Not since the Black Death some 700 years ago has anything spread across Europe as quickly as possession-based football. As the technical abilities of footballers improved exponentially, and revolutionaries Cruyff, Bielsa and Guardiola inspired with their success, more and more teams have since jumped on the bandwagon. And the 4-3-3 ? It is the go-to system for facilitating this philosophy.
The triangle is the second most powerful combination on the pitch (behind the diamond). In a triangle, the player with the ball has more than one option to pass to, forcing defenders to make a choice on which one of those options to shut down, which then creates gaps to be exploited. Although for these triangles to work, there must be movement, or defenders can easily man-mark each option.
The 4-3-3 possesses triangles all across the pitch, meaning the player on the ball almost always has two options, thus reducing the chances of losing the ball and making it easier to build up play on the floor. One of the deadliest examples of a triangle in the 4-3-3 is between the outside midfielder, full-back and winger. When the full-back has the ball, he can either go inside to the midfielder for a one-two or down the line to the winger. Pace is necessary though, so the full-back can evade his marker to either be an option for a one-two for a midfielder, or overlap the winger to get down the line into the space created. At Manchester City, these routines have become almost subconscious, with Walker (full-back), David Silva (outside midfielder) and Mahrez or Bernado Silva (winger). The combination is so seamless because Silva and Mahrez naturally drift inside, leaving space for Walker to overlap with his pace down the flank.
The triangle controlling play, however, is the one in central midfield. Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta. Untouchable. Games are won and lost in the midfield, so it’s no surprise Barcelona won the treble in 2009 with these three. They had the perfect balance. The deeper, central midfielder Busquets would provide the first link between defence and attack, while also thwarting opposition attacks in between the lines. Xavi was the shuttler, constantly receiving the ball up and down the pitch and passing forward. Iniesta was different, usually the furthest forward, and able to thread passes through the eye of a needle. Yet when options to pass forward were limited, these three could create a dizzying passing triangle. The benefit of the 4-3-3 is that it outnumbers a two man central-midfield, making it easier to keep the ball. Teams would switch to a three to combat this, but Barcelona were one step ahead. A certain Lionel Messi would drop deeper to outnumber the opposition once again.
4-3-3 is also ideal for a pressing game. When the ball is lost, three players are almost always positioned high up up the pitch, meaning there is less distance to cover to retrieve the ball, thus resulting in less time for the opposition to get comfortable in possession. Liverpool use a 4-3-3, with Mané, Salah and Firmino as the forward pressing trio. Although winning the ball high up the pitch creates goalscoring opportunities, it is also a defensive strategy, preventing the opposition from building up potentially dangerous attacks.
In your typical 4-3-3, possession-based pressing game, a very high block will be deployed. A high block is where the whole team pushes up the pitch to squeeze the opposition in their own half during the press, but also to maintain possession further up the pitch. Man City deploy a very high block, their defenders taking position near the halfway line. But when the other team win the ball back, and the press isn’t quick enough, the space behind the defence can be exploited with a long-ball towards the pacy attackers. However Manchester City have quick defenders at their disposal, and a sweeper keeper in Ederson who can rush out and claim the long-balls.
“No system is sacred,” are the wise words of Ruud Gullit in his book, How To Watch Football. And he’s right, nor is the 4-3-3, it just helps to accommodate a more aesthetically-pleasing style of football than, say, the 4-4-2. For clubs like Ajax and Barcelona, however, the rules seem to be different. The 4-3-3 is inscribed into the clubs’ DNA. A dogma that often pays off- Ajax’s fairytale run to the Champions League semi-final, Barcelona’s 2009 treble- but can also work against them. Specific types of players are needed for specific systems, and without these players tactical flexibility is needed, something which may have been missing at times from these two giants.