3-4-3A simple discussion of a quite simple formation

A simple discussion of a quite simple formation
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
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.
As with any line of four players, most organize their four player midfield in either a
diamond or flat arrangement.
Figure 7
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
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.
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.