One of the main tactical trends this season has been the widespread use of a 3-4-3 formation. Managers across Europe have found success with various types of 3-4-3 formations, but why does it seem to work so well?
This year coaches such as Antonio Conte, Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, Luciano Spalletti, Slaven Bilic, and Thomas Tuchel have all utilized a 3-4-3 formation, often with great success. I’m here to break down the inner working of this fashionable formation that has grown greatly in affluence since the start of this season.
Why a 3-4-3?
It’s important not to confuse a 3-4-3 with a 5-2-3 or 5-4-1, two formations that can resemble a 3-4-3 in certain situations. These types of formations are usually dependent on counter attacks and promote sitting behind the ball more than a team playing a 3-4-3 formation. A 3-4-3 formation is indeed very versatile, but it is not infinitely flexible across all teams. The ability to identify a 3-4-3, and/or correctly deploy it is an important step to using said formation.
There is, of course, very little new in the use of this formation. Plenty of managers have experimented with some iteration of the 3-4-3: Marcelo Bielsa in the early 90s, Zaccheroni at Milan in the late 90s, Walter Mazzarri at Napoli and even Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool. One could argue that it goes back to the days of the great Johan Cruyff (although his formation resembled a heavily versatile 5-2-3).
Why do so many managers revert to this formation? Well, its selling points are numerous. To begin with, it forces opposition sides to commit fewer men up the pitch. It creates a more effective pressing unit. Against defenses that sit deep and narrow, the advanced wing-backs can flood the flanks and create overlaps. It allows creative players who are often restricted to the wing to flourish in more central positions. Overall, it allows a team to find a balance between defensive solidity and attacking fluidity.
One of the specific selling points of the 3-4-3 has been its competence in providing attacking depth without the need for extremely talented midfielders. This appeals to managers like Slaven Bilic and Roberto Martinez, who both wanted to make more of their diverse attacking options. It’s easy to imagine them drooling over the talent at Antonio Conte and Luciano Spalletti’s disposal.
Indeed, the 3-4-3 not only provides a solid defensive base, as long as one of the central midfielders is either extremely versatile or glues himself to the defense, but it also provides an extensive amount of passing options in attack, with wingbacks not needing to fulfill attacking duties as much as regular wingers do and inside forwards not having to fulfill defensive duties as much as before (i.e. Eden Hazard).
How not to fall for traps
A 3-4-3 isn’t immediately the best formation for every and any team. First and foremost, it’s a formation that requires creative players (playmakers or attackers) for transitional play. These players can play in the front 3 or in the middle 4, but need to be able to be in the right place at the right time to create time for their teammates, draw opposition players to themselves, and generally facilitate a smooth and fast transition between defense and attack.
The wingbacks are probably the most important element of a successful 3-4-3 formation. They need lungs of steel and reactions of a hawk to not only follow the tempo of the game but also dictate it. Much like the playmaker of the team, the wingback has to be able to create space for his teammates by dragging opposing players to himself, or by forming triangles with midfielders and defenders when pressed. The wingback must be able to fall back into defense when called upon as much as he must be able to contribute to the attack with crosses and driving runs down the side of the field.
If a team operating under a 3-4-3 does not have these creative players and omnipresent wingbacks, they will suffer. A 3-4-3 without a creator is a team easy to pick the ball off of, as long as your players press well, just as much as a 3-4-3 with slow and/or less constructive wingbacks is a team vulnerable to counter-attacks and too reliant on players moving out of their natural position. All of this means a 3-4-3 requires perfect balance and not just players who more or less fit the profile of the role they are asked to play.
Should your team take the risk?
As with most things- it’s a mix of yes and no. First of all, if you do not fill all the criteria above and if you quite simply are just trying a 3-4-3 because you’ve seen it work for other teams, don’t. There is no point in you taking that risk. Forcing your team into a 3-4-3 to counter a 3-4-3 may sound smart on paper but it’s like fighting a flamethrower with a candle, not fighting fire with fire. You don’t need a 3-4-3 to balance out your team, you need a balanced team to play a 3-4-3.
If your personnel do fill all the criteria however, and your team is lacking attacking threat or defensive solidity even though you feel that there’s some balance- try it. As Mostafa El Ridi said in his great piece about Roma’s transition to a 3-at-the-back formation (Yes, a 3-5-2 isn’t the same as a 3-4-3 but Roma’s formation evolves during the game and the principle remains the same), it was worth the transition for Spalletti’s Roma, who were lacking the results to back up his squad’s performances.
At the end of the day, it is each manager’s choice how he arranges his squad. My main message is that managers shouldn’t fall for the trap of trying a 3-4-3 to counter another 3-4-3 or to work out balance issues. It is a formation that requires work and a lot of tweaking, but if it is used correctly, it can be devastatingly effective.