Guide to the 4 3 3 Formation in Soccer

By Woodland Soccer Team •  Updated: 06/27/22 •  15 min read

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4-3-3 is a formation tactic that is used in soccer. The eleven players fit in this formation and have their roles and positions defined by the coach. Each player has a set of unique instructions. This guide will be an introduction to the 4-3-3 soccer formation.

Basic History of the 4 3 3 Formation in Soccer

Brazil adopted the formation in 1962, in which Mario Zagallo dropped from the front line to midfield. The great Alf Ramsey experimented with the 4-3-3 formation in the 1950s and 60s. He is the only coach of England to win the world cup in 1966. However, he played a different formation in the final, a 4-1-3-2(4-4-2).

Many countries and teams did not use it, but in the 1970s, Rinus Michels’ sides, Netherland and Ajax, adopted the formation and were famous for using it. These tactics led to the concept of “Total Football” and inspiring people like Johan Cruyff to use the formation as a coach.

Variations of 4 3 3 formation

4-3-3 has several variations. The difference in the variations mainly focuses on the midfield players’ alignment. The other positions may differ, but the name of the variation originates from the midfield.

Flat 4 3 3

In this variation, the midfielders are in the same line. Roles are interchanged between the match depending on how the opponent is attacking and defending.

4 3 3 Triangle (Holding)

In this variation, the central defensive midfielder (CDM) connects the backline to the midfield and holds the central position to provide balance when defending and attacking.

One midfielder is a box-to-box player meaning the player moves up the pitch to support during an attack and tracks back to complete a defensive shape.

The other player is the playmaker. The player’s role is to create chances for the front-line attackers and, on some occasions, to convert the chances.

4 3 3 Triangle (Attacking)

 

The main focus is usually on attacking. It holds a central attacking midfielder (CAM) and two supporting midfielders.

The supporting midfielders interchange their roles depending on how the opponent is playing. In some matches, they may have specific roles.

The coach makes the decision on which variation to use depending on the type of players in the team.

4 3 3 Formation Layout

The back four (or five, with a keeper) don’t really change much in position, although their role in the side will vary from team to team. The first player is the goalkeeper in the post. The defense has two central defenders and two fullbacks. The flat back four is common and the backbone of any 4 3 3 formations.

The midfield has three players who can take the central defensive, central attacking, and central midfield positions.

The attacking line has three players. The players are right and left-wingers and the central attacking striker or a false nine.

The players used in this formation must have high fitness levels since it involves a lot of high pressure, tracking back, and making forward runs.

In Pep Guardiola’s layout at Manchester City in the 2010s, the wingers create width. Some wingers also play as a false nine when the team doesn’t have a central striker in the lineup. Playing with the high, wide players helps hold and contain the opposition’s backline.
It creates spaces where the midfielders exploit to dominate possession and feed the ball to the attackers. A dropping center forward or the false nine-player overload the midfield area and pull defenders off their positions.

How to Play in a 4-3-3 Formation

The 4 3 3 formation usually focuses on attack and keeping possession of the ball. That’s because with three midfielders, you can overload central areas and maintain possession. And that’s not even thinking about how some coaches play with a false nine, or inverted fullbacks overloading the middle even more.

The setup is four at the back, three in the middle, and three at the front. When executed perfectly, it denies possession to the opponent, thus taming their attacking plays.

The formation has laid out its effectiveness in counterattack due to the three-man forward leading the team. After a successful long ball, an attack is triggered.

Keep in mind that when looking at formation guides like this, formations can be played in different ways and how the formations look on the pitch can be different.

The 4-3-3 formation can be mistaken for a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1.

Let’s look at each player’s role in this formation.

Role of Goalkeeper in 4 3 3 Formation

The primary role remains to protect the goal post to avoid scoring from the opponents. The secondary role is supporting play since game build-up starts from the back in this formation. The keeper must have good vision and excellent passing skills. It enables the backline to push up the field to contain the opponents in their half.

When defending, communication between the keeper and defenders is essential. It enables the defenders to cover spaces to minimize the attacking threat.

The keeper must hold a sweeper trait. It helps in defending. During an opponent attack, the keeper spots the danger, attacks, and retrieves the ball without fouling the player.
The keeper acts as a defending tactic that catches an opponent off guard and allows the team to play higher up the field.

The Role of Central Defenders in a 4 3 3 Formation

The primary objective is to deny the opponents a chance to break through on goal. In this formation, the defenders must portray composure and fast reactions to be able to stop an attack since they are holding a high line.

The central defenders include the right center back and left center back. They are responsible for covering the middle part of their half pitch-side, which has a right and left side.

The CB’s defensive awareness helps in intercepting and tackling the attackers. While defending, the two defenders must be able to battle and win aerial challenges to relieve pressure from long balls and balls being crossed into the box.

Discipline is a crucial trait for the defenders to have. It allows them to make decisions that don’t cost the team. The players must know when to foul and when to allow play to continue since, being the last player, getting sent off is very easy.

The defenders must be able to play long balls to the forwards to initiate counterattacks or switch play from one wing to the other wing. Their passing skills must be precise to avoid losing possession. One of the central defenders must be in charge of arranging the backline. The defender instructs on when to move up (to initiate an offside trap), when to drop back, and where and when to get defensive support from the midfielders.

The Role of Fullbacks in a 4 3 3 Formation

These days, the role of the fullback is vastly different from what it used to be.

This formation offers the fullbacks freedom to attack and hug the sidelines. It helps overload the opponent’s half in that the team has around eight players inside the opponent’s half.

During attacks, the fullbacks may overlap or make inverted runs to create space.

The runs widen the approach since the formation is sometimes narrow, limiting the team’s attacking options. The fullbacks either provide cutbacks or crosses for the attacking players.

The fullbacks must remember to track back when not in possession to avoid being exposed at the back. This transitional play must be well-timed and executed so that the formation works in favor of the team.

The fullbacks must have a good understanding of each other to adapt accordingly. It will help to maintain equilibrium in both attacking and defending.

Midfielders’ Role in a 4 3 3 Formation

It is the heart of the formation. A strong midfield dominates the game and provides a good attack flow and pressure on the opponents.
The midfield includes a central defensive midfielder, a central midfielder, and a central attacking midfielder. When the midfielders fail to turn up during the match, the team will struggle to create chances. In defending, opposition players will overload if the midfielders do not track back. It will allow the opposition to dominate the game and pressure the team.

The midfield players mostly use underlapping. It is when a player runs toward the ball. It helps to support play and allows other players to take up better positions on the pitch when attacking.

The three midfielders have composure, agility, reactions, and stamina. These traits help in coping with the requirements of the match. The midfielders must be good passers of the ball and be visionary to spot runs from the fullbacks or the forwards.

The midfield controls and dictates the tempo at which the game is played. The players in the midfield must own shooting abilities enabling them to take long shots. It increases the creation of scoring chances. Their roles differ since the coach decides on which variation to use. Generally, there is a playmaker, a box-to-box player, and the defensive-minded player.

The playmaker creates scoring chances for the team. The box-to-box player provides support in both attack and defense. The defensive-minded player acts as the team anchor who holds both the attacking and defending departments.

The central defensive midfielder acts as insurance for the team at the back. It allows the players to move higher up the pitch to provide attacking support.

The midfielders must communicate in attack to avoid overcrowding. If they overcrowd, they will lack passing options when attacking.
During defending, the midfielders must communicate to remain compact to deny the opponents any spaces to exploit. The players adopt coordinated pressing to be effective.

The Role of Forwards in a 4 3 3 Formation

The three players at the front include a striker, a left-winger, and a right-winger.

The striking position has multiple roles that include;

The arrangement of the forward line determines the role definition of the forwards.

It might be a straight line with a false nine or a central striker. The other one could be a narrow approach with a central striker with two supporting forwards behind the central striker.

The wingers generally must be fast and have extraordinary dribbling abilities to cruise past defenders. The wingers must be able to cross the ball into the box and finish when needed to score a goal. Players must be quick decision-makers to capitalize during counterattacks. They must be well aware of their surroundings to know what execution to perform and be good communicators to avoid losing possession.

There are some teams that play a 4-3-3 formation with narrow wingers though. Think Klopp’s Liverpool when they had Salah and Mane. The two ‘wingers’ would sit very narrow in possession while the width in the attack was supplied by the fullbacks. So, like almost anything in soccer, different teams will do things in different ways.

Regardless, the wingers are the primary beneficiary of a team playing long balls behind a team’s defensive line. They take advantage of the confusion and make runs behind to create a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper.

A false nine acts as a striker and a midfielder during the attack. Must have good vision and finishing abilities to score goals. The player’s role is to be a nuisance at the front to be able to pull defenders off positions to allow the other players to exploit the spaces behind.

The false nine really came into popularity when Lionel Messi played centrally in Barcelona’s world-beating sides. Rather than play on the last man, or be a target, they drop deep and act as an extra midfielder during the buildup. This can create an overload through the middle and ensure you keep the ball.

A target forward is a player who will hold the ball to allow the other wingers to exploit the spaces behind and allow the midfield to get to attacking positions up the field. The player’s attributes should be tall and be a good passer of the ball. The target forward scores mostly from crosses driven into the box.

A central striker is a player that has majored in scoring goals. The primary role of the player in the lineup is to score goals.

The forwards execute a high press during transitional play; afterward, the players drop back as the wingers track back with the attacking fullbacks. The striker is left in the middle of the pitch to serve as an outlet. The wingers help the fullbacks to defend as a man-to-man marking inside and outside the eighteen-yard area.

Strengths and Weaknesses of 4 3 3 Formation

Here is a brief rundown. There’s an article dedicated solely to the strengths and weaknesses of the 4 3 3 formation.

You can see our article on the strengths and weaknesses of other formations here too. 

Weakness of 4 3 3 formation

Training the 4 3 3 Formation

When training or coaching the 4 3 3 formation, it’s obviously dependent on what you want your team to play like, and your principles of play.

However, most 4 3 3 formations will look at the following training sessions.

I really like The Coaches’ Voice as a way to find training sessions that I can then change to suit my team (or just straight copy).

Final Thoughts

The 4-3-3 formation is among the best tactics to use in football. It is a powerful tactic when having the right players that fit in. Football clubs like Manchester City and Liverpool, use the 4-3-3 formation.

The setup is more or less the same, but, in the end, both teams have dominated the English Premier League and the Champions League.
Barcelona is an example of a team that uses a 4-3-3 variation. It relies on the “tiki-taka” tactic to function. In this, the players move the ball in triangles and one-touch play. It helps the team move forward as a block and overload the opposition’s half. Barcelona’s attacking approach relies on the ball movement.

The fast builds, precise passing, possession domination, chances creation, and fast counterattacks sum up the strengths of a well-set-up formation.

The 4-3-3 formation has the potential to lead any team to victory using the correct setup and tactics.

Woodland Soccer Team

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