Friday, 12 August 2011

4-3-3 - it's Successes and Failings

The Football Front’s tactical expert Itsaballnotabomb evaluates the 4-3-3 system and its strengths and weaknesses.

The 4-3-3 has shot to fame recently. It was made famous by the Dutch sides of the 70’s and is synonymous with Total football, which was created in that period.

For a 4-3-3 to be effective each player must control his zone. Zonal marking is used for all positions, as it makes it easier to press effectively. The only time zonal marking isn’t used is when the ball is about to be put in the box, at this point the marking switches to man marking for obvious reasons.

There are many ways in which a 4-3-3 can be used because of its flexibility. Some sides such as Bolton under Sam Allardyce used it as a counter-attacking formation. The back 4 generally would stay back while the wingers would try to play off the target man striker, normally Kevin Davies. The wingers would also provide service to the target man through crosses. The wingers though would play more like wide midfielders and would happily track back into their own half, much like Mourinho’s Chelsea.

Another way it can be used is in a very attacking sense. Here, the wingers would normally stay forward with the striker. All 3 midfielders may also have the license to make forward runs and try and support the attacking trio. If the wingers are pushing more centrally, or playing as inverted forwards, this will often mean that the full backs will push high up the pitch and become wingers themselves. A great example of this is Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo last season, Marcelo's runs forward allowed Ronaldo to cut in on his right foot to great effect for Real Madrid.

With the front three it also makes pressing high up the pitch easier than with a 4-4-2 formation, purely because the 4-3-3 formation is naturally further forward than a 4-4-2. A great example of pressing is the Dutch side in the 1974 World Cup, although this would be hard to recreate now due to the change of the offside law. When pressing, the side will try to force the team inside as this is where the 4-3-3 has a numerical advantage; it will also stop a long ball straight up one of the flanks which can be potentially devastating as the full back can get out numbered if the midfield is not quick enough to cover.

At all times in the 4-3-3 one of the midfielders will sit in front of the defence to form a defensive triangle and a midfield triangle. Defensively this is a very solid formation and can be hard to break down as each position is well covered by another player. The midfield diamond also allows a side to keep possession easily, especially if there is a numerical advantage in midfield. A great example of this in recent times is Barcelona. The midfield switches positions and rotates, constantly making space for a pass, Messi also joins in from his traditional striking position and adds another man to the midfield, making it even easier to maintain possession. This is especially effective against teams who play two in the middle. (see diagram above.)

A weakness of the 4-3-3 is the demands that it puts on the side. If a side is not well drilled it can be easily picked apart, especially if the pressing is poor. The flanks can also be easily exposed by a cross field ball as it can leave a 2 on 1 situation with the fullback and opposition winger. But this can be reduced if the winger is prepared to track back and follow the full back. But the flip side of this is that it can make the striker isolated.

The striker in this formation has a very demanding role as well. Not only has he got the responsibility of scoring goals but the striker also needs to be able to hold the ball up. The striker also needs the technical proficiency to drop into the midfield and then have the ability to pick a pass. More crucially, if the centre forward does not link the midfield with the attack the side can become predictable and very easy to defend against. Arsene Wenger found this out a couple of seasons ago when Robin Van Persie got injured. A good number 10 needs to have all the attributes needed to play up front in a 4-3-3. Unfortunately for Wenger he had no replacement for the striker and Arsenal's goal scoring and form dipped considerably.

All in all, the 4-3-3 can be a very attacking or defensive formation and its flexibility is one of the reasons why it's gaining more popularity in recent times. However, the high demands on the players and the technical ability needed, can often mean that lesser sides struggle to get success from the 4-3-3.

This article was written by Itsaballnotabomb, you can follow him on Twitter at - @ballnotabomb

You can find more of his work on his blog –

Things you may like to read

4-4-2- its failings and it's former successes

The Contemporary 4-2-3-1 and its modern popularity

England’s new 4-3-3 system, the platform for English success? – Part Two

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