The basics of the 4-3-3 soccer formation

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The 4-3-3 soccer formation

The 4-3-3 formation is one of the most used football systems by today’s coaches. So many teams play with this formation like FC Barcelona,Real Madrid, Liverpool and i can go on for days naming all of them.

But as a football fan, you have noticed without a doubt that the patterns in both attacks an defence change from team to team even when they use the same system.

Fc Barcelona uses Tiki-Taka, Real Madrid uses Speed counters and Liverpool presses high and Firmino has a role of assisting the wingers. So you can see that this formation has multiple uses and multiple forms and that’s why it is used by most coaches in modern football

Of course there are many other systems that you can check in this article about formations and systems in football but we are going to focus on the 4-3-3 formation for the rest of the article

The Essentials

All-Round Midfielders

There are two players flanking the defensive midfielder whose duty is to :

  • Defend and help get the ball back as soon as possible
  • Construct the attack patterns once they receive the ball from the defenders
  • Attack and get in the opposition box to finish the chances created by the winger

For these roles to be carried out well, such players need to have superb passing abilities.

All-Defensive Midfielder

The defensive midfielder is the pillar of this formation as he must break-up the opposition attacks. Also, he must have the technical ability to release the ball to his teammates in the best possible position to start the attack.

When the team trusts the defensive midfielder they can attack with more freedom knowing that he has got their backs and we can name many excellent players at this role for example : Casemiro , Busquets , Veratti, ….


Offensive midfielders on either side of the striker are instructed to use their pace to get at fullbacks and cross the ball in for the central striker and advancing midfielders. It is important that these wide players have the skill and technique needed to beat opposing defenders.

Often you will see these types of players cut inside and run at the central defenders, regularly playing quick passing exchanges with teammates before getting into the penalty area and releasing a shot.

While it is the central striker’s job to score goals, these players are also expected to weigh in.

The Central Striker

The formation relies on a striker to play in the Center of the front three, capable of holding the ball up and bringing the two players on either side of him into the play.

Strengths of the formation

  • Strength through the middle – With three central midfielders you can protect the defense, control the center of the pitch, and force the opposition to play out wide.
  • lots of passing options and angles for the player on the ball – Due to the focus on movement and space, the player on the ball should always have a number of options available to them and this in turn helps the team to dominate possession.
  • Tactical flexibility to change to other formations – From 4-3-3 formation, the coach can manage the game and counteract the opposition by changing the shape of the team relatively easily.
  • Overwhelm the opposition – With a potential seven players rushing forward, the 4-3-3 can be mayhem for the defending team as a stream of people push up the field towards them.

Weaknesses of the formation

  • Opposition can take advantage of the space on the wings – In the 4-3-3 formation, the team can be overloaded out wide if one of the central midfielders or wide forwards doesn’t help out the fullback.
  • Vulnerable to cross field passes – As the midfielders shift as a unit to close down danger on one side of the pitch, the opposition can play a cross field ball and start building up play on the opposite flank.
  • Vulnerable to the counterattack – When the team pushes up to the halfway line, there is a lot of space left behind the defense. This leaves the team open to the counterattack and the keeper must act as a sweeper to minimize the risk.
  • The midfielders can get in each other’s way – With three players playing centrally, there is a risk that the midfielders occupy the same space and get in each other’s way.

The 4-3-3 formation is the coaches favorite football system in the recent years since it focuses on dominating the opponent and attacking all the time

Without any delays let’s dive right into the action and get to know the duties of the players in this masterpiece of a football formation


The players role in the 4-3-3 formation

The Goalkeeper

In the 4-3-3 formation, having the 4 defenders and one midfielder in front of the goalkeeper means in theory the goals are well protected.

But as the game drags, gaps open up in the formation. In these situation the goalkeeper role is not as simple as defending the goal and stopping attackers.

The goalkeeper should be the captain of his defense. he should communicate with them at all time and guide them so they don”t lose their positions, he should warn them about any irregularities in the system since he has a good view of the pitch from where he stands

In today’s games, the role of a goalkeeper is evolving and the requirements for a world class one are high since he is now bound to be as good with his feet as the rest of the team. In Guardiola’s system the goalkeeper is the start of every attack and he insists on having goalkeepers with great footwork abilities. They are called sweeper keepers.

The central defenders

The true warriors of this formation and the protectors of the team

In an attack minded system like the 4-3-3 formation those two are responsible in defending the goalkeeper and keeping the attackers away.They should be more into anticipating and reading the ball trajectories than tackling. Their first priority is to get to the ball before the striker

In case the striker gets the ball before them they should hold him for as long as they can giving time to their teammates to reposition themselves or they can clear the ball away .Also they should make the strict minimum of fouls as they operate in an area close to the goals and free-kicks can be dangerous in those positions

The center back has a role of defending the area in front of the keeper he is basically the fighter of the two while the libero is more of a versatile one who intervenes if a striker manages to breach the defenses of the team and he is not tasked with man marking

In this attacking formation, both defenders are needed to have pinpoint pass accuracy whether long or short balls forward. They are the initiators of every attack and they need to have a good sense of the game.

The fullbacks

Extremely fit fullbacks are needed in this formation as they are tasked to provide support in defense and in offense

In the defensive roles they should at all time stay goal-side of the oppositions winger and prevent crosses into the danger area. They also should be attentive in the offside application and communicate well with the central backs and the defensive midfielder.

When the team gets the ball they should widen the field by moving forward down the line and overlapping with the winger.Doing so, they either deliver crosses to the striker in the box when the ball gets to them or they simply create 2v1 situations and help the winger penetrate to the box as a decoy

By moving forward they also give more space to the midfielders to maneuver and get the all out of the dangerous areas. They should have great sense of the game so that they can chose accurately when they should attack and when they should maintain their positions .

In the recent years and due to the attacking roles bestowed upon them we witnessed the art of too many fullbacks that are as good with the ball as wingers.To name a few : Carvajal, Marcelo, Alba , Alaba , Maicon and the greatest of them all Dani Alves.


The central midfielders

In my opinion and I might be wrong the success and the stability of the formation depends on how good the holding midfielder is.

Due to the attacking nature of the system, gaps tend to open up when attacking with full force. So the holding midfielder should be able to sniff the danger and neutralize it before it gets to the dangerous areas.

He is tasked with covering for his teammates when they move forward to support the attacks, especially the full backs since they do that a lot.

As with all midfielder no need to mention that he has to be good with the ball and at directing g the plays depending on his teammates and the opposition movements.

As for the other two midfielders,they are more like the artists that are tasked with creating danger.

One of them is the carrier of the ball, he should be competent with the ball, able to dribble past defenders and has a good eye for key passes.He shouldn’t be shy to advance and place himself between the lines of the opposition to drag them out of shape.

The attacking midfielder has more creative responsibility than the others and should have a high level of technical skills as well as good close ball control as they often operate in small spaces which requires quick decision-making.

The attacking midfielder helps to alleviate the creative responsibility of the team’s wide forwards and fullbacks by contributing to attacking play through the center.

A well-balanced midfield is essential to the 4-3-3 formation’s success and they must work well together to ensure they fulfill all their responsibilities.

The forwards

Depending on the players available, many options are presented to the coach playing with the 4-3-3 formation in the placement of the attacking trio.

They may decide on a flat three, two up front and one behind, a false 9, or one central striker with two number 10s behind them.

The beauty of football is in the infinite possibilities of play that exists

The main focus of the system is to attack, so the front 3 should put consistent pressure on the defense of the opposition.

Without the ball the front 3 are supposed to be the first line of the defense.The wide forwards should always press forward and put pressure and the fullbacks by always coming at them and never running away.

With two options in mind, the first being dribbling outside and getting a good cross to their teammates in the box and the second by cutting inside and moving toward the goal .They should all the time contribute to the goals scored by the team by assisting and scoring them themselves

When defending they should always track back to help their respective fullbacks from getting trapped in a 2v1 situation, Failing to do so is a deal breaker for the balance of the system.

As a team playing 4-3-3 will often dominate possession and be playing in the opposition’s half of the pitch, the striker will be surrounded by the opponent’s players and consequently have little time or space in which to operate.

Therefore, their one touch passing must be accurate and their runs in behind the defense are crucial for increasing the space that their team mates can play in.

By holding up the ball, they can bring their team mates into play and help the team move up the pitch.

The principles in each and every soccer formation are taught to the players in the training sessions. A top coach always plan his training session to attain the goal that he has set in his mind in the early stages of the season. Most of the time the goal is to make his players play like he wants them to.If you are interested in soccer training sessions don’t miss out the how to plan a soccer training session article.


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