In this formation analysis, we take a look at a playing shape of the 4-3-3. This shape is a very common setup allowing good control of central areas with flexibility to change. The shape your team plays will always depend on the ability & qualities of your squad and also that of the oppositions strengths and weaknesses. These points are a guide to highlight the key areas of a 4-3-3 formation and give you an insight on how you can play it with your group of players.

What are the Strengths?

  • Create and overload in central areas against a midfield 2 (4-4-2)
  • Exploit spaces between Full Back and Centre Backs of the opposition with two number 10’s playing off shoulders and in half spaces in attacking half.
  • Create overloads down the sides of opposition.
  • Allows a high press.
  • Width of the defensive line, should not exceed 40 yards.
  • Slow down the opponents play with a compact defensive block.
  • Easily slip into a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 defensive structure.

What are the Weaknesses?

  • Facing an opponent with 2 Centre forwards, versus 2 Centre Backs.
  • Down the sides, particularly on quick switches of play in transition moments.
  • Playing against more direct teams who bypass your potential overload.
  • Relying on the width of your full backs you risk leaving spaces behind them where centre half may need to go cover, stretching your defence.

In Possession – Attacking Build Up

This shape can help in the build up of play with the one sitting midfielder being deployed to support the play, help switch the play, and also secure the initial attack. Certain Clubs deploy their full- backs in these central areas when building play, with their left/right of the 3 players providing the width, and the two central midfielders pushing on, or as wider players ready to exploit 2v1 situations and overlap supportive runs.

With numbers centrally if the ball is needed to be played into more advanced areas, support would be there much quicker for the 2nd balls due to the compactness of numbers, or with a more patient build up the two 10s can attempt to exploit spaces in and off the back off their midfield counterparts, with good width provided by the two wingers. The 10s role includes making forward runs in advance of the centre forward so their relationship and rotations again cause problems for the oppositions back line. The ’10’s or play makers is preferred to in this system can be be real dictators in attacking situations. With the ball on one side of the pitch, the opposite winger must recognise when to be a second centre forward.

Out of Possession – Defending Shape

Defending with 4 players is certainly more complete and can defend the width of the pitch more easily with the roles of the defensive midfielder covering spaces behind full backs or centre backs with the opposition in wide areas. The closer the ball is to the goal the shorter the distances between each player, certainly in central areas. Central areas can form a defensive block to setup transitional counter attacking situations from high or deeper. Allows a higher press and able to set transitional traps for regains high up. It is crucial that the midfield three central players understand their distances and triggers of when and how the team is structured to press. The roles of the wide players is also important. It may be they have the role of dealing with the oppositions full backs in terms of tracking back and starting in a compact shape inside of the oppositions shape. Or they may be given the role of staying higher and utilising spaces where the full backs have vacated, tactically stretching the two centre backs of the opposition. The centre forward would work with the attacking centre midfielders of when to press, and set triggers for the rest of the team.

Transitional Moments

The system benefits defending from the front or in midfield to counter attack as the shape can be set up in to be aggressive in the press or in midfield to regain and be closer to the oppositions goal. It can also be utilised for a high press, particularly showing opponents into traps set up centrally. The risk in this is playing an opponent comfortable on the ball and timings of pressure not purposeful, this allowing the opposition to switch the play, or against quick transitions where the opposition can exploit spaces behind fullbacks and in and around the sitting midfielder.Upon losing possession the structure should hold strength in central areas with good discipline from the ‘holding’ midfielder, and opposite full back if he is narrower and disciplined.

Types of Players

  • Centre Backs comfortable in not only building the play, but being destructive defensively and able to read the play. Able to cover wider spaces in 1v1s on the transitions.
  • Full Backs who have athleticism to support attacks high and the ability to defend 1 v 1/2 v 1.
  • Defensive and disciplined central midfielder who support and distribute the play well.
  • Advanced midfielders who are able to handle the ball between the lines, have a good sense of spacial awareness, and possess real pace to create problems on the counter attack and with forward runs in advance of the central striker.
  • Confident and controlled ability to also be patient when in possession.
  • Wide Players who possess good 1v1 ability, combination, discipline to stay wide and know when to come inside, and the ability to create chances from crosses.
  • Centre Forward who can hold up the play, move well off shoulders to create spaces for himself or from deeper runs.