The 4-3-3 Formation: Complete Handbook

The 4-3-3

When played correctly, the 4-3-3 formation can be devastating. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the 2008-2009 season is the perfect example. They won the treble and absolutely dominated in the league. 

The reason this was possible was in part due to Guardiola’s use of the 4-3-3 formation. The wingers flanking the lone striker and the ability to have at least seven players attacking at once made brutally effective attacks possible. 

The 4-3-3 has, in recent times, become the goto formation for many of Europe’s top clubs. For example, in Manchester City’s recordbreaking season (2017-18) Pep Guardiola used the 4-3-3 to win the league by nearly twenty points. 

The 4-3-3 formation has gradually replaced the 4-4-2 as the formation of choice due to the formation’s attacking capabilities and tactical flexibility. 

What is the 4-3-3 Formation?

Before we can answer whether “4-3-3 is a good formation”, you have to first understand the basic layout of the 4-3-3. 

The 4-3-3 is organized into three layers of player. At the back there are four defenders (two central defenders and two full backs) as well as the goalkeeper.  

Next, in the midfield, there are three central midfielders. These midfielders can be organized in a variety of ways. This is due to the many variations of this formation which we will go over later. In attack, there are two wingers and a lone, central striker. 

433 Football Formation

Due to this layout it is considered quite an attacking formation as there are three players already dedicated to attacking, with three midfielders who can support the attack. The full-backs are also expected to play an attacking role by making overlapping runs in behind the defence. 

The thing that sets the 4-3-3 apart from other formations is the ability that it possesses to press the opposition wherever they have the ball. You have three attackers up front who can constantly press the back line. You also have three in the midfield who can cut out any passes through the midfield and dominate possession when having the ball. 

Due to this, it is often used by better clubs who are very good at scoring goals. For example, Liverpool and Manchester City both use the 4-3-3 formation, and scored 187 goals between them in the 2019-20 season. 

There are also a ton of variations of the 4-3-3, almost all of them involving the arrangement of the midfield. 

The first and most common variation is where one of the midfielders drops back into a defensive midfielder to add some extra protection to the defence. 

  • Another variation of the 4-3-3 is where one of the midfielders pushes up instead of dropping back, and then plays as an attacking midfielder to support the striker. This is a very attacking minded variation so you should be wary of using it, as it can leave you quite exposed at the back. 
  • With this variation of the 4-3-3, two of the midfielders drop back to play as defensive or holding midfielders. This makes for a very defensive formation that adds a lot of protection to the defence but could leave you lacking when attacking. 
  • The final variation of the 4-3-3 is one you’ve probably all heard of: the false 9. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona was the team that made this famous in the late 2000s 
  • When playing a false 9 the striker drops back into a centre forwardlike position to confuse the defence as to whether they should hold the line, or close down the striker. This confusion allows space to open up which the attacking team can use to their advantage. 
433 Attacking Formation

Is the 4-3-3 a Good Formation? 

The 4-3-3 is a great formation if you are looking to overwhelm the other team with attacking players. With both full-backs bombing down the wings, the opposition’s defence can easily be overrun. The three up front also have the ability to start an attack themselves if they win the ball high up the pitch. 

The 4-3-3 also provides the ability to dominate the midfield, as you have three central midfielders who can pass in triangles around the opposition all day long. These midfielders also offer support to the defence when needed and are also crucial to the creation of chances at the other end. 

Unlike the 4-4-2 formation, the 4-3-3 opens up many passing angles and options when in possession of the ball. This is why the 4-3-3 formation is the perfect formation if you plan on playing tiki-taka football. 

The 4-3-3 also allows you to apply huge amounts of pressure to the opposition when not in possession of the ball. The three attackers can press the opposing back line and force the opposition into making mistakes. If the ball makes it past the front three then the midfield can win the ball back without it ever reaching the defence. 

When using the 4-3-3 there are also many different ways to create chances due to the versatility of the formation. The midfielders can play balls in behind to the attackers and the fullbacks, or wingers can play balls into the box. The 4-3-3 is also very effective when played on the counterattack. 

Problems

Despite all of the benefits when playing the 4-3-3, it can be slightly lacking in defence. One way to remedy this is to play one of the midfielders in a deeper role, but even with this the defence is slightly weak.  

This issue is increased further when defending against a counterattack as the full-backs may be out of position and the wingers too high up the pitch to come back in time. 

To make this formation work you also need players who have a very high level of fitness as the success of the formation is based upon the team’s ability to be constantly pressing the opposition. In particular, the full-backs and midfielders need very high stamina levels.  

This is because the full-backs need to be able to constantly be charging up and down the wings. The midfielders also need to be able to close down the opposition all the time as well as playing active parts in the attack. 

Which Clubs use the 4-3-3? 

Surprisingly, in the Premier League, only three out of twenty teams used the 4-3-3 formation in the 2019-20 season. These teams were Liverpool, Manchester City and Aston Villa. They finished 1st, 2nd and 17th respectively.  

In La Liga, four teams out of twenty used the 4-3-3 in the 2019-20 season. These teams were Real Madrid (1st), Sevilla (4th), Real Sociedad (6th) and Celta Vigo (17th) 

In the Bundesliga, no teams used the 4-3-3 in the 2019-20 season. 

In the Serie A, two teams out of twenty used the 4-3-3 in the 2019-20 season. These teams were Napoli and Lecce. Napoli finished 7th and Lecce finished 18th. 

Finally, in Ligue 1, six teams out of twenty used the 4-3-3 formation in the 2019-20 season. These teams were PSG (1st), Stade Rennes (3rd), Monaco (9th), Girondins Bordeaux (12th), Fc Metz (15th) and Dijon (16th). 

How is the 4-3-3 Played? 

  • Strengths:  
    • Midfield Domination – with three in the midfield the 4-3-3 is hard to beat in the middle of the park. This also means that the midfield can easily control possession. 
    • Can easily overrun the opposition  as mentioned earlier, you can have as many as seven players rushing forwards at once which can easily overwhelm the opposition 
    • Very strong wing play – because of the attacking full backs and the wingers high up the pitch, it is easy for the midfield to find balls to play out on the wing. 
    • Lots of passing options – due to the layout of the 4-3-3, when a player has the ball he should always (in theory) have at least two people to pass the ball to. 
    • Many variations of the formation – due to the many variations of this formation it is very easy to adapt to the situation. 
  • Weaknesses: 
    • Can be vulnerable in defence – if you are not careful it is possible for the defence to get overrun, especially when faced with a counterattack. The full-backs could be caught out of position, leaving the wings exposed. 
    • Full-backs need to be very fit and fast – for the fullbacks to be sprinting up and down the pitch, they need to have extraordinary stamina to not be exhausted by the end of the game. 
    • Need highly specialised players for each position – for the 4-3-3 to work effectively, each player has to know their exact role and be able to carry it out almost to perfection. Otherwise, areas of the field will be left open for the opposition to exploit. 
    • The whole team needs to have very high stamina – the 4-3-3 is based on the players ability to press the opposition into makes. However, if the press is not upheld, the opposition can exploit gaps left by players out of position. 

Conclusion 

The 4-3-3 is a great formation for anyone planning to play highly attacking footballWhen used correctly, the 4-3-3 can rip a team apart. However, when used incorrectly, you can be left vulnerable at the back with players wildly out of position.  

As you can see, there are many strong teams who use this formation (PSG and Real Madrid to name couple)And if you are looking for a formation that can dominate in the midfield with ease and overwhelm the opposition then the 4-3-3 is a great choice. 

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