The 4-3-3 has been around for many years but it has enjoyed a rise in popularity over the last 10 to 15 years and is now probably the most used formation at the top level of the game. As with most formations, the 4-3-3 is versatile and can be used differently to suit the personnel or philosophy of a team.
Generally, it consists of a traditional back four made up of two central defenders and two full backs. Then a narrow midfield three who tend to form more of a triangle shape and in attack one central striker who is flanked by two wide strikers.
Positions in a soccer 4-3-3
Central defenders in a 4-3-3
There’s no real difference in how center backs in a 4-3-3 operate than any other formation that uses a regular back four. How high a back four defend as a line depends on the approach favored by the coach, not the formation itself. One slight difference is their distribution, with most teams looking to get the ball into their central midfield players rather than longer passes to the attackers that bypass the midfield area.
Full backs in a 4-3-3
Again, as with center backs, a full backs defensive role doesn’t alter much in a 4-3-3 but as there are no wide midfielders in this formation, they are expected to push forward at every opportunity to provide width for their team. As such this role has evolved in recent years with full backs now needing greater engines than generations gone by who had wingers in front of them to offer the wide attacking option. These days full backs constantly maraud up and down the wing, covering an incredible amount of ground to support in both attack and defense.
Midfielders in a 4-3-3
A central midfield three can accommodate different blends and styles of midfielder. In general though, one will be more defense minded and play a little deeper than the other two who have more of a license to get forward and join in attacking moves. Offensively, having three midfield players allows teams to dominate possession and push players forward to support the front three.
Wide attackers in a 4-3-3
Players who occupy these positions are often similar in armory to traditional wingers but are pushed further forward when the team are in organised possession. These players don’t just stay out wide but will carry the ball or make runs into more central areas, particularly in the final third. This is to create chances, link with the central striker or make runs in behind the opposition defense. Defensively, they’re expected to track back to support their full backs and form part of their teams defensive block when the opposition has possession of the ball. Much like full backs, wide attackers don’t stop running!
Central striker in a 4-3-3
The lone striker in a 4-3-3 usually has some degree of physicality and can hold the ball up and bring others into the game. As well as carrying a goal threat themselves they need to create chances for others too, so clever players with vision and awareness fill this role effectively. The role requires a good work ethic as they’re often needed to do a lot of pressing off the ball.
Defending in a 4-3-3 soccer formation
As mentioned before, teams can use entirely different tactics when using a 4-3-3. Some teams prefer to defend high up the pitch. This involves squeezing the defensive line up high to compact the middle of the pitch and using the front players and midfielders to press the opposition as close to their own goal as possible. When executed successfully, this approach helps teams win possession in more offensive positions and prevent opposing teams from settling on the ball. Generally, teams who press high up the pitch also like to dominate possession of the ball, particularly in midfield.
The 4-3-3 can however, be used by teams who prefer to drop back and allow opponents to have possession of the ball, especially in their own half. These teams adopt a 4-5-1 when they’re out of possession, forming two narrow ‘blocks’ across the pitch, making themselves difficult to break down. This may mean sacrificing possession of the ball for long periods of the game but it allows them to spring quick counter attacks from deeper areas. Naturally, this style of play tends to suit teams who have significant pace in wide areas or a fast central striker who likes to make runs in behind opposition defenses.
Not every 4-3-3 team fits perfectly into one of the above categories though. Some teams are somewhere in the middle and chose to conserve energy and press the opposition when they have possession in the middle of the pitch. It’s also worth pointing out that teams may change their tactics whilst remaining in a 4-3-3 depending on their opponents, game importance or enforced changes to personnel due to injury or suspension. Formations just provide a basic positional structure for a team but there are many ways to play within that structure!
Attacking in the soccer 4-3-3 formation
How a team defends has a large bearing on how they attack. If a team sits back in a 4-5-1 without the ball and defends deep against a more possession-based team, then naturally their attacking threat is likely to come in the form of counter attacks from deep. Whereas a team who play a high line and press high up the pitch will win possession in their opponent’s half, counter attacking from advanced areas.
There are, however offensive benefits to the formation in general. Full backs who are encouraged to push forward can create goal scoring opportunities from crosses and cutbacks. Wide attackers, especially those with pace can cause havoc in opposition defenses by dribbling past defenders, crossing, cutting inside to shoot or making runs in behind opposition defensive lines. The lone striker will generally operate centrally. This means they’re usually well placed in the penalty area when crosses are delivered or passes from wide or central midfield positions are fed through to them. Attack minded midfielders can carry a big threat as at least one of the three normally has license to roam forward, play closer to the striker and arrive in the penalty area for crosses.
Strengths of the 4-3-3 soccer formation
If coached well, there are many strengths of the 4-3-3. Here are some of the formations most obvious characteristics:
- Wealth of attacking options: with three attackers, flying full backs and two central midfielders with a license to get forward there are many attacking options throughout the team.
- Accommodation of different midfield personnel: having three central midfield players allows for different combinations of players such as one defensive holding player, 1 box to box enforcer and one all out attacking player.
- Flexibility and versatility: whether a team likes to press high or defend deep a 4-3-3 can provide an ideal positional framework.
- Balance: the 4-3-3- allows for a healthy balance of attacking potency and defensive solidarity.
Weaknesses of the 4-3-3 formation
- Can be prone to counterattack: teams who adopt high pressing tactics can be prone to quick counter attacks. If opponents can beat the ‘first wave’ of a press then it’s possible to break whilst players are committed forward. For example, if a 4-3-3 team’s attacking players and midfielders all press opposition defenders and midfielders, but the opposition team are able to play round them with quick passing, they may be able to spring an attack leaving the pressing players behind.
- Isolated lone striker: if a team struggles to keep possession of the ball, the central striker can become isolated and uninvolved in the game.
- Cohesion: all teams require a good degree of understanding from all players to execute a game plan. In a 4-3-3, when and where to press requires all players to be tuned in. If the central striker presses a central defender then the next player doesn’t press the subsequent receiving player the central striker has wasted their energy and the opposition have comfortable possession.
- Athleticism and energy: this formation requires players in certain positions to have high energy levels. For instance, the central striker needs to be able to constantly make runs across the width of the back four and have the physical strength to protect the ball whilst fending off big central defenders. Not all strikers have these physical attributes. Similarly, wide attackers and full backs are required to have the endurance to be able to run up and down the wings to fulfill both their defensive and attacking duties.
Examples of soccer teams that play 4-3-3 formation
- Chelsea 2004-2006: Jose Mourinho’s first stint in charge of Chelsea changed the landscape of English football, propelling the club into the elite of the English game. At the time, most teams rarely deviated from the much favored 4-4-2, so this Chelsea team were an entirely new force to be reckoned with. They consisted of a strong defensive spine with tricky attacking ‘flair’ players on the flanks and were a great example of a counter attacking 4-3-3 team (although they could also dominate possession against lesser opposition). There were many qualities to this side but one of a more tactical note was the emergence of Didier Drogba, the team’s attacking focal point. Drogba is now seen as a player who single-handedly changed the role of strikers in the game. With his immense power, pace and energy he was capable of fulfilling the role of two strikers. Truly multidimensional, he could hold the ball up and bring others into play, yet run in behind and score goals – a striker made for the 4-3-3 formation!
- Barcelona 2008–2012: Barcelona have favored the 4-3-3 formation for many years, but the most successful era in the club’s history was during the tenure of Pep Guardiola and an emerging Lionel Messi. What this team lacked in physical strength they more than made up for in technical ability, speed of thought and tactical execution. Guardiola’s philosophy was to dominate possession, particularly in midfield, with diminutive but highly technical players like Xavi and Iniesta who were almost impossible to dispossess. Attacking penetration was provided by pacey wide strikers who held a wide shape until the final third, where they would make incisive runs inside and behind opposition defenses. Without the ball, this Barcelona team were equally impressive. They defended on the front foot, executing a high pressing game, allowing them to disposes opponents close to their goal and prevent teams from having comfortable possession. This team was a complete contrast in style with Mourinho’s Chelsea just a couple of years prior.
- Liverpool 2018–2020: Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is another exponent of the 4-3-3 and has utilized this formation to great success at Liverpool, bringing the club long awaited Premier League glory and Champions League success. Klopp’s Liverpool, whilst perhaps not as fluid as others who favor the formation execute use 4-3-3 in their own unique image. This team have flying full backs who create a huge number of assists from wide areas. A workman like midfield three are built to win the ball back as early as possible and then quickly feed the ball into the more creative forward players. Roberto Firminho, the team’s central striker is a hardworking, selfless player who provides many opportunities for others. The teams main goal scoring threat comes from two potent wide attackers, Mohammed Sala and Sadio Mane who provide in excess of 20 goals every season. This Liverpool team play with relentless energy and like to press from the front. However, one of the benefits of having such pacey direct wide attackers is the ability to counterattack at speed which this side do with devastating effect regularly when they encounter teams who like to play possession-based football.
Is 4-3-3 a good option for your soccer team?
If you’re thinking about using a 4-3-3 for your team, it’s worth considering first whether or not your squad has players who will fit the formation well. Some key questions to ask are:
- Do you have a player who could operate as a lone striker? Someone who could hold the ball up and create for others. This player might be fast and like to make runs in behind, or they may be less mobile but big and strong and provide a focal point for others to play off. Both options could work.
- Do you have quick wide attacking players? The two wide strikers ideally need to a good amount of pace, especially if the central striker isn’t blessed with speed.
- Do you have an abundance of good midfield players? If you have a glut of central midfielders you need to get into the team then the 4-3-3 might be a good way of squeezing them all in. Having three of the same type of midfielder won’t work though so ensure you have a blend of attack and defense in that area.
4-3-3 soccer formation drills
- Attacking drills with an emphasis on getting wide forwards in behind opposition defensive lines and full backs joining in attacking moves.
- Drills that work on the getting the ball into the central striker and supporting players working off them.
- Drills which focus on defensive shape when the team is out of possession. This could include when and where to press opponents or simply staying compact allowing the opponent to have the ball.