Part Two: The adaptability of the 4-3-3

In part one the rise in popularity of the 4-3-3 along with domination of world soccer by Barcelona and the Spanish national team was looked at. The misinterpretation of possession and it’s favored formation as the be all and end all of soccer development by many pundits and coaches was also looked at and compared to other misunderstood tactical trends of the past.

In part two, we will pick up where part one left off and explore the adaptability of the 4-3-3 and debate how useful the formation can be as new tactical obsessions have emerged to blunt possession orientated teams.

The first point to make about the 4-3-3 is that in build-up and attack play, it is rarely actually a 4-3-3. This applies to it’s defensive shape as well as many coaches who use or say they use a 4-3-3 defend in a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 and transition to something that is still not quite a 4-3-3 in attack. Essentially, the team lines up to start each half in a 4-3-3 and never really gets into that shape again.

The most common alignment in initial possession when playing out of the back in a 4-3-3 is a 2-3-2-3. The fullbacks join the holding midfielder’s line, the front three stretch the opponent’s back line, the two center mids(usually referred to as “attacking” mids, even though they do far more than just attack) look for space centrally and the centerbacks split wide of the penalty area.

That’s not a 4-3-3 if you look at the positions on the field without any knowledge of the names of the positions, anyone would identify the shape as a 2-3-2-3. Of course, there would be issues with a coach identifying a formation as only having two dedicated defenders, publicly. A high level coach could face scrutiny from pundits and a youth coach would potentially be inviting mass hysteria from the player’s parents if they ran home and said they only play with two defenders! It’s much ‘safer’ to publicly identify your formation as one with a back four, even if you almost never have four players in your back line.

Louis van Gaal would stand as one of the ultimate examples of not caring what anyone outside of his team thought about his formation, system, training methods and so on. And he rightly identified the formation he utilized at Barcelona(internally) as a 2-3-2-3. He did this as far back as 1997, as can be seen in the image below. It’s part of an impressive and useful Powerpoint presentation he and his staff used with Barcelona.


This highlights what is well known and well understood in the modern game, the simple fact that fullbacks are in many systems now really wide midfielders more than they are backs. They spend the vast majority of their time either in attack or defense in positions in advance of the centerbacks. Fullbacks do still end up in the back line during defensive action in their defensive third but in a high possession, attack minded team that presses out of possession is it really correct to identify these players as fullbacks?

The Barcelona fullback pairing of Jordi Alba and Dani Alves took perhaps the most liberal of definitions in being called fullbacks in their time together. Currently, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker for Tottenham similarly should be looked at as wide midfielders and not fullbacks. Alba and Rose can often be found as the most advanced player in their opponent’s half at the end of an attacking sequence. Alves and Walker’s positioning on the right becomes extremely high when the winger/mid in front of them drifts inside as Lionel Messi did with Alves. All four are also routinely involved in pressing actions well in advance of their centerback pairing as well.

Are coaches then held back in getting what they want out of their players because of position names and traditional formation designations? US Soccer advocates using numbers in place of position names. Is this any better? No. It’s arguably worse to call a fullback a “2”, as this number in of itself provides no information.

The numbering system also seeks to create confusion as the position/number link changes with each formation and it is naive to assume every team in the country should be playing the same formation all of the time. And every coach’s definition of what he expects from his “7” would differ from one coach to the next anyways. So why the need to advocate for this antiquated way of identifying positions? The US Soccer numbering system is based off the English numbering system from the 2-3-5 formation used through the 1920s. How is that in anyway applicable and helpful to coaches and players in the modern game?

What if coaches freed themselves from the limitations of position names and numbers and freed themselves from traditional formation designations as well? If you play a 2-3-2-3, then call it that. If you don’t really have fullbacks, then don’t call your players fullbacks. The game of soccer is fluid and positions and formations need to be fluid as well and most importantly players need to understand that.

Players need structure of some sort, yes, especially at youth levels, you would not get too far with sending eleven players onto the field with the message of “figure it out”. Providing players with a template to position themselves and then training them in how to adapt to what the opponent’s present to defend them would enable a team to seamlessly play in multiple formations within the same game. And less emphasis on positions and formations, which actually dictate very little, would allow this exploration to come about.

We see Pep doing this every week for Manchester City. Only Pep is orchestrating these movements, he doesn’t have time for the players to figure it out on their own because his directive is to win games and trophies. Youth coaches should not be orchestrating all of their player’s movements in games. They should be allowed to explore solutions to tactical problems largely on their own. Especially in attack. Taking time in training to show these situations and orchestrate the movements to cope with them would be the correct approach.

The players can then be given the game, because the game is for the players, to see if they can apply what was taught in training to a game situation. The youth coach would be able to take pride in seeing his centerbacks and holding mid switch to a back three to deal with a center forward pairing pressing them high up the field on their own. Or a wide player recognizing their teammates are 3v3 in the center and moving in to the half space to try and provide support.

As a template for this learning process, the 4-3-3 provides a plethora of tactical movements to twist  and mold it’s shape to deal with the opponent’s defensive shape and tactics. Below we will look at several different examples that provide tactical solutions and can be utilized from the platform provided in the 4-3-3.

Tactical Solutions for being 3v3 in Central Midfield

When the 4-4-2 was a more common formation, the 4-3-3’s three central midfielders offered an advantage for controlling possession centrally. It is much more common now to see three central midfielders than it is two and in order to maintain numerical superiority, a fourth central midfielder is needed.

In a 4-3-3 that fourth player can come from seven different outfield positions across the back and forward lines. The four wide players, however, would be better able to move into the half spaces, which we will see below. That leaves the center forward and the centerbacks as the three players ideally suited to be able to quickly move from their defensive positions into a central position.

The False Nine

Perhaps the most well known tactic for creating a 4v3 in central midfield is the use of a false nine. A false nine is a center forward who occupies the traditional center forward space when defending, in between the opponent’s centerbacks, and then drops away from them into the center of the field in possession to link play with the center mids. This forces the centerbacks to decide to either let him go unmarked or follow him. Following leaves space in the back line to be exploited by the wingers, not following allows the 4v3 to be created.

It is a simple but effective tactic that allows the creation of a diamond midfield to play around three center mids. The term false nine can and has been misused. Kyle Martino of NBC Sports features regularly on their Premier League coverage and has misused the term. Martino identifies a false nine as any player playing in the center forward position who is not normally a center forward.

This is incorrect and spreads misunderstanding to viewers of NBC Sports’ soccer coverage. By Martino’s logic, when Jake Livermore, a center midfielder, filled in for several games at the start of this season for Hull as a centerback he would have been a ‘false centerback’, which of course, he was not. He was simply being played out of his natural position. Cesc Fabregas featured as a false nine for Spain at Euro 2012 and is normally a central midfielder but he did play a false nine role. When Andre Schurrle played as a center forward for Chelsea a few years back he played a traditional center forward role and thus was not a false nine, even though he is normally played in wide positions.

Below is a short video highlighting the most basic idea and movements from the false nine role.

One could also solve this problem by permanently playing with an attacking midfielder as a constant fourth midfielder and asking the wingers to vary their movements infield more than usual and effectively switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond. This though would sacrifice defensive coverage in the wide areas and negate a front three’s ability to stretch a back line(this is highlighted by Johan Cruyff in a video below). It wouldn’t be an unreasonable tactic for seeing out a close game, however, as this subtle change would allow for better defensive coverage centrally if a team was comfortable giving up some space out wide and decided to sit deep and see a game out.

Using a Centerback as the holding midfielder

Similar to using a center forward to drop directly into the central area of the field in build-up and attack play and play as an attacking midfielder, a centerback can be used as a fourth midfielder as well. This tactic would be of good use against a 4-2-3-1 as the opponent’s attacking mid would be forced to deal with two holding midfielders and not simply able to press or mark the lone holding mid in a 4-3-3.

Rotational movement of a three player midfield may also solve this situation as this movement could allow players to get free in a 3v3 situation. However, there are multiple reasons why this tactic would not be preferable. Johan Cruyff believed that two holding mids and one attacking mid was too defensive and did not allow for opportunities to advance the ball centrally with just one advanced midfielder looking for space between the defensive and midfield lines.

Rotational movement could also create that issue if the opponents allowed a center mid dropping deep to go unmarked, effectively making a 1-2 midfield into a 2-1. Introducing a centerback as an additional holding midfielder would allow for both a double pivot and two players in advanced midfield positions looking for space between the lines.

Secondly, rotational movement of a midfield three sacrifices having a dedicated holding midfielder, something some coaches, like Peter Motzenbecker of Abbey Villa S.C., are unwilling to give up. Peter explains why below:

I find incredibly important to have a fixed holding midfielder, rather than rotation from that spot. If you want your two further midfielders to rotate to get on the ball deep, that’s fine, but especially in the youth game, there are too many transitions to not have someone fixed.

The defensive importance of the holding midfielder is something that should not be overlooked in build-up and attacking movements. In a high possession team with aggressive positioning the holding midfielder is arguably the most important position to allow the team to play in this way. Barcelona’s incredible attack play would not be possible without the attacking talents that featured for them over their period of dominance but it also would not be possible without Sergio Busquets’ ever present outstanding understanding of the fixed pivot position.

Both the false nine and centerback moving into central midfield are examples of offering direct support to a midfield three without drastically disrupting those three players positioning and roles in the team.

A great current example of using a centerback in midfield is provided to us from the Australian A-League. Tim Palmer has done a great breakdown of Melbourne City’s formation in build-up. City doesn’t utilize a 4-3-3 but it does give a good visual as to the different positioning when they are defending to when they are attacking. The interesting twist on what City has done is that they use a right centerback in midfield and their right back tucks in to take his place.

Credit for this image goes to Tim Palmer and can be found in his excellent analysis here: Tim Palmer Football

The left back still moves out wide leaving them with an asymmetrical formation. It’s an interesting idea similar to the futsal tactic of placing the fixed defender on either side of the court to join that sided winger while leaving the opposite side of the court with only one player. Varying this tactic and creating an asymmetry on different sides of the field could be useful in making playing out of the back less predictable and less easier to deal with as most teams set out to defend in symmetrical formations.

Utilizing the half spaces

Additionally, recognizing that the field is wide enough to break it into five vertical zones introduces the “half spaces” to tactical discussion and solutions. Using the space that is not quite in the center but not quite in the wide areas and making players aware of this space offers a wide range of benefits. The use of the half spaces is a complicated tactic on to it’s self, here we will just discuss how positioning players there in build-up can help to alleviate the 3v3 situation centrally.

If centerbacks and center forwards are best able to directly help out centrally, wingers and fullbacks are also able to assist centrally by occupying the half spaces. Again, discussion of the half spaces has become a popular topic and it’s usefulness currently in attack play is due to the fact that most defensive formations don’t have players positioned to defend these areas. Opposition wide midfielders and fullbacks are meant to deal with the fullbacks and wingers of the 4-3-3.

However, the problem for these defensive players is what to do when the player they expect to be in the wide areas moves infield. It’s the same issue for centerbacks caused by the false nine’s movement. If a winger moves into the half space and the opponent’s fullback doesn’t follow, he’s free of being marked and can support the 3v3 situation in central midfield. If the opponent’s fullback follows, that space out wide can be exploited by a fullback advancing down the touchline.

For a fullback moving into the half space, the opponent’s wide mid can follow and deny him supporting the central midfielders or not follow and allow him to assist ball circulation centrally. If the opposition wide mid does follow the fullback into the half space, the winger on that side would be able to drop deeper in the wide areas into this vacated space and get on the ball, once again tempting the opponent’s fullback to follow or not follow.

Adrian Dubious is the head coach of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine Men’s soccer team, who’s team utilized a ‘false’ fullback on a regular basis on their way to regular and postseason conference championships and the program’s first win in the NCAA Division Three tournament as well. The Monks had an exceptional defensive record and part of that was because of the defensive stability offered by having a fullback move centrally and form a double pivot with the holding midfielder while maintaining a back three.

The Monks played against teams that, for the most part, were most effective only in quick, counter attacking, overly direct movements immediately upon regaining possession. Dubois found that the two holding midfielders and back three guarded against these quick counter attacks well. Saint Joseph’s would defend in non-counter attacking situations in a 4-1-4-1, making this tactic applicable to a 4-3-3 defensive formation.

This 3-2 block allowed for secure ball circulation in deep positions while the front five were given a good deal of freedom to move in advance of the ball and look for spaces to receive passes in. The wingers, in what was nominally a 3-2-4-1, gained much from this setup as they were afforded many chances to take players on in 1v1 situations. And when you have players well able to be successful in attacking 1v1 situations, you want to be sure they are given the chance to do so as often as possible.

The use of fullbacks in central positions has become popular recently and Pep’s use of them early on with Manchester City drew lots of attention. It is important to remember, and Pep says this all of the time, all of his ideas have been taken from someone else. Pep was a master pupil of Johan Cruyff and he utilized a fullback in central midfield as well when he coached Ajax and Barcelona. He  describes this in the below video, which if you have not seen, is an incredible insight to the mind of Cruyff. Most telling is his statement that he was actually much more defensive than people thought.

The half spaces can also be utilized by wingers further up the field in attacking movements inside the opponent’s half. As mentioned above, this movement leaves the opponent’s fullback with the decision to follow the winger or not. This movement can be effective for different types of wide players. Goal scoring wide players playing as inverted wingers, right footers on the left wing and vice versa, may find more opportunities for shots on goal with late movement looking to receive passes off the center forward. Strong dribblers can unsettle defenses by dribbling into the half space as it is confusing as to who should close him down and if he’s closed down by an opposition midfielder, it would free up a center mid for the attacking team.

Playmakers like Juan Mata of Manchester United can also find space for their incisive passes from the half space and may find it easier to lose their marker than they would operating in the traditional center attacking midfield position. This advanced half space in front of the opponent’s back line would have been previously occupied in the 2-3-5 and the W-M that followed it by inside forwards. However, inside forwards would have been operating in these spaces during all phases of play. Permanently playing with inside forwards in the modern game can be effective but moving players in and out of these spaces in attack would possibly do a better job of unsettling defenses.

These above tactics can be utilized to solve a range of tactical problems, not just dealing with facing a three player midfield by an opponent.The use of a centerback or fullback in midfield, for example, allows a team the option of using a back three in build-up to deal with facing two center forwards and create a more comfortable 3v2 situation. The holding midfielder dropping in between the centerbacks to create a back three is another popular option for a 4-3-3 being pressed by two center forwards.

From switching to a back three with the holding mid a team would switch to a 3-4-3 and sacrifice it’s three player midfield. However, many of the above tactical options could be used in this situation as well to further change the shape. Deploying both fullbacks centrally as the holding mid drops would create a 3-2-2-3(a modern W-M), bringing one or both wingers into the half spaces and leaving the fullbacks in the wide areas would shift the shape into a 3-4-2-1. These are only a few examples and shows the near endless flexibility of the 4-3-3 as a starting point for a very diverse tactical approach.

Utilizing these tactical solutions from the platform of a 4-3-3 allows for a good deal of improvisation from a team or even a couple individuals within the team. Interchanging positioning in attack but reverting to a set formation while defending can give a team unpredictability in one phase of play and stability in another.

That’s what makes the 4-3-3 a useful platform, it can vary itself in it’s attacking shape when needed and is an effective formation for a pressing orientated team as well. Teams can also alternate between pressing in a 4-3-3 shape and dropping off into a more conservative 4-1-4-1 due to either their opponent’s style and level or as dictated by player fitness levels or the game situation.

Whether the ultimate goal for a team is at a high level to win games and trophies or for a youth team to develop it’s players into complete players, both of these situations would benefit from an unpredictable attack and a solid defense. Coupling a move away from traditional ways of identifying positions and formations and freeing players from restraints would benefit any team at any level. Introducing these concepts to a team would also lead to further discoveries in tactical ideas from players, not every tactical tweak in a team needs to come from the coach.

There is concern in the US and Europe that the creative player is becoming harder and harder to find. The loss of street football in Europe and it’s practical non existence at any point in the US is cited for this occurrence. That environment can’t be replicated but if we both teach players tactical solutions and encourage them to explore them and give them the freedom to solve problems on their own, we can let creative players emerge and flourish. Harsh tactical guidelines and playing styles crushes individuals creative spirit.

The formation, any formation, needs to be understood as the starting points for a team, because you do have to start somewhere,  but no team should be defined or limited by it’s formation. The 4-3-3 is a great starting point because of the range of attacking shapes it can take and it offers good defensive cover as well, especially for teams looking to press high up the field. It’s an excellent template for talented players to grow and express themselves in.

The ultimate challenge for a team and it’s coach would be to develop a truly fluid, ever changing and cohesive style that would defy any numerical label as to it’s formation. It may have rose in popularity for misunderstood reasons during Barcelona and Spain’s dominance but it shouldn’t fade away now that the newest trends in coaching circles have moved away from keeping possession. The 4-3-3 is an excellent starting point to begin an evolutionary journey for a team looking to fully explore it’s attacking capabilities and creativity.

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