The 4-3-3 Formation Explained

The 4-3-3 formation is currently one of the most popular football formations used today. It has also been praised as a formation that is both effective for the youth team and the professional football team. Due to its effectiveness, the 4-3-3 technique has become a favorite of many prominent football coaches around the world. To learn more about this remarkable formation, read through the guide below.

What is the 4-3-3 Formation?

The 4-3-3 football formation consists of 3 unique lines or units. In front of the goalkeeper, the technique uses a classic back 4, which is made up of two central defenders and a right and left full-back. As for the midfield unit, it consists of three central midfielders lined up in numerous ways. The most common shape in the 4-3-3 is a midfield triangle that has a central defensive midfielder and two advanced midfielders positioned on either side of them. Sometimes, the central defensive midfielder is called a single pivot or traditional number 6.

What are the Players’ In-possession Responsibilities in a 4-3-3?

The major duty of the wingers is to isolate full-backs and attack in one-on-one positions. They have to either play around the outside of their opposition to cross or cut inside them to combine. The latter technique is pretty common for wrong-footed wingers to use, especially those who strive to come off the flank and shoot directly at goal.

Wingers maintain a broad position and can assist in creating space infield for the team’s attacking midfielder to run directly into. Meanwhile, a winger pushing infield has to create space on the outside so that a full-back can overlap into the space.

The centre-forward moves fast across the football pitch as the attack builds quickly, tackling the opponent’s ball-side centre-back. As for the forward, he can drop short to connect and support in creating overloads in central midfield or deliver direct runs far beyond the opposition.

The midfield three players help by providing passing options for both attacking play and build-up. The two more attack-centred midfielders are usually placed in the inside channels and help to provide quick forward runs between the team’s winger and centre-forward to quickly move into crossing positions.

The defensive midfielder acts as the primary connection between the midfield and back line. He also acts as the major player via which different switches of play are allowed to access the other end of the pitch.

The back line (particularly the centre-backs) focus is on gaining access to the central midfield unit during build-ups, particularly if they already have an overload of players in that area. Also, the centre-backs will frequently reposition themselves to enable the deepest midfielder to fall into the back line quickly during a build-up.

What are the Players’ Out-of-possession Responsibilities in a 4-3-3?

Since the  4-3-3 formation places three players in attack, it is a very good shape to exploit if a team wants to press high up the football pitch.

The wingers can have an advantage by starting narrow to obstruct the central areas before they press outwards to push the ball wide, with the team’s centre-forward seeking to obstruct any switch of play. Also, it is possible for the team’s wingers to begin wider and press directly inwards, aiming to force play directly into a midfield trap.

Another good option is the wingers placing themselves in line with the other two outside central midfielders, thereby forming a 4-1-4-1 block. The three central midfielders help by covering and protecting central areas, and could quickly adapt to become just two defensive midfielders and just one advanced midfielder if crucial. This can happen either when an obstruction is created or when pressing.

The back four players will remain tight for as long as possible whenever they are defending in a set block, defended by the midfield three. Oppositions can choose to focus on spaces out wide, in between the full-back and winger. Doing this allows the back line to move across the pitch quickly.

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4-3-3 Formation Strengths

Below, we’ve outlined the strength of the 4-3-3 formation:

  • it provides balance and strength to the players in all areas of the pitch

The backbone of the team is made of two main center-backs, one striker, and three central midfielders. This strong backbone means that the team can boldly dominate possession within the pitch’s defensive, middle, as well as attacking thirds. Also, with the full-back and winger on both sides of the football pitch, the team set-up is well-balanced to deliver attacking threats as well as defensive equilibrium in wide areas.

  • Help their players develop natural triangles and diamond shapes

For teams that decide to take charge of possession and build out directly from the back, the 4-3-3 formation will help their players natural triangles and diamond shapes in between and within the different three units consisting of defence, midfield, and attack. Essentially, these triangles and diamond shapes offer the player with the ball numerous options to make short, quick, and easy passes to support their team in successfully maintaining possession.

  • Offers the team an opportunity to outnumber or match their opposition

Using three central midfielders offers the team an opportunity to outnumber or match their opposition in the crucial central areas. A false 9 can even tip the balance further in the team’s favor, especially if they are hoping to get overloads and influence the tempo of the match.

  • 4-3-3 is an extremely attacking formation

This is another major key strength. Even if a coach permits their full-backs to enter the attacks or places emphasis on two central midfielders to enter the front 3, a team playing with 4-3-3 will usually end up with just a front line of about 5 attacking players. This can be very overwhelming for even an opponent with the most organized defenses.

4-3-3 Formation Weaknesses

Below, we’ve outlined the weakness of the 4-3-3 formation:

  • It can be incredibly helpless against counter-attacking play

This is particularly true when the team playing 4-3-3 has full-backs pushing up high to enter the attack. Counter-attacking teams could concentrate on the space the full-backs have left behind them and infiltrate quickly.

If a team decides to hold their wingers high and wide, it can be a danger to the lone striker because he may get isolated while playing against the other two central defenders. As a result, the striker could struggle to be involved in the match, find a space and get a chance to score the opponent. For this reason, the 4-3-3 soccer formation demands a team to have high-quality players in critical positions. If you don’t have a strong and skilled number 9 in your team, it is better for you to not go for the 4-3-3 soccer formation.

  • Results to outnumbered

All three midfielders may find themselves outnumbered by their opponents in the middle of the pitch if the opponent decides to play a 4-2-3-1 or a diamond midfield.

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Which are the Best Examples of Teams Using a 4-3-3?

Here are some of the best teams that have effectively used the 4-3-3:

1. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona

Guardiola has repeatedly used the 4-3-3 formation as his starting shape. During his stay at Barcelona, he created the width with wingers like Lionel Messi, Pedro, Alexis Sánchez or Cristian Tello, or just simply converted wide forwards like Thierry Henry and David Villa. Playing with lofty, wide players helped to pin back the opponent’s back line. This helped to create space around the inside channels for either Xavi, Thiago, or Andrés Iniesta to take over possession and pass play directly into the forwards.

2. Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli

Sarri’s 4-3-3 technique made use of a combination of various wingers and overlapping full-backs to offer the team’s width an asymmetrical style. There were also different combinations on each side. On the left side, right-footed winger Lorenzo Insigne cut inside while left-back Faouzi Ghoulam just overlapped. Forward runs were made by Marek Hamsík via the left inside channel as a part of the different rotations on that side. On the right side, right-footed winger José Callejón maintained the width, and right-back Elseid Hysaj kept his place in the back line, particularly when Ghoulam pushed forward.

3. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool

Klopp’s 4-3-3 technique had wrong-footed wingers like Mo Salah and Sadio Mané shifted inside, permitting full-backs like Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold to quickly overlap and deliver crosses, sharp cut-backs, and the bulk of the team’s width. Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson played ahead of single-pivot Fabinho to provide support under the ball. The team’s center-forward Roberto Firmino delivers forward runs to help threaten in behind and merge high up the pitch.

What Is The Best Formation To Beat The 4-3-3?

The best formation that you can use to beat the 4-3-3 shape is the  4-2-3-1. In the 4-2-3-1 formation, teams can easily outnumber their opposition at the central midfield regions of the pitch by allowing their attacking left and right midfielders to fall in behind the striker. Essentially, this plays them in two free-roaming number 10 positions. Also, the team playing the 4-2-3-1 should have full-backs that can easily join in attacks to tackle their opposing numbers back. This will make it very difficult for a team playing 4-3-3 to imprint their regular style on the match.

Bottom Line

Although the 4-3-3 formation is widely praised, it’s hard to say it is the best football shape. This technique is regarded as reliable because it has been effectively used by some of the greatest teams in recent times, including Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. However, it has its weaknesses and today, prominent teams are going for other better formations. The bottom line is that this shape is definitely one of the most reliable out there and can be very helpful if you can manage its weakness well enough.

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