4-3-3: An Analytical Study

If there is a formation that has defined the evolution of football in the last 20 years, it is the 4-3-3 formation. Having studied the analytical view of 3 at the back previously, now we look into 4-3-3 formation.

433 formation
A 4-3-3 formation

Each formation has its own strengths that the team must make the most of while mitigating its weaknesses through tactical awareness and a good understanding of how the opposition may attempt to exploit their game plan.

“Games are won and lost in midfield, as simple as that”

Sir Alex Ferguson

If we get a bit precise, 4-3-3 formation is essentially designed to ensure that the team that utilizes it usually has control of the middle of the park. By controlling the midfield and taking advantage of the flexibility that the line up gives the team’s forwards, the 4-3-3 can overwhelm, confuse, and force the opposition back towards their goal.

Real Madrid lining up in a 4-3-3 in 2016/17

However, there are many things associated with just the ball possession and control of midfield in it. We boil it down below:

Team Requirements

There is one thing all eleven players should promise before being engaged in this formation, and that is energy. The midfielders part of the formation should work as a unit in terms of creativity, passing, and ball recovery. There should be a good transition from the defense to attack. For that, midfield has to play an important part.

Real Madrid on the counter attack vs Atletico Madrid

As shown in the above counter-attack, there should be good off the ball movement from the team’s attackers. Disciplined wide forwards who support the midfield and fullbacks when the opposition are attacking.

There aren’t many holding midfielders better than Michael Carrick in the last 10 years in the Premier League

A specialized defensive or holding midfielder who sniffs out danger covers gaps left by the fullbacks and ensures organization within the team.



4 at the back ensures security for the goalkeeper. His role is very much the same in every formation that gets played with 4 at the back. Shot-stopping should be his bread and butter with also essential ball playing to make sure he doesn’t get pressed by the opposition front 3.

The holding midfielder is instrumental in ensuring that the goalkeeper doesn’t get pressed as the goalkeeper can pass to him and build from the back.

Central Defenders

Center-backs are the core of four at the back. They need to clearly convey any danger to the rest of the players on the team to ensure they fulfill their defensive duties. They should ensure cover for both the full-backs if they bomb forward.

Chelsea in 2004/05 played a 4-3-3 in which they only conceded 15 goals for the season

The Chelsea of 2004/05 showed that how being a strong unit is integral to keeping clean sheets as well as have a strong organization. Strong in the tackle with a good sense of positioning, the center-backs job is to arrive at the ball before the opposition’s strikers and either pass it to a team mate or clear it away.

Both of the central defenders should occupy one responsibility of either claiming the headers or clearing the low-crosses in the box. This covers the movement of the striker regardless of the movement of the opposition being diagonal or parallel.

Vidic and Ferdinand was the core of Manchester United’s solid defensive unit

With balls played into the channel behind the team’s fullbacks, the center-back needs to come across and stop the opponent’s striker from driving at the defense. The other center-back then either comes across to cover them or the defensive midfielder drops in and takes up the position.

In the crunch games, they should also have the attribute of putting their bodies on the line.


Being precise, both the full-backs should be excellent defensively and going forward. Although their priority is to defend, offensive fullbacks who are confident on the ball and can deliver a good cross are very important to the 4-3-3 formation.

Zanetti and Maicon were instrumental full-backs in Inter Milan’s treble-winning season

They ensure width within the team in case the wingers cut inside or just solely positioned in the middle being a tactical move. The biggest example in terms of attacking attributes is Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool. He ensures quality in attack within Liverpool’s side as his crosses are fundamental in making Liverpool one of the most dangerous attacks in the world.

Trent Alexander Arnold was at the top of most assists of the PL season by a defender

If the setup is 442, it is even more crucial they get forward and support the wide forward in attacking the opposition’s fullback. With the fullback overlapping and running in behind the defense, the wide forward is afforded a lot more space and time to choose what option they think is best.

Ben Chilwell is instrumental in attack for Leicester

Ben Chilwell’s attributes in Leicester’s 19/20 season is extremely important. He showed that if the ball reaches him behind the opponent’s defense, the fullback should attempt to put in a good cross for Jamie Vardy. If the pass does not come, then his decoy run has helped drag the opposition’s backline out of position. As shown by the goal Vardy scored against Arsenal this season, if he is involved further up the field, he should be good on the ball and confidently keep the ball in the team’s possession.


The midfield 3 ensures that the team usually has a control from the midfield. When it comes to 4-2-3-1, it ensures an extra attacker between the front 3, but it destabilizes the midfield. However, with 3 midfielders at the team’s disposal, it ensures ball recovery, passing, and creativity.

There aren’t many better 3 man mid-fields in the Premier League history than Mascherano, Alonso, and Gerrard

Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool in 2005 was instrumental in a 3-man midfield. Javier Mascherano played as a defensive midfielder and ensured ball recovery, Xabi Alonso ensured passing and play-making. Steven Gerrard was the advanced midfielder who ensured creativity and goals from long-range that we know he is capable of.

The holding midfielder is crucial due to the attacking nature of the formation.They must cover the gaps and spaces left by the rest of the team. It is their job to sniff out danger, drop into the fullback positions, and slow down the opposition’s strikers if they are streaming forward.

The ball-playing midfielder or the holder must be energetic, constantly searching for the ball, and comfortable dribbling and passing forwards. They are considered the bridge between the defensive midfielder and the advanced midfielder.

The advanced midfielder has the responsibility of chance creation. He should impose himself having the free role with runs into the box as well as well creativity.

Liverpool’s midfield press vs Manchester City in 2018

One big aspect of a midfield three is the press. Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, especially this season, has been the masters of it which they showed in a 3-0 battering of them in the 2017/18 Champions League. Once the Manchester City plays into the center, the midfield 3 start to press and attempt to regain possession. Only a few players worldwide have a great pressing resistance in the center. Gini Wijnaldum of Liverpool is a brilliant example of it. Once City gets pressed, they lose concentration, and Liverpool’s midfield supplies the ball to the attack for scoring.

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona’s midfield in 2011 Champions League

The most important aspect of the three midfielders is that they do not have gaps within them. As much as there is a requirement of defense being a unit, the same applies to the midfield. A strong midfield three ensures blockage of any counter-attacks. Claude Makelele was a master of it back in a day. With the team often playing in the opposition’s half, Barcelona’s midfield of Busquets, Iniesta, and Xavi dominated possession with the defenders effectively trapping the opposition and stopping them from playing out.


The front-three should ensure everything in terms of going forward be it outlets, linking of the game, counter-attacks etc. The forward-three should also be energetic because they have to keep rotating sides every now and then to ensure confusion within the opposition defense.

Suarez, Neymar and Messi played as a front 3 for Barcelona from 2014 till 2017

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar were possibly the finest front three of the last decade. What makes that front 3 fundamental was the responsibility both Messi and Neymar had. In this formation, they were fearless with their creativity and constantly attempting to create goal-scoring opportunities for the Uruguayan striker.

Luis Suarez had a variety of strengths in terms of offensive play even though he would also be able to contribute in various ways to the team’s play.

Firmino, Salah and Mane possess probably the finest front 3 in the world right now

Liverpool’s front three is the perfect definition of energy. Their energy carries the game to the opponent and ensures that they can never relax when in possession. This helps limit their ability to play out from the back. Roberto Firmino is a massive part of ball recovery for them.

If indeed the opposition makes a mistake because of the Brazilian, Salah and Mane are now a lot closer to the goal with the majority of the opposition’s team members already behind them.

Defending in a 4-3-3

The responsibility on full-backs, central defenders and the defensive midfielders define how the team sets up defensively in a 4-3-3 against their opposition. We take a look at two of the best examples in this aspect, Diego Simeone and Jose Mourinho.

Simeone’s defensive organization in 4-3-3

Simeone’s biggest strength was the energy he brought to the team defensively. His team enjoyed every tackle just like most strikers enjoy scoring. Some can also be boiled down to his strikers. His strikers in Antoine Griezmann used to press oppositional defenders to stop them from playing from the back. The midfield of Gabi, Saul, and Koke used to occupy the roles of blocking the full-backs influence with Felipe Luis and Juanfran occupying the wingers.

If the opposition defense goes long, they had the presence of Diego Godin to cover that. Hence, it was a man-to-man marking deployed by the Argentine.

Mourinho’s defensive organization in a 4-3-3

A match which was remembered by Steven Gerrard’s slip, Mourinho’s defensive soldiers stood firm against the free-flowing Liverpool in 2014 that derailed their title challenge. Mourinho played a midfield three of Nemenja Matic, John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard.

What Mourinho does in terms of deploying his team defensively against big oppositions is that he pictures two main threats of the opponent and tries to nullify them because he believes that if you can nullify the main threats, the rest of the team goes down like a house of cards. In this case, this is exactly what happened. Nemenja Matic’s duty was solely based on neutralizing Liverpool’s captain’s influence. Apart from that, Suarez was reduced to just one big chance which was saved by Schwarzer as he was completely occupied by Gary Cahill and David Luiz. Talk about neutralizing the best attack in the world with your B team, incredible.

Attacking in a 4-3-3

The responsibility on full-backs, advanced midfielders, and the front three define how the team sets up attacking in a 4-3-3 against their opposition. We take a look at possibly the finest example in today’s game in Pep Guardiola.

Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City attacking tactics in a 4-3-3

In Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the movement ahead of Fernandinho was integral to Pep’s team scoring goals or having options in terms of passing. As we can see here, as soon as the ball comes to Fernandinho, he basically has three triangles behind and ahead of him to pass. More the options, more chances to score.

By pushing the wide forwards up and wide, it stretches the team, allows space for the midfielders to play or drive into, and creates gaps between the opposition’s defenders for the team to take advantage of.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter