The 4-3-3 is one of the most famous formations in football and ever since Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona stunned the world with it, it’s become an even more popular formation. But, while it seems straight forward enough — 4 defenders, 3 midfielders, and 3 forwards, the brilliance of the 4-3-3 is how it can change so much depending on what midfield profiles you choose for the 3 midfielders. Our resident coach, Louis Jacques, talks through the various midfield profiles and argues which set up he believes is the best…
A 4-3-3 has been the go-to formation in football since the turn of the century. With 4-4-2 booted out the door, teams looked for versatility and balance in all phases of the game. This means combining the ability to provide line-breaking vertical play when in need of a goal without sacrificing the ability to absorb pressing and phases of low block defending. To achieve all of this, nearly everything rests on the shoulders of the midfield. Getting past the first blanket of defence and moving the ball into the final third during open play depends on your midfielders, all while absorbing the bulk of opposition pressing when on the ball. These same players are tasked with balancing defending duties nearly 50/50 with the back 4, both by limiting the progression of opposition full-backs and containing their opposite numbers in midfield from advancing the ball into dangerous areas. The modern midfielder has to be creative, spatially aware, tactically astute and physically enduring on both sides of the ball.
Moreover, this has to be done constantly for 90 minutes alongside 2 midfield partners trying to do the same thing, so how can a manager plan and coach his 3 midfielders to perfection? When analysing the different types of midfield profiles available, one would automatically assume that the logical choice would be either a more defensive-oriented 6 and two 8s balancing each other out or 3 similar profiles sharing duties spatially. This facilitates sharing duties, because players are less likely to bump into each other when sharing similar instructions and means few instructions and automatisms are required. However, while it requires more work and explanation, I’d argue that a 4-3-3 using 3 different midfield profiles brings the best out of a 4-3-3 and can actually become intuitive for midfielders.
In attacking phases
When behind the ball, midfielders have to multitask to the full extent of their ability. Over the past few years, defensive tendencies point towards teams favouring zonal marking of offensive players, usually forcing them to attack through the flanks and centre the ball. This means midfielders have the job of either distributing the ball out wide or moving it vertically- one of these two is more efficient in producing goals (the latter).
To move the ball vertically, you either have to place it on the path or on the feet of an attacker making a run, play a one-two, make a run with the ball yourself or shoot. Traditional zonal marking usually means the 3 attackers are tightly marked in a way where if they receive the ball, defenders shift to have him double-marked, making a shot on goal or final pass much harder. Using a midfielder to attract that second defender before passing the ball to an attacker would therefore leave the defence more vulnerable in a 1-on-1 situation (excluding the goalkeeper).
Moreover, defensive players concentrate on the movement of attackers so astutely that midfielders are allowed to push forwards more freely than an attacker, who would always be tightly marked. Midfielders who travel with the ball are indeed more likely to lose it, but defences usually run the risk of giving them more space. This is especially the case outside the box, where midfielders can roam rather freely before being pressed or tackled. This usually incites them to pass out wide or shoot from distance, yet another way of moving the ball goalward.
To accomplish any of this, traditional midfield 6s wouldn’t be enough. They (are supposed to) hold up the ball well, provide a solid addition to the defence, move the ball intelligently from deep and generally recover loose balls in open spaces. None of these qualities provide vertical movement in the final third. What’s more, 6s are more and more physiologically quite tall to shadow opposition players and win headers in defensive phases, meaning that they have a high centre of gravity and are much less adept to moving the ball forward themselves. As for their shooting and dribbling, it’s rather self-explanatory that it’s not their area of expertise.
Playing three 8s or three 10s would have a similar effect to each other, creating a block of three confused players with a Swiss-cheese-like defence behind them, extremely vulnerable to counters. The logical conclusion is thus playing a 6 at the base with two 10s or 8s in front of him. This is indeed the most common use of a 4-3-3, as it’s easy to teach and means you don’t sacrifice the stability of your defensive unit in exchange for extra men in attack. I’d argue however that it’s insufficient and would only work if football was purely a numbers game, which it isn’t.
Three different midfield profiles would be an attack-minded 10, who roams freely and links up often with wingers and the striker, a more balanced 8 who makes the transitions from defence to attack and who serves as a horizontal link in the attacking chain and a 6 who moves with the ball at his feet and serves as a platform for the attack. Employing all 3 profiles at once on the pitch is challenging, not just because they’re likely to bump into each other, but because automatisms are harder to instruct. The trick to balancing this is basing it all around one player. Give the other two fixed positioning instructions relative to your selected player (aka: always play behind the 10 or always play in front of the 6) along with fixed instructions for automatisms to pass the ball upfield (working one-twos with full-backs, knowing when to pull the striker down, what side of the defence to target with individual dribbles) and give the last guy full autonomy to play his position the best way he can. Choose the player whose individual characteristics bring the most to the team (not necessarily offensively, a good 6 can bring you a long way) as your focal point for this and you’ll bring the most out of your midfield.
As you might have guessed, one of the pitfalls of this technique is if your best midfielder is an 8. You can’t just tell the 6 to always stay behind his partner if his partner is dropping deep to recover balls and you can’t tell the 10 to play in front of him if the 8 is free to play link-up with your wingers, so what do you do? I’ve found that bringing all three together and simplifying the game to 3 phases (Control of possession, out of possession, on the break) with semi-specific instructions for each works well as long as you keep it simple. A great man once said that all a coach should need is a loud voice and his players’ trust, so use the former to correct any errors during the game.
In defensive phases
Defence wins you championships, right? Defensive organisation is fascinating and often grotesquely underrated considering how hard it is to combine systematic positional instructions with the constant and unpredictable fluid changes of an attack and thus cancelling out the latter. Four-man defences aren’t enough nowadays, so midfielders have to be on top of their game when on the back foot. How do you achieve this as a coach?
Calm organisation isn’t easy but it’s the key to a good defence. You have to make sure that every player involved knows at all times what their role is, what their reaction to an opposition move is and who should do what. Don’t be mistaken, the technical inadequacies of a player won’t be compensated by an organised defence, but it’ll go a long way in doing so. Don’t let tempers flare, it’ll just distract players from doing their jobs properly. When playing three different midfield profiles, it’s highly likely you’ll end up with one or two of them on the wrong side of the field when the opposition attack, especially if they counter. Make sure any midfielder high up never loses tempo and continually presses and effectively shadow marks the opposition midfield, as well as stretching them as wide as possible. Keep the game wide and slow to minimise the chances of conceding. If the opposition break or counter, use your 6 to your advantage. He should be a sweeper against long balls and should try to get a tackle in whenever possible. Passive defending to pass the ball wide works for players in less risky zones from the centre circle and up, but a 6 has to take his chances and make tackles.
I’ve found that having a 6 stick to an opposition star attacker is usually more effective than using a centre-back, as that can break the defence’s cohesion. Give him the freedom to go wherever the guy he’s shadowing goes, but only if you get someone else (a full-back or an 8) to constantly look over their shoulder and close any gaps caused by that movement. Aside from that though, avoid too much man-marking in midfield. This exposes you to individual runs and confusing substitutions, both of which break organisational stability.
I’ll leave you with one last piece of advice that universally works for all players but really should resonate with midfielders: keep it simple. A good midfielder knows to act instinctively, so make your instructions instinctive to him (aka simplify them). Don’t make him start second-guessing instructions because that’s what’ll kill you in the end.