The 4-3-3 formation is one of modern soccer’s most prominent and successful formations. It’s the go-to formation for top teams thanks to its versatility and attacking threat; the better the team, the more threatening the formation is when going forwards.
It is widely used by elite teams such as Liverpool, Manchester City, and even international teams such as Spain and Italy, to significant effect. The 4-3-3 formation maximizes the zones a team can operate in and is an excellent tactic for teams that employ a high-pressing style.
With a four-person defense and a holding midfielder dropping behind the two central midfielders, it’s a formation that offers solid cover. The three attacking players, usually two wingers or inside forwards, on either side of the central striker, allow a team serious threat when going forwards.
Cutting in from the wing, the wingers or inside forwards can carve defenses apart but can also be versatile enough to tuck inside and try and press high up the pitch to retain the ball.
A great team can turn the 4-3-3 into a formidable formation, but how do teams line up to try and defeat this formation?
Today, we’re going to look at the four best formations to use against the 4-3-3.
One of the critical attributes of the 4-3-3 formation is its flexibility; the two attacking wingers can either move into position as a striker or drop deeper into midfield to add cover.
The 4-2-3-1, with its two defensive midfielders, can try to combat the wingers by having them marked out of the game by the defensive midfielders.
A noticeable weakness of the 4-3-3 is that if the three attackers don’t press for the ball or don’t move into defensive positions quickly enough, the team can be swamped by opposing players. If the two defensive midfielders can harry their wingers, making them lose shape or discipline, then the 4-3-3 can become impossible to maintain.
Up front, the 4-2-3-1 has other advantages that can help to combat the 4-3-3; with two wingers and an attacking midfielder sitting behind a lone striker, there is the opportunity to overload the attack. The two central midfielders of the 4-3-3 either have to drop deeper to support the defensive midfielder (DMC) or risk their defense being overrun.
A high press is vital for the 4-3-3, so if the four defensive players of the 4-2-3-1 (six if we include the two DMC) can get long balls quickly past the striker and wingers, the press becomes moot; the ball has already bypassed the players.
A technically proficient team can negate every positive aspect of the 4-3-3; it’s simply a case of being able to maintain it for 90 minutes.
- The two DMCs afford great defensive cover.
- The wingers can be just as devastating for the 4-2-3-1 as they are in a 4-3-3 formation.
- Long balls can be used to avoid the high press that makes the 4-3-3 so formidable.
- If the wingers or inside forwards aren’t marked out of the game, they can run riot.
- It needs a team to have high concentration and technical skills.
- It can leave the central midfield isolated, leading to being overrun.
The 5-3-2 formation can effectively combat a 4-3-3 formation, thanks to its overloaded defensive positions. As we’ve already said, the wingers of the 4-3-3 are absolutely key to its success, so stopping those players is a must if you wish to succeed.
Having a three-person central defense allows for a more compact screen for the goalkeeper, and with two defensive wing-backs on either side of the defense, there can be five players all covering the routes to the goal.
The wing-backs are pivotal in this formation; if these two players lose position or stop tracking back, it’s game over.
Thanks to the 4-3-3 formation being great at making triangles for players to have two simple passes available at all times, defending for 90 minutes against this type of onslaught can be exhausting.
The 5-3-2 formation allows the wingbacks to cover the two attacking wingers and offer an outlet for attack when the team wins the ball back.
The three-person central midfield can provide additional defensive screening, but ideally need to be tough tacklers that can also provide the stamina to run upfield in support of the attack.
When not on defensive duty, the two wingbacks must provide attacking width by getting up the touchline and crossing into the opponent’s penalty area.
The two strikers in the 5-3-2 formation are just as crucial for harassing the opponent as they are for trying to score goals. The 4-3-3 is a notorious formation for working the ball out from the defense.
A sweeper-keeper, such as Ederson at Manchester City, is as adept with their feet as they are with their hands and play the ball out to player’s feet rather than lumping a ball upfield.
The strikers must harry the defenders and close the goalkeeper down every time they have the ball. If a defense is put under pressure immediately, the attack falters, and the chance of being dispossessed causes players to pass the ball backward rather than forwards.
- A defensively robust formation.
- Wingbacks are a natural response to the 4-3-3 formation’s wingers.
- It can still offer a solid attacking threat.
- Pulling the three midfielders back adds even more protection.
- A team needs the right players; three center-backs that can play well together and wing-backs with high stamina and concentration.
- It’s prone to having players fall back to their own defensive line and stay there.
- If the wingbacks don’t drop back, the center-backs are exposed, leading to through balls and breaking the offside trap.
- The strikers can become isolated if the wing-backs stop providing width.
If you can’t beat them, join them. Another way to combat the flexibility of the 4-3-3 formation is to employ the formation yourself. In this situation, it can often come down to who has the better players, at the very least, who has the ability to use the formation to its full potential.
Every positive of the 4-3-3, from its attacking threat to its ability to allow teams to press high up the pitch, is mirrored in the opponent’s formation.
Whichever team can pass the ball around the cleanest, whoever can maintain the high press and counter-attack the most, should find themselves on top.
Of course, there’s the chance that teams can negate each other for the full 90 minutes, resulting in a stalemate.
Still, for a top-of-the-table clash, or even for a team that’s just employing the formation in the hopes of holding onto a draw, combating the 4-3-3 with the same tactic can be highly effective.
- Fighting fire with fire is a viable formation choice.
- If you think your team has the better players, the opponent’s formation becomes irrelevant.
- Tactically flexible and offensively dangerous formation.
- Teams of equal strength or tactical awareness can cancel each other out.
- If the attackers can’t, or don’t, press high up the pitch, the team can be swamped.
- It’s a formation that’s hard to just pick up and put down; a team needs to spend a lot of time practicing the movement, finding space, and closing down as a unit.
Managers who utilize the 4-3-3 formation do so because they have technically gifted players who understand the vertical channels on a soccer field. Positionally, players are always close enough together to be able to find at least two short passes to a teammate, allowing for intricate ball movement.
The 4-5-1 formation can overload the midfield, cutting off these lines of supply and making it harder for players to find an easy pass. The five midfielders crowd out the three midfielders of the 4-3-3, looking to regain possession and exploit the counterattack.
It can work very well but requires hard-working players who are willing to close down for the entire game.
The lone striker in the 4-5-1 formation is isolated up front, so needs the wide midfielders to move forwards when possession is won. All five midfielders close ranks without the ball and drop deeper into their own half.
The key to the 4-5-1 formation working against the more resilient 4-3-3 is speed; if the players don’t close off the vertical channels, the team playing a 4-3-3 simply slides the ball forwards and cuts out the packed midfield.
By this point, the result is a foregone conclusion. The two inside forwards can cut inside and wreak havoc.
- Ideal for teams with less technical skills.
- Suitable for hard-working teams.
- It can turn the game into a real battle; skill can become less relevant than strength and stamina.
- Both defensive and offensive stability; a 4-5-1 that’s appropriately used can stifle an attack and then launch a quick counter-attack.
- If the players using the 4-5-1 formation don’t close down their opponents quickly, the game can become a rout.
- The lone striker can become isolated if the team doesn’t push players forward when in possession.
- The midfield can become overcrowded, ruining any game rhythm, and can make for a gloomy game to watch.
Teams invariably use the 4-3-3 formation because they have got the players to make it work; tactically astute, technically proficient players that go into games expecting to win.
An opposing team needs grit and determination, and not a small amount of luck, if they’re going to succeed.
The above formations all have several things in common; they try to counter the positive aspects of the 4-3-3 formation and cut off the supply of the ball, especially to the inside forwards.
These formations also look to turn a team of players who may, on paper, at least, be less talented but can use their hard work and teamwork to make life harder for their opponent.
In the end, it’s players who win soccer matches, not formations. A team willing to work harder, ride their luck, and take their chances when they arrive, can and often does emerge victorious.
The 4-3-3 is an excellent formation in modern soccer, but it’s been around for decades. Rinus Michels used it at Ajax in the 1970s, Johan Cruyff used it at Barcelona, as did Pep Guardiola.
The one thing these teams had in common? Superb players of world-class ability. They would likely have won using a 4-4-2 or 1-1-8 formation.