Tactics explained: modern football’s glamorous 4-3-3

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.

4-3-3 template

The 4-3-3 set up (right). Often in a 4-3-3, the striker drops deep to link up-play, in what is known as a false 9 role.

4-3-3- triangles

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.

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Midfield dominance

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 (squares) outnumber two man-central midfield.

Defensive attributes

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.

High block

Post script

“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.


Tactics explained : the simple 4-4-2

The 4-4-2

The 4-4-2 will forever be associated with English football for many reasons. Primarily, for it’s simplicity being so synonymous with the English mindset on football tactics. British managers have, over time, built a reputation for turning their nose up at acute tactics and marginal gains, holding the belief that ‘fight’ and ‘spirit’ will pull through. The early 90’s saw Fabio Capello building this “win at all costs” identity at A.C Milan; Van Gaal and Ajax popularising a Cruyffian, space-orientated style of football while a decade and a half later Guardiola and Barcelona would make their stamp on Spanish football with the 2009 tiki-taka, possession-based treble. English football, though, was in the dark when it came to having a real tactical footprint.

No team from England would win the Champions League for 15 years (1984-1999). We were outthought, outwitted and outran on the big stage. Even Ferguson’s early title-winning sides did not really triumph as a result of a particular footballing philosophy or clever system; but primarily through possessing the best squad. But what part does the 4-4-2 play in all of this ? Well although like every formation it possesses it’s variations, the 4-4-2 facilitates a very simple, limited build up. Let’s not get it twisted- no formation in football is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s about choosing a system that best fits your group of players, best unlocks a certain player’s individual qualities and best minimises space for the opposition.

The 4-4-2 set up (right).

With two out-and-out centre-forwards, the 4-4-2 can bully a centre-back pairing. As a defender you do not want to be left one-on-one, but this situation becomes common when the 4-4-2 meets a back four. The ideal striker pairing is the target man- preferably tall and strong to flick on long balls or hold the ball up- and the speedster to run in behind to meet the flicks of the target man. If one centre-back marks the target man, he is leaving the other centre-back one-on-one with the speedster- a situation that is best avoided. Yes, one of the opposition’s full backs could tuck inside to help but that would leave the wide midfielders unmarked which could be particularly problematic if they decide to push on. The ideal way to combat this would be to switch to a back five, but it’s all about which players you actually have at your disposal.

A classic example of the 4-4-2 striker pairing was Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, dubbed the SAS, who fired Blackburn Rovers to glory in 1995. While both of them can be considered traditional number 9’s the partnership still managed to flourish, with both of them displaying an incredible eye for goal. Sutton would primarily take the role of the target man though the roles could be reversed, Shearer netting 31 goals that season and his counterpart 15. Yet despite forging such a formidable duo on the pitch, the pair were not best of friends off it. Both wanted to be top dog, manifesting an almost palpable tension between the two.

At AC Milan under Arrigo Sacchi, the general plan was not to flick the long balls on, but to hold the ball up and knock it back to one of the midfielders who would pick out one of the quick wide-midfielders making a run forward.

4-4-2 chance creation and build up play

Once again, Blackburn Rovers’ 1994/95 title-winning season is the most appropriate case study for the majority of build-up play and chance creation in the 4-4-2. The long ball was, of course, a staple in the arsenal of all English clubs at the time, but there was also a huge emphasis on crosses into the box: a tactic embodied to an almost comical extent by Kenny Dalglish’s Blackburn. They absolutely abused it. Every training session revolved around working crossing positions into what Ray Harford, Dalglish’s revered assistant, labelled the ‘magic zone’. This so-called magic zone was essentially the penalty box stretched to the full width of the pitch, and the idea was that it created better quality chances for Shearer and Sutton to wreak havoc.

Training would often consist of setting up in the 4-4-2 shape and simply practising recycling the ball to the wings to cross in. One day, however, Dalglish decided to devise a ‘Plan B’. He pulled star-winger Stuart Ripley aside in training and told him that soon the widemen would be found out and ushered deeper and centrally, so he asked Ripley “where do you want the strikers to position themselves for the cross in this case”. Ripley stared back at him blankly, then responded “Are you taking the p***.”


Dalglish’s Blackburn knew only one way to play, and these rigid tactics were exposed not only in Europe against the more savvy, technical sides- but the following season as even the dim English clubs wised up to the predictability of their build-up play. Don’t get me wrong, Blackburn were an extreme example of one-dimensionality in 4-4-2 but the system in general relies heavily on two main outlets : the long ball and crosses. In a system like the 4-3-3 however, you have passing triangles all across the pitch.

The 4-3-3 midfield (diamonds) overruns the 4-4-2 midfield as is represented inside the blue square, making it easier to either keep possession or steam through. Games can be won and lost in the midfield.

In the modern era of possession-based, high-pressing football there is no place anymore for the traditional 4-4-2 since teams can simply retain the ball for as long as they like to stop the long balls coming forward. And, more crucially, the very philosophy of the system revolves around physicality- a trait which, over the past decade or two, has been proved inferior to technical ability.