How I’d Utilise the 3–4–3 System

Possibly one of the most underrated systems in football, the 3–4–3 formation provides effective offensive and defensive balance. Managers that have had the success with this system include:

  • Antonio Conte (Chelsea, Tottenham)
  • Thomas Tuchel (Chelsea)
  • Roberto Martínez (Belgium)
  • Vittorio Pozzo (Italy)
  • Herbert Chapman (England)

Personally, this system is one that I would favour using above many due to its flexibility and, as mentioned prior, the balance it provides.

I mentioned Antonio Conte first in the list of managers, as he is perhaps the most well-known user of this formation.

Despite winning his first three games at Chelsea, he felt something was lacking.

“We started the season with another system because the idea in my mind was that I wanted to play with the 4–2–4, and then we switched with 4–3–3 and we played also in the same way like last year, 4–2–3–1.

“But I noticed in some circumstances we didn’t have the right balance because when you concede more goals than your opponent and even more chances to score a goal, it is never a good thing. For this reason, we switched to the new system of 3–4–3 and I think this is a good fit for our squad because also we have the strikers adapted for this system.”

He then went on to alliterate how the system would give his team balance and that was what he was searching for in a tactical set-up.

In this piece, I will detail how I would look to implement this system and what patterns of play I would look to implement.

As a reference for this piece, I will involve clips from Tony Popovic’s Perth Glory side, as this team effectively used the 3–4–3 system during his tenure as Head Coach.

Characteristics of Each Player

A critical element of devising a system is ensuring players can perform the roles, responsibilities and behaviours required for that system.

With a 3–4–3, given its uniqueness, there are specific roles for each position.

Goalkeepers in the modern game have to be good with their feet, and while there may not be as much emphasis placed on their ball-playing ability, it is a requirement.

With the back three, there are multiple roles and it’s dependent on how the manager would look to utilise each centreback.

For example, when Antonio Conte utilised a back three with the Italian National Team, he deployed Leonardo Bonucci as a Libero, which is ‘a defender who plays behind the rest of the back line, and is responsible for covering and sweeping across the spaces behind other defenders’ (Hudson, 2021).

Typically, with the middle centre-back, there’d be elements of the Libero role I’d incorporate. The ability to cover or ‘sweep’ behind the rest of the backline, predominantly the outside centrebacks, will be key. More or less, this player would be the most physical and aggressive of the three.

With the outside centre-backs, this would be where I’d place the most responsibility in terms of build-up play. Situating approximately in their respective half-spaces, the ability to progressively carry or pass the ball will be critical. This will allow for central overloads to be created or space in behind, due to the likely chance of a defender applying pressure in due course.

Personally, the wing-backs would be the most important element of the team’s functionality, in my view. They have got to have the physical qualities, notably speed and endurance, and the football intelligence to offer support in advanced areas and come back to create the back five. This system’s success rests on the abilities of those players.

With the two central midfielders, there can be some variance. One can be more offensive than the other or both can be defensive. For me, I’d prefer the two to both be defensively oriented. I’d like to give the offensive freedom to the 10s, the striker and the wing-backs, therefore the midfielders would have to be disciplined and positioned correctly to ensure minimal damage in defensive transition.

As for the two 10s, their role is to be near the striker. With the wing-backs providing the width, the opposition in theory should be stretched laterally and vertically. From there, they should occupy the half-spaces and look to combine with players in advanced areas, creating chances and scoring goals.

Finally, the striker. Hold-up play is paramount for me. Often to alleviate pressure, I’d like him to be the focal point but also to provide an option with his back to goal, linking up with the other players. This will work both for the player and his teammates, as space and opportunities will be created as a result.

With the roles now briefly defined, the team responsibilities are the next area to detail.

In-Possession

The first thing to note is that this shape is ideal for ball circulation due to the natural geographic location of players in the starting positions.

The 3–2 structure (created by the 3 centrebacks and the double pivot) is “one of the most balanced and structurally sound [shapes], not only for controlling defensive transitions but also when defending in a block. It’s also fantastic for creating progressive passing angles from the backline into the midfield, as well as allowing for the central defenders to progress via carries while will maintaining balance with the other 2 CBs.” (Laurie, 2021)

So progressing the ball is a relatively simple task given the structure and most probable numerical advantages against front line pressure. The example below shows that ball circulation isn’t a problem due to the natural 3v2 advantage.

3v2 in build-up

Ultimately, it’s got to be a critical requirement for the centrebacks to be comfortable in possession as drawing the opposition in and playing around, through or over them will make ball progression into the final third much easier.

So as shown above, both of the outside centre-backs are roughly positioned in their respective half-spaces. This is to stretch the pitch laterally. This will cause the opposition to defend in a wider block, which reduces compactness within the block. This is why the Glory were able to move the ball around with minimal stress.

Hence the positions on the pitch should roughly simulate this:

Rough positions to take up in the build-up

So as I mentioned in the player role breakdown, there are both outside centrebacks and 10s in a half-space each. The half-space is a very important area as it “has the benefits of being close to the other zones and offering more choices to the attacker; one can therefore combine with players from the wings and the middle.” (Marić, 2014)

Natural positioning in the half-spaces due to how the 3–4–3 is structured can provide triangles or diamonds to create wide overloads, and these are a popular method used by top managers to bypass first and second-line pressure.

The example below shows the left wing-back, the left-winger and the left central midfielder combining in a wide overload to give the midfielder space to turn and play.

Wide overload utilised to bypass pressure

The utilisation of the half-spaces, wide overloads and quick 1 or 2 touch passing sequences is something I value to a high extent in the build-up.

The reason being is that it can allow play to progress on one side but also allow for space to be exploited on the opposite side.

Ikonomidis exploiting space on the other side

I mentioned that the wing-backs are a crucial element to the functionality of a 3–4–3 system, and the manner in which I would utilise them going forward is an essential element.

Building play centrally allows for space exploitation in wide areas, as often they would not be the focus immediately. Further, them occupying wider positions, causing the opposition’s block to stretch laterally allows for further time on the ball.

Take this example below.

The middle centreback passes the ball to the left attacking midfielder, who has dropped into a central space. This is to draw attention to him and away from the left wing-back who is looking to advance forward.

A common yet effective pattern of play is a first time pass from the striker to the wing-back. What this will do is give the wing-back time to drive at the defenders. The lack of disorganisation as a result of the one-touch passing as well as the positioning of the players gives the attacking team the opportunity to score.

Perth Glory’s 4th goal against Brisbane Roar

Another instance where the wing-back can receive in a dangerous area untracked is through crossing situations.

Balance is a key component of the 3–4–3 system, as you can defend with 5 but also attack with 5.

Sometimes, an attacker or wing-back crossing into the box can afford to over hit a cross, as often there would be a wing-back ready to pounce on a loose ball.

Attacking the box with five players works best against a back four, as not only is there a 5v4 overload but also a moment of confusion for the fullbacks. Does he mark the winger or the wing-back. Either way, it causes disorganisation and allows on most occasions the wing-back to profit.

Take this example.

The right-winger for the attacking side has the ball in a dangerous position. He crosses the ball into the box, to which the striker doesn’t make the best contact with however as I mentioned before, attacking with five can allow for overhit or mis-hit crosses to still work. The farside wing-back gets on the end of the loose header and scores.

Jason Davidson scoring Perth Glory’s first goal against the Brisbane Roar

The far-side fullback for the opposition had no situational awareness of the wing-back making a late run into the box, and that is a huge advantage for any offensively oriented side looking to attack with five players.

For the front three when it comes to attacking crosses, generally the most productive manner to utilise them would be to instruct the players to attack three areas;

  • The front post
  • The edge of the 6 yard box
  • The back post

This way, the player executing the cross has a specific idea on where to aim. There’s no strict role as to who has to attack where, but it’s important that in every crossing situation a player is attacking those areas.

Below are a few examples where the attacking team has profited.

Joel Chianese scoring Perth Glory’s 1st goal against the Melbourne Victory
Diego Castro scoring Perth Glory’s second goal against the Melbourne Victory
Chris Ikonomidis scoring Perth Glory’s 1st goal against the Western Sydney Wanderers

So having that clear structure makes profiting from crossing situations much easier for the offensive side. Personally, I would adopt this structure, as having more numbers whilst still being balanced is my ideal structure in offensive situations in the final third.

Out of Possession

Here is where variation can occur. The key areas where this would materialise would be in the final third and the defensive third, as those areas I’d make the change.

In wide areas in the final third, the 3–4–3 system offers a prolific pressing scheme which can create panic and mistakes for the opposing team. Throw in situations or forcing the ball into those areas can be locations where this can occur.

An example of where this was effective can be seen below.

The opposing team has a throw in. Man-oriented pressing schemes work the best in those situations. Effective body positioning, speed in the press and marking close short passing options can cause situations like these.

The ball is thrown in, the opposing centreback just gets the ball to the right-back who scuffs his switch. The defending team are already in good positions to win the ball centrally following the mistake from the opposing right-back.

Perth Glory’s wide pressure in the final third

Below is another example of effective wide pressure, this time in the middle third.

Occupying immediate short passing options and compressing the space makes it difficult for any side trying to play through a compact 3–4–3 system.

Perth Glory’s wide pressure in the midfield third

When it comes to the defensive third, I’m all about protecting the space and ensuring no team, no matter their quality collectively and individually can break us down. Hence why I’d instruct the team to defend quite deep.

This is where the 3–4–3 can transition into arguably the most effective defensive shape in football, the 5–4–1. Centrally, there’d be minimal space for the opposition to occupy, which would mean they would have to attack in wide areas. Even if they got the ball into the box, there would still be a large volume of defenders in there, which increases the probability of a goal not occurring.

The utilisation of the low block often means constant circulation from the opposition which often causes them to go backwards, which is the ultimate objective for the defending team.

Below is an example of this taking place.

Perth Glory’s low block forcing Adelaide United backwards

Another reason why that it’s effective, is that teams can often get caught in possession due to the lack of clear and penetrative passing lanes centrally. This can cause possession to be coughed up and the opposing team to regain possession, which can then result in a quick transition or the team getting their rhythm in possession back.

Here’s an example of this occurring.

Perth Glory’s low block causing a positive transitional moment

Concluding Thoughts

I love the 3–4–3, as do many people in the modern game. It’s balance, fluidity and flexibility gives teams so many options in-game.

The manner in which Tony Popovic utilised this system in Perth Glory’s 2018/19 season (the team I used clips of) was fantastic and it saw them rank number one in the competition for goals scored and goals conceded.

Of course, there are flaws to this system like many systems have however it’s very difficult to beat a team that utilises this system in the correct manner.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store