4-3-3: The New 4-4-2
They have thrilled the football world for over 4 seasons now, with their breathless execution of unmatched attacking play. FC Barcelona, under Frank Rijkaard and Josep Guardiola, have transformed the way the world looks at the beautiful game. While they may not be following the Total Football of Rinus Michels to the book, the Blaugrana have certainly proven that they know how to play good, possession football against any and every team in the world.
Like Barcelona, many teams have adopted the 4-3-3 playing formation although few have exploited it the way Barca have. With perfect coordination and slick movement, the 4-3-3 is fast becoming the choice of fans and neutrals as they watch teams create magical moments with a less-favoured formation from the past.
At the 1962 FIFA World Cup, the Brazilian striker-heavy lineup forced the team to play a fantastic 4-2-4 formation. The strikers in the middle would be the two main goal scorers while the two wide strikers would be a little withdrawn, so as to link the strikers to the midfield. The two midfielders would primarily play the role of feeding the strikers but their first priority would be to defend.
However, counter attacks, in such a formation, proved fatal as teams often failed to cope with the advancing opposition. Over time, as teams began running all over the pitch, instead of playing in their positions, the 4-2-4 formation became even more irrelevant.
A variation to the 4-2-4 was absolutely necessary and the result was to sacrifice one of the strikers to the midfield. The idea was to use the midfield to sustain the central line of the pitch, preventing quick breaks down the middle.
The central striker would continue in his role while the wide strikers would play like advanced wingers, rather than goal scorers.
The midfield’s primary role was, still, to protect the defence and their movement would, in most cases, be lateral – as a unit. The full backs, in turn, would play the role of the wingers by overlapping along the flanks and even cutting out the flank attacks.
While closely resembling a modified 4-4-2, with an attacking midfielder, the 4-3-3 is vastly different in the speed it allows during attacks.
The defense, like in any other formation, has two centre backs between two wingbacks. The wingbacks constantly push up during attacks, to provide support to the midfield and even send in crosses when in the opposing third of the pitch.
ROLE OF THE WINGERS
The 4-3-3 formation has wingers who are, in reality, wide strikers. These wingers need to be extremely lively and requires a lot of stamina and speed. The ability to pump up the field is great, when attacking, but wingers also need to be able to drop back to cut off the flanks on a counter.
Wingers are often required to run with the ball and may get a number of opportunities to even show-boat a little. However, the primary role of the wingers is to provide an option to open up play and allow some time and space to the central striker.
Wingers allow the ball to be spread out wide, making space down the middle and pulling opposing midfielders & defenders to the flanks. This opens up the central part of the pitch for the midfielders while also giving the strikers more room to maneuver.
At FC Barcelona, Lionel Messi has been the best example for the winger. Cutting in from the flank and dancing past defenders, Messi scored 36 league goals in 2009-10.
THE MAIN STRIKER
The role of the central striker, or the main target man, is two-fold.
The first part of his job description deals with the main striker-role of scoring goals. Most teams, playing with such a formation, play their striker as a distraction in the middle, keeping both the centre backs occupied with darting runs through the middle. The striker makes many decoy runs to draw players away from the flank in focus, thereby creating more space for the wingers and the midfielders.
Running towards the flank will pull one of the two central defenders in that direction and that restricts the space and movement for the winger, who cannot take the opposition wingback on a one-on-one.
The other role of the striker is to relay the ball to the flanks in the case of an attack through the middle. By holding up the ball, the striker draws defenders, again creating space for the wingers. While this technique is not very different from the usual role of a striker, it does allow for a more attacking outcome post-hold up play.
Strikers normally pull the defence out, or draw the midfield back, before releasing it to their midfielders. With two attacking men up front, there is always the possibility of creating scoring chances by passing to the wingers through the defence as well.
Like with every formation, the 4-3-3 also has its fair share of weaknesses. The primary weakness is the attacking nature of the formation. If pressed against, the lack of midfield support can show, at times. Losing the ball in the centre of midfield (during an attack) can be quite dangerous.
Baring this vulnerability to swift counter attacks leading from an organized defence, the 4-3-3 has few other issues.
The other important issue is with the capability in execution. With the sole striker down the middle, double-teams and dead-ends are quite common. Crosses from the flanks can also be rendered useless with the lack of support down the middle. This situation arises especially when one of the wingers is crossing the ball into the box.
It is absolutely imperative that the winger on the other flank cut in to support the central man. The presence of a midfielder in the box, or outside the area, is also significant as pull-backs or layoffs can be dealt with swiftly.
With the midfielder at the edge of the area, a small blockade against the swift counter is also created as these midfielders become the second line behind the strikers.
Most of the modifications, to the 4-3-3, come in the positioning of the attacking midfielders. The shape is usually in the form of a “W” playing in front of a defensive midfielder and the rest of the defence.
The Dutch “Total Football” team from the 1974 and 1978 versions of the FIFA World Cups displayed a unique variation of the 4-3-3. The Dutch 2-3-5 saw the team play with, literally, five strikers, three supporting midfielders and just two centre backs. The wingers were transformed into sweepers along each flank, playing a relatively free role. However, the Total Football formula was based upon the free role and such a modification was completely unique.
While the national team failed to win either World Cup trophy, despite reaching the final both times, the formula was a success at the club level with AFC Ajax. Under Rinus Michels, Ajax won the European Champion Club’s Cup three years in a row. They would also win the 1971-72 as well as the 1972-73 Eredivisie titles while winning the 1970-71, 1971-72 and 1972-73 versions of the KNVB Cup.
Jose Mourinho famously used the 4-3-3 when coach at Chelsea FC. He created a format wherein Chelsea would attack with Didier Drogba down the middle, while Joe Cole and Damien Duff would act as the wide strikers. Later, Arjen Robben and Florent Malouda also joined as wingers on the team. However, Mourinho has always been a shrewd tactician and realizing the frailties of the formation in defence, Mourinho’s Chelsea would always fall back into a 4-5-1 when defending.
APPLICATIONS ON THE PITCH
Argentina and Uruguay were known to follow the 4-3-3 format in the 1950s and even through the 60s, much before Rinus Michels’ ridiculous mutation. The 1962 FIFA World Cup winning Brazilian team also applied the 4-3-3 to perfection, ideal considering the attacking talent that went into that squad.
In 1970, the first application of the early stages of total football were visible when Feyenoord won the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, beating an Icelandic team, Knattspyrnufélag Reykjavíkur by 16 goals to 2, over the two legs of the first round.
Rosenborg B.K., from Norway, have regularly played the 4-3-3 in their 10 Champions League seasons. While Mourinho’s Chelsea has already been mentioned, the surprise was in fact the 1994-95 Serie A winners, and 1995-96 UEFA Champions League winners, Juventus. The Old Lady skipped past Borussia Dortmund, Steaua Bucuresti and Rangers in the group stage, while beating Real Madrid, Nantes and Ajax on the way to their second UEFA European Cup/Champions League title.
Olympique Lyonnais have successfully used the 4-3-3 during their 7 successive Ligue 1 title wins between 2001 and 2008.
Portugal and Holland, in recent times again, have deployed the 4-3-3 primarily to utilize the effectiveness of Cristiano Ronaldo & Luis Figo (for Portugal) and a host of wide strikers like Marc Overmars, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and many more (for Holland).
The 4-3-3 has been a perennial favourite for coaches including the likes of Zdenek Zeman (former coach of Parma, Lazio, AS Roma, Fenerbache and many more) as well as Jesualdo Ferreira (current coach for FC Porto, formerly with Atletico Clube de Portugal, the Portuguese Under-21 side as well as Benfica).
In 2009-10, Arsenal and AC Milan were added to the list of teams to have played the 4-3-3 alongside FC Barcelona, who have been the most flamboyant executors of this tactic.
FACTORS FOR SUCCESS
To make the 4-3-3 work for a team, there needs to be strong discipline as well as high work-rate. The presence of a capable central defensive midfielder is ideal for the team, helping in maintaining possession as well as breaking up counter attacks.
The defensive centres will, at most times, be left with vulnerable flanks with the wingbacks having pushed ahead. Reading the play is important for these centre backs if they are to, successfully, cover up space on the flanks without leaving any through the middle.
If, to counter the formation, the opposing defence begins playing higher up the pitch (in a bid to prevent the striker from creating depth), the wingers can stay wide to stretch the backline while the central striker can run from the two attacking midfielders, on his team, towards the two opposing central defenders. Centre backs are forced to follow the striker, failing which the striker can simply turn to the ball and get a head start on goal, leaving wide spaces on the wings.
The striker, if he receives the ball, can simply play it back to the midfield, or pass through the gap between the centre and wing backs, to his own wingers making runs behind the defence.
WHAT WE BELIEVE
At any given point of time, 5 players are involved in the attack, making the 4-3-3 an extremely offensive formation. While those minor drawbacks can easily be reduced, or covered up, with some discipline and hard work, any team playing the 4-3-3 will definitely create a lot of openings during the course of a game.
Wingbacks with great mileage, wingers with trickery and a striker with a dead-eye, when combined with an able defense, a pair of creative midfielders alongside the, proverbial, workhorse in the middle are all you need to get that perfect 4-3-3 mix.
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