There is no right or wrong way to approach a game in football. Every tactical system has strengths and weaknesses. Some coaches are leaning back defensively, trying to enter and create an opportunity against the opponent. Others press aggressively, trying to win the ball in the offensive zone of the court and create lots of chances. One of the most important aspects of any tactical system is formation selection. In this article, we will explore one of the most popular formations: 4-3-3. What does this setup look like in action? And why do coaches prefer it?
4-3-3 Formation: Uses, Benefits, and Weaknesses
Each formation has its own strengths that the team must make the most of while mitigating their weaknesses through tactical awareness and a good understanding of how the opponent may try to take advantage of the game plan.
With a 4-3-3 formation, you are guaranteed an attacking perspective from the start. By controlling the midfield and taking advantage of the flexibility the formation provides to the team’s forwards, the 4-3-3 can take down, confuse and force them to return to their goals.
The speed and movement of attacking players, interchangeable with support-backs and offensive midfielders, can overload an opponent’s defense with a flood of players to great effect.
4-3-3 is a formation that uses four defenders, two central defenders, and two fullbacks, behind the three midfield lines. The most common setup in midfield is a deeper player – a single pivot – and two slightly more advanced players for either side. The front line then consists of two wide attackers playing on either side of a single striker.
How to play 4-3-3?
This formation consists of 3 key layers and is often seen as an attacking formation. At the back, the goalkeeper is guarded by 4 defenders (a right-back, two central defenders, and a left-back). In front of them are 3 central midfielders who can be organized in various ways (we’ll expand on this in a moment). Finally, the offense is led by a front 3, usually consisting of two wingers (or in some cases inside forwards) and a central forward as the focal point during the offensive phase.
Tactically 4-3-3 Formation Team Requirements:
- Disciplined and working well together as a trio, central midfielders are in possession of the ball, supporting the offense and helping the defense.
- Supporting and not supporting the wide forwards in front of them, athletic fullbacks neglect their defensive duties. They also need to provide go-around options.
- Wide for midfielders.
- Good game management of transitions between defense and attack.
- Good ball movement from the team’s forward.
- Disciplined wide forwards supporting the midfield and the opposition attack.
- A dedicated defensive or holding midfielder who senses danger
- The gaps left by the fullbacks help the team maintain its form.
- Wide players and forwards create width and depth to give center and midfielders enough room to influence the game.
Strengths of the Tactical 4-3-3 Formation:
- In the midfield: With three central midfielders, he can protect the defense. You can control the center of the field and force the opponent to play wide.
- Having control: The formation works best with technically proficient players who pass, move and return the ball around the team. Due to the passing angles it creates, this prevents the opponent from receiving the ball.
- Offensive options: With three forwards in the lead, the team will always have offensive options available to them. Combined with the full-backs and forward midfielders, this provides strong offensive power.
- Lots of passing options for the player: Due to the focus on movement and space, the player in possession of the ball should always have several options. This helps the team to control the ball.
- Forcing the opponent to make mistakes: Due to the high-energy nature of the formation and the number of players pushing up the field, it is possible to force opponents to make mistakes by limiting the passing area.
- The move without the ball confuses the opponent: The flexible nature of the 4-3-3 formation will create turmoil among the opposing defense as a result of the variety of opposing striker formations and the different runs made by the players.
- Defeating the opponent: With the potential seven players moving forward, 4-3-3 can be a mess for the defending team because a stream of people pushes the field towards them.
- Disciplined players limit the weaknesses of the formation: If well trained and tactically proficient, the team can prevent the opponent from taking advantage of the 4-3-3 formation by following back and supporting teammates with defensive work.
- In defense, the midfield acts as insurance in the back: Since one of the central midfielders is often dedicated to defensive play, the fullbacks can attack without worrying too much about the gaps they leave behind.
- Tactical flexibility to switch to other formations: From the 4-3-3 formation, the coach can command the game and counter the opponent by changing the shape of the team relatively easily.
Weaknesses of the 4-3-3 Formation:
The 4-3-3 form can sometimes leave teams a bit lacking in the defensive areas, especially if it’s pushing fullbacks up. This can be dangerous, especially if a team is playing with a high defensive line. The opponent will pose a risk in their counterattack. An example of this came during Aston Villa’s notable 7-2 win over Liverpool in the 2020-21 season.
Fitness is also an important topic here. If players are not fit enough to press properly, defensive weaknesses will occur in fast counterattacks. Fullbacks and midfielders must have particularly high levels of energy and stamina, as their job requires a lot of movement up and down the field. There is also an important element of discipline in the roles of the guard; If this area of the court is your weakest point, 4-3-3 is probably not the best formation for you. This conforms to a more general rule, meaning that this formation can over-confidence top quality players in key areas of the pitch, such as the central defensive midfielder.
However, in recent years, teams that have had these world-class have increasingly used the 4-3-3 to get the most out of them. Let’s examine some of the most influential examples of this formation in action.
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona; Guardiola often used 4-3-3 as his preferred starting style. With Barcelona, the width was created by wingers such as Lionel Messi, Pedro, Cristian Tello, or Alexis Sánchez, or converted to wide forwards by Thierry Henry and David Villa (above, above). Playing with high, wide players tried to squeeze the opponent’s back line. This created space in the inner channels for Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, or Thiago to control the ball and feed the game to the forwards. A downed striker – or the wrong nine – on Samuel Eto’o, Messi, or Cesc Fàbregas are more overloaded areas in mid-midfield.
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool; On Klopp’s 4-3-3, wrong-footed wingers Mo Salah and Sadio Mané stepped in. Backs allowed Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to come forward and provide the crosses, comebacks, and the majority of the team’s width (above). Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, playing just ahead of single center Fabinho, provided support from under the ball. Centre-forward Roberto Firmino was running forwards to threaten the back and connect. but he also dives into the midfield to create an overload.
Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli; Sarri’s 4-3-3 used a mix of wingers and forwards to provide width for the team. Usually in an asymmetrical style and with different combinations on each wing. On the left wing, right winger Lorenzo Insigne stepped in. Left-back Faouzi Ghoulam went forward. Marek Hamsík did forward runs from the left inner channel as part of rotations on that side. On the right wing, the right winger José Callejón kept the width. Right-back Elseid Hysaj was more holding his back line position, especially when Ghoulam pushed forward (below).
Is the Tactical Trial 4-3-3 Formation the Best in Football?
Queuing tactics against 4-3-3 vary from coach to coach. Ultimately, it all depends on the staff and playing to your strengths and considering the opponent’s weaknesses. Getting that balance right is the essence of football coaching.
It’s hard to say whether 4-3-3 is the best in football. It has laid the groundwork for some of the greatest teams of the modern era, including Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, and Zinedine Zidane’s three Champions League champions Real Madrid side inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo. However, there are also weaknesses. Today, there are many top teams that prefer other systems, such as the 3-5-2 formation. There are several ways to find success. However, 4-3-3 is definitely one of the most reliable.