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The 4-3-3 formation is one that many football fans and enthusiasts are familiar with. Many of the world’s best footballing teams use the 4-3-3 formation in games, especially those that want to maintain an attacking edge over their opponents. It has been one of the most widely-used formations since the 2000s, although its roots are from way before then.
Despite having this knowledge, fans have been asking questions such as “What is a 4-3-3 formation in soccer?” “What does 4-3-3 mean in soccer?” “What are the 4-3-3 formation positions?” “How do you play a 4-3-3 formation?”. This article will show you all the details about the 4-3-3 formation to give you a good understanding of the formation.
4-3-3 Formation History
Among soccer formations, 4-3-3 is one of the oldest formations in organized football. In their 1962 FIFA World Cup triumph, Brazil manager Mario Zagallo set up his team to play with the 4-3-3 formation as they emerged as world champions for the second time. In the next edition of the competition in 1966, Sir Alf Ramsey‘s England emerged as champions playing in a 4-1-2-3 system, an offshoot of the 4-3-3 formation.
Over the next couple of years, different formation variants sprung up worldwide until legendary Dutch manager Rinus Michaels developed the Total Football system using a 4-3-3 formation lineup in the 1970s. Michaels’ system was further modified and molded into Johan Cruyff‘s 4-3-3 when he became a manager before the Pep Guardiola 4-3-3 formation became mainstream in the late 2000s.
Guardiola’s adaptation of the formation with high intensity and verticality helped create one of the best teams in history. He led FC Barcelona to win a treble in his first season in the 2008-09 season. The 4-3-3 formation in football has undergone many changes over time, but it has maintained the same basis.
4-3-3 Formation Explanation
In the 4-3-3 formation, player movement and positioning are defined by the manager’s specifications. This is because the formation can be used differently based on the manager’s choice.
The basis of the 4-3-3 formation is to have four defenders, three midfield players, and three forwards. This basis has been modified in several ways to integrate some specific kinds of players. However, it still follows the same sequence irrespective of modifications.
4-3-3 Defense Soccer
In a 4-3-3, the defense is made up of four players; two central defenders and two full-backs, one for the right side and the other for the left side. In a modern 4-3-3 formation, each player has more than one role to play, which does not exempt the defenders.
The central defenders have the task of protecting their goal and also helping their team build-up play from the back. The task of the full-backs is much more complicated. To play the role perfectly, they need to be adept at both ends of the pitch and possess enough stamina to allow them to be effective at both ends. Depending on the manager, also, the full-backs can have some specific duties.
For example, Manchester City play with one of their full-backs taking up an inverted role and the other maintaining the width in the attacking phase. On the other hand, Liverpool plays with both full-backs free to move high up the pitch, almost like wingers.
4-3-3 Midfield Socccer
The 4-3-3 formation has a three-man midfield whose function is to progress the ball and control the tempo of the game. Depending on the manager’s preference, the set-up can have a defensive midfielder and two central midfielders, two defensive midfielders and one attacking midfielder, or three central midfielders.
In a 4-3-3 wide formation, coaches prefer to use three central midfielders with precise spacing between them. The midfielder on each flank acts almost as a wide midfielder, and the full-back on each side stays behind them. It is used when a manager intends to keep his team’s shape intact.
When the manager intends to keep his 4-3-3 formation narrow, he opts to play with one defensive midfielder flanked on either side by a central midfielder. In this set-up, a set distance is maintained between the three midfielders to avoid leaving the midfield area exposed and open to runners. A manager can also play with a double pivot for security and have a No. 10 play in front of them, with all of the team’s creative burden on him.
Different managers have different systems, but the most common 4-3-3 system in recent years is the one with a defensive midfielder and two central midfielders. The system has been used by managers such as Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Hansi Flick, and Maurizio Sarri to win trophies in Europe. Each manager has his own version of the formation, but the principle remains the same.
4-3-3 Attack Soccer
When a manager plays a 4-3-3 formation, options in the attack include playing two wingers and a center forward or two inside forwards and a false nine. Depending on the manager’s choice, the forwards could all find themselves operating a bit centrally in a bid to allow their full-backs to find room out wide, as is done by Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
While at Barcelona, Guardiola was the first to play Lionel Messi in the false nine role as he sought to take advantage of the space between midfield and defense. Many managers have followed Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 formation used at Barcelona in recent years, and many others choose to play with an out-and-out center forward in attack. The entirety of the front three bears the burden of goalscoring, and they are also responsible for creating chances.
4-3-3 Formation Strengths
Teams playing with a 4-3-3 system tend to gain some advantages over their opponents. Here are some of the strengths of the formation that it confers upon teams that use it properly:
Ability to Press Higher Up
When a team plays with a 4-3-3, it gives them the freedom to press high up the pitch as a unit. This is so because the front three are usually well-spaced to cover the opposition defenders and cut off any potential passing routes, while the midfielders can also block passing routes into the midfield. This often forces the opposition to go wide, where the full-backs often wait to press them and cut off any supplies to their attackers.
This system has been perfected by Guardiola’s teams throughout his career and by Klopp’s Liverpool. Also, their counter-pressing is easily triggered after they lose the ball, allowing them to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible.
Multiple Creative Options
In a 4-3-3 set-up, teams are not limited to one or two players to carry their creative burden. Multiple players from different parts of the pitch contribute to creating chances for the team to score goals. Just as the full-backs contribute with their crosses and passes from out wide, the midfielders can create chances from more central positions. Also, the forwards can create chances closer to the opposition goal.
In Liverpool, for example, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson create chances from out wide just as midfielders like Thiago and Jordan Henderson and the attacking trio can also create chances to help the team. The players work in tandem to ensure that the burden of creating goalscoring opportunities for their team is not placed on just any one player.
Multiple Attacking Options
When a team plays with a 4-3-3 formation, they can have up to seven different players in the opposition’s third of the pitch to try and overwhelm their defense. This feature is handy in trying to break down teams that have been set up in a low block. The three forwards, two full-backs, and two central midfielders can all contribute to their side’s attack, creating multiple options to help break down the opposition rearguard.
Due to the presence of three players in the midfield, the team that plays a 4-3-3 formation can easily dominate the midfield and, by extension, control the tempo at which the match is played. Because of the three-man midfield, the team can run various plays through the midfield area to create overloads in and around the middle third of the pitch.
The 4-3-3 formation can be altered in various ways to give a team an advantage on the pitch. This flexibility makes it quite unpredictable as a manager can switch to different formation variations to adapt during games. As a result, managers have used formations like the 4-1-2-3 formation, 4-2-1-3 formation, and other formation varieties of its type.
4-3-3 Formation Weaknesses
Just as the 4-3-3 system has its strengths, it also has weaknesses that can be exploited to leave the team vulnerable. Here are some of its weaknesses;
Can Be Vulnerable to Counterattacks
Since the 4-3-3 often tends to commit several players to attack, a team that plays in the formation may be exposed to opposition counter-attacks if their counter-pressing strategy is not on point. Because only two or three players are left behind sometimes, the team can easily be caught out by a quick counter-attack, which will afford the opponent the space left by the right-back and left-back.
Full-backs Need to Be Quick and Fit
In a modern 4-3-3 system, the full-backs must be aggressive at both ends of the pitch. As a result, they need to cover a good deal of ground, more than most other players have to. It is quite common for the full-backs to be caught out of position when they move upfield. They need to be fit and fast to track back and defend their flank to prevent this from happening. The full-backs must have great stamina and tenacity on and off the ball.
Requires Hardworking Players All Over
To effectively play a 4-3-3 formation, all of the team’s players need to be able to cover the pitch and press opposition players relentlessly. This is because when a player slacks off, they can distort the shape of their team and leave the team disorganized in the press, allowing the opposition to bypassing them easily.
Teams That Play With a 4-3-3 System
Many of Europe’s elite sides are set up in a 4-3-3 formation to take advantage of their excellent technical players. English Premier League champions Manchester City and their rivals Liverpool are the two sides that have the 4-3-3 as their standard formation for all of their games.
However, other European teams like Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Napoli, and AC Milan enjoyed considerable success using the formation in the 2021-22 season. One of the prerequisites of enjoying the 4-3-3 formation is to have excellent midfield players who understand their roles on the team. The teams listed above have the players required, with the likes of Marco Verratti, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Fabian Ruiz, Franck Kessie, and many others proven to be suited to the formation.
Teams That Can Not Play With a 4-3-3 System
One major takeaway from the discussion around the 4-3-3 formation is that teams need players whose profiles suit the system for the system to thrive. For example, a team without hardworking forwards would struggle when they have to play with a 4-3-3 system, as would a team whose full-backs do not have the pace and stamina that the system requires. Similarly, many managers opt against playing the 4-3-3 system when their team does not have a high-class defensive midfielder to shield their back four.
The 4-3-3 formation is one of football’s most successful systems due to its repeated success by many different teams. When used with the correct personnel and tactical instructions, it allows teams to be effective in defense and offense, making it very difficult to stop them. However, to correctly utilize the formation, teams need to use the right personnel to avoid the formation’s drawbacks.
Many of the world’s best teams have successfully used the 4-3-3 formation and achieved considerable success with the formation. If, as a manager, you aim to control the game’s tempo, force the opposition into mistakes, and overwhelm their rearguard, the 4-3-3 formation is an excellent system for this purpose.