3-4-3 A simple discussion of a quite simple formation Introduction In the continuous race for education in the United States amongst youth soccer coaches, it is impossible not to come across the teachings of the Dutch. One of their vast contributions to the game of soccer is their ability to teach the game in an efficient and interrelated manner. Each training concept introduced to young players relates to how that player will eventually play in adult amateur or professional standards. It is a truly brilliant system of development. But many of their training concepts can be taken independently. For example, the Dutch 4v4 training games have assets that can be applied to literally any style of play. In the 70's, the Dutch brought 'Total Football' to the world, and along with this introduction came the evolution of more flexible systems of play. While formations can scarcely be attributed to or invented by a country, it was during this time that Holland began to explore systems like the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3. Of particular interest for most youth coaches will be that the 3-4-3 is utilized throughout most of the country and in 'disciple' academies such as Barcelona of Spain, for developing young players, particularly those confronting full-sided soccer for the first time. The 3-4-3 itself is of course not limited to youth, and can be seen in various incarnations at higher levels. Domestically, the 3-4-3 has been the choice of Anson Dorrance (UNC and former national team coach), and in June, the old Dutchman Guus Hiddink unleashed the 3-4-3 on the world through his Korean Republic squad. In either event, its advantages are clear. Simply, the 3-4-3 is simple. Roles within the formation are crystal clear. And with a simple system and clear role clarification, players are more free to play to their advantages. Decidedly since players of younger ages are developing tactical sophistication, the 3-4-3 will allow them to continue to concentrate on their technical improvement and principles of attack and defense while not becoming overwhelmed by the complexities of full sided play. It could be argued that Dorrance and Hiddink also introduced the system to tactically naive players (relatively speaking, of course, women in the early days of competitive women's soccer and a developing soccer country, in the case of Korea), therefore capitalizing on the physical attributes of their players. Figure 1: with 4 mfs in flat/line Figure 2: with 4 mfs in a diamond Angles Figures 1 and 2 above show two popular versions of the 3-4-3. Just laying out three lines of players, one of three players, the second of four players, and the third of three players, an inherent balance is noticed. Consider as contrast other popular set-ups such as the 4-42 or the 3-5-2. There are equal players in forward and back lines, and an even number of midfield line players. But also notice that each player is arranged at an angle to one another. Developmentally this is quite important because as players develop tactically, coaches encourage players to settle into appropriate supporting angles, with square play largely discouraged. In the orthodox 4-4-2, players begin square in most cases, thus the angles have to be formed in the run of play. In this 3-4-3, the angles are already there naturally. One less thing that the players will have to think about. Further, having success with the angles of support will encourage players to search for these angles given systems that are inherently square. It has become standard for US coaches to describe Dutch formations using "diamond" terms. The natural shape that arranges from four players stretched for width and depth is essentially a diamond, and Dutch training philosophy utilizes the concepts of width and depth through the four player example in its eleven player example. Thus it has become popular to describe the 3-4-3 as a "triple-diamond." Three diamonds can be seen in both of the system's major incarnations above. The more complex format (figure 2) utilizes more angled play. Figure 3 Starting from the back. Three players in back can be arranged as either an entirely zonal organization or a sweeper behind two stoppers. The center back will prefer to be free for several reasons. That the player is alone in the center of defense is the most obvious. In a back four, one of the center backs can normally be depended upon for cover during central attacks. With only three in back, there is less chance of that. Still, modern day back three's utilize a mostly zonal approach in back, even when using a sweeper, and for teams struggling with sophisticated zonal organization, particularly young players being introduced to zonal play for the first time, playing with three players in back is far less complex than with four. The complexities arise mostly in the ability of the two center backs to cooperate. Figure 4 below illustrates a single central attacker, and the decision that must be made as to which player will pressure the ball. Given a single center back in Figure 5, there is less confusion in the center of the line. Figure 4 Figure 5 Since many teams still feature only two forwards, and some choosing one true center forward in an advanced position, having three players in back seems to make sense. But given that no team attacks with only its forwards, it still is necessary for the back three to adjust for the entire width of the field. Considering the attacking sophistication of the modern game, a majority of teams still use four in the back. Confronting modern creativity in this manner, Germany has switched throughout its qualifying and World Cup 2002 campaign from a back three to a back four. Known for a rigid back three with a sweeper formation, that the Germans were forced to play in a fairly traditional back four when forced to play creative attacking teams such as the Korean Republic or Brazil is striking. It is obviously more difficult for a team to cover the entire width of the field with three than with four. With younger players, this can be a problem. Figure 6 Teams that utilize a back three consistently must have a "defensive screen" in place to cover for space that may open up. The defensive screen is essentially one or two players from the midfield that is given a more defensive role in front of the back line of defense. This player also gives the back three more range to play flat and zonal as opposed to requiring a free central player. Figure 6 shows the back three in red stretched to the left touchline, and a center back wishing to remain central. The defensive midfielder in blue is in position to cover in the gap if needed. Midfield As with any line of four players, most organize their four player midfield in either a diamond or flat arrangement. Figure 7 Diamond In a diamond arrangement, players normally stay tight to clog the center of midfield and to keep support and interchanging options open. The back player of this midfield diamond acts as the defensive screen in front of the back three. This player will be an essential player in defense, often accouting for creative attackers behind the forwards of the opposition, or falling into the gaps that can be left when the three in back are forced to stretch (Figure 6 from earlier). A more dynamic team can push backs into attack if a midfielder can ensure the defense is not left short-handed, and this role can also be fulfilled by the defensive midfielder. Figure 8 Figure 9 In attack the player serves as an important 'holding' player, supporting the build-up centrally (Figure 8), or acting as a good point for changes of play in more advanced situations (Figure 9). Figure 10 The top of the midfield diamond is the bottom of an attacking diamond as well, and thus this player looms large as a creative attacking player behind the forwards. Figure 11 illustrates the attacking diamond and the angular relationship between the four players. With a strong defensive midfielder, the other three midfielders have more freedom to get forward. In the 4-4-2 tight midfield diamond, wide play often comes from the outside backs. Since there are only three backs in a 3-4-3, wide attacks are often generated by wing forwards, thus the left and right attacking midfielders of the diamond act more as central attacking players. Outside midfielders may get forward around a wing forward when that player has stalled, as in Figure 10. Figure 11 Figure 12 Flat / Line In a flat midfield (Figure 12), width is more of a responsibility. Given that the four occupy so much space when laid out side-by-side, and the need for angular support, wide attacks are more likely to be generated by wide midfielders. With more attacking minded wide midfielders, however, comes a greater need for the outside backs to pressure the ball in wide areas. As stated earlier, whenever backs push wide in a three player line, gaps will arise. In a diamond midfield, the defensive midfielder is normally responsible for covering these holes. Defensive Screen With a flat midfield, and two central midfielders, there are a number of ways in which a team can provide an adequate screen in front of the back three. First there could be specialization in midfield that will ensure one of the two players is of a defensive mindset. In a flat midfield, with a defensive midfielder within a flat line, both center midfielders must be capable of filling the role, but more often than not, it will be the defensive minded one. Some midfields will feature two central midfielders capable of all roles, and that would be the case in a truly flat midfield. In the case where outside midfielders are more often seen to attack, and the back three is constantly left without cover, a team may choose to utilize two defensive midfielders. This set up also creates a lack of attacking center midfielders, and requires more work of the forwards to cover centrally. Figure 13 Forwards Center forward Most three player forward lines include one center forward. This player's role is to stretch the opponent and be a target for attacking play. Several teams have returned to the idea of playing with a single center forward, one of them being Brazil in 2002, where Ronaldo ran the show in attack for the World Champions. Wing forwards Modern wingers are tough to come by today, but the skills of wingers of the past are omni-present. Aspects of the wing itself are obvious. Most defenses concentrate in the middle, thus there is more space on the wing for attacking play. Creative 1v1 minded players serve the wing roles, with many attacking patterns in Dutch play involving play from the back or midfield diagnolly to a winger pulling out wide to take advantage of 'weak side' space, and possibly isolate defenders in that space for 1v1. Figure 14 Figure 15 Figure 14 illustrates 'X' possession by the right back (red), drawing defensive pressure to that side of the field, and the left wing (blue) pulling wide for the diagonal ball. Through quickly switching the play diagonally, the attack hopes to catch the defense in a numbers up situation. In this instance the forward attacks the right back (Figure 15), the center forward comes in for support, and the rest of the attack adjusts. The center back has a good opportunity for 1v1, and depending on the area of the field, or the talent of the back, the winger can create a shot on goal or a cross, as well as combine with the center forward, or even hold the ball up and wait for an overlap from a midfielder or back. Withdrawn forwards Figure 16 Rather than play forwards as wingers, some teams choose to play with withdrawn forwards, and since there are only three forwards, the number of withdrawn forwards will be one or two. The difference between a withdrawn forward and attacking midfielder or play maker normally determines how much the player contributes to the midfield in defense, but otherwise it is just a technical difference. Center forwards push high and withdrawn forwards use the space left to be creative. In Figure 16, the midfield four are using its two central players as a defensive screen. Withdrawn forwards can work in the space in front of the defensive screen if need be, and with two withdrawn forwards, it can be a choice of one or the other. Note that the wide play in this formation would likely come from outside midfielders. Discussion The 3-4-3 can be an exceedingly simple system for young players adjusting to 11v11 for the first time. As players get older, less straight-forward 3-4-3's are seen, and perhaps this is partially down to the back three, since most teams would rather utilize a back four. In the Dutch school, 3-4-3 can become a 4-3-3 for adult players. Many teams also prefer to use wing play generated from either the midfield or back sectors or their squads, as in a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2. Attacking from further back can beless predictable, and often requires more adjustment from the opposition. When developing a 3-4-3 for younger players, keep things simple. The core idea is that the system is functional on its own, and players can concentrate on improving technically and having success with angled support and the most basic tactical concepts. With older players, adjustments can be made within lines that are not discussed here, such as playing with a wing forward on one side, and providing wing support from a midfield player on the other. As with any formation, the 3-4-3 itself does not make the system of play. That is for you, the coach, to decide.