks or coming deep to get on the ball.

Where as Bony created more shots, six to three, Adebayor was both the busier and more successful passer of the two, completing 39 of 45 passes, an 87% completion rate, but Bony only completed 25 of 35, a 71% completion rate. Bony’s passing was also far more constricted, most being short passes in central positions and offered almost nothing in the final third. Adebayor on the other hand, sprayed his passes much more and was able to play passes into the final third as well.


What was both lacking from the two was an ability to win challenges in the air. Adebayor won just one of his five headed challenges and Bony only one of his six. Bony is very much a physical force and Adebayor is not a pushover himself, making it a bit surprising they weren’t winning many duels in the air. Both have put their heads to good use, Bony has won 41 of 86 headed challenges this season and Adebayor scored with his head this week and assisted with it last week. Neither dominated in the air in this particular match.

Adebayor was clearly the better of the two, even beyond just looking at the goal tally. But both him and Bony are asked to do very little in the defensive phase, they had one tackle and one interception between the two of them, and tasked with being a major influence when their side are in possession. Bony also hit the woodwork from range, very nearly matching Adebayor with a brace of his own, but never the less, it was a great display from both lone forwards of matching their much needed goal scoring ability with an excellent work rate as well.