The Basics of 4-3-3
The 4-3-3 is set out in three lines on the pitch – a typical defense of two centre-backs and two full-backs, three central midfielders who may form a triangle and three strikers, one central and two who play on the flanks.
Key to this formation are the wide forwards, that flank the lone central striker. These players are all-round attacking players with pace and shooting ability, who use their speed on the wings before cutting in towards goal. Cristiano Ronaldo is the outstanding example. The lone striker himself may be a powerful target man or someone who drops deep to drag defenders away and leave space for the wide forwards, in the famous ´False 9´ style of Lionel Messi .
These strikers are aided by at least two of the central midfielders. Those central midfielders form a tight triangle in the middle of the pitch and often fall into the roles of ‘creator-destroyer-passer’, to attack, defend and maintain possession. Some midfielders combine all of those elements but a well-balanced midfield is key to the formation.
With a compact central midfield, the full-backs can also join the attack and use huge amounts of space due to the high positioning of the wide forwards.
The 4-3-3 is arguably the most potentially overwhelming of all modern formations. There’s a reason why many of the most dominant sides of European football – Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona – use it. These are the sides that expect a win each week, with enough offensive power to overcome sides determined to leave with a draw.
In possession, the 4-3-3 allows at least 7 players to attack, as the wide forwards squeeze the defense, the full-backs come up behind them and two of the central midfielders push forward.
However the special quality of a good 4-3-3 is the strangling quality it brings. This comes from combining two elements, a three man central midfield which can dominate possession via passing triangles and three strikers who can press high up the pitch. Opponents find it hard to get the ball and hard to keep it. Midfielders can´t get a hold of the ball and are pressured quickly when they do. The defenders are faced with three men pressing them and there are no easy balls to the wings when the full-backs push up.
A fully-functioning offensive 4-3-3 is like the tide against a sandcastle – it might take a while, but it’s gonna break through the defenses eventually. And there has never been a 4-3-3 that functioned better than the Barcelona side of 2008-09 under Pep Guardiola in his first season, treble winners who dominated Manchester United in the Champions League final and Real Madrid in the league.
The flipside is that a 4-3-3 which can’t keep hold of the ball while attacking is potentially very vulnerable. The only players left back in defense are the centre-backs and the defensive midfielder. That creates a very dangerous situation on the counter as opposing wide players have plenty of space to break into. Anything less than a top defensive midfielder, who is physically strong, has great positioning , lots of pace and accurate passing can leave the centre-backs very exposed. One misplaced pass and the opposing team have a dangerous counter.
The 4-3-3 also requires a huge amount of discipline from its wide players. The potential to be exposed by having wide forwards who fail to track back is enormous. Full-backs who storm up in support of an attack must have the energy to race back and defend for 90 minutes. If not, opposing wide players will run riot on the flanks.