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Mastering the 4-3-3 Formation: Unveiling Modern Football Tactics

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Dive into Football Manager with our expert guide to mastering the 4-3-3 formation. Unlock strategies and tips for game dominance.
Mastering the 4-3-3 Formation: Unveiling Modern Football Tactics

A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Implementing the Dominant 4-3-3 System in Today's Possession-Based Football Era.


If 4-2-3-1 was the first blow to the reign of 4-4-2 as the de facto shape in tactics, 4-3-3 was the final nail in the coffin. Starting in the late 2000s, the three-man midfield became a force as football turned into more possession-based styles, culminating in the establishment of Pep Guardiola as the best tactician in the world. Even now, while more dynamic and fluid shapes are starting to take over, it remains the basis of every tiki-taka side. In this guide, we’ll be looking at what makes a 4-3-3 work and how we can make the best of the possibilities it offers.

The Basic Shape


Unlike a 4-2-3-1, where the inner workings are very similar to that of a 4-4-2, the 4-3-3 works in a very different way. The three-man midfield is the heart of the system, allowing for a variety of uses and configurations to work while also linking the defence with the attack seamlessly.

Basic 4-3-3 Tactic Shape in Football Manager

This is because a 4-3-3 has, at all times, a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch. This, in turn, means a two-man midfield will have to draw support from either the flanks or the defence to cover the remaining player, creating instead space and superiority in other areas. This is why the 4-3-3 is used most often by teams who look to control the ball, as they can exploit this advantage to create chances more easily.

The system also offers versatility and adaptability. It can be adjusted to suit different tactical requirements. The wingers can push higher to stretch the opposition or be instructed to cut inside to create overloads centrally. Similarly, the central striker can lead the line to create risk or can also drop back to operate as a false nine, creating space in front of the defence. This flexibility allows teams to adjust their tactics based on their own strengths and the weaknesses of their opponents.

However, the fact that it’s often regarded as a superior shape (in the modern game) to 4-4-2 does not mean that it hasn’t got its weakness. For starters, like the 4-2-3-1, the presence of a third midfielder (often a DM) means some compactness is lost. Moreover, with a single striker and no supporting Attacking Midfielder, a higher degree of intensity is required to make the press work.

Teams can also, at times, rely too much on the fullbacks to provide width in the attack, leaving themselves exposed in the wide areas defensively. In attack, the lack of players in the final third can mean that they encounter difficulties when facing deep-lying defences that prioritise compactness and defensive stability.

READ ALSO: 4-3-3 Tactics for Football Manager 2023
 

The Back Four


When comparing the 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 from a defensive perspective, there are some similarities in terms of the roles and responsibilities of certain players. Similar tactical and attribute skill sets are required, and the same tools can be used to achieve balance.

In both formations, the Defensive Midfielder plays a crucial role in providing additional cover for the centre-backs. This player acts as a shield in front of the defence, helping to intercept passes, make tackles, and disrupt the opposition's attacking play. Depending on the specific tactics employed by the team, the Defensive Midfielder may also be involved in initiating the team's build-up play, distributing the ball to more advanced players.

Since, more often than not, teams playing a 4-3-3 will look to build from behind, useful attributes for the centrebacks are Dribbling, First Touch, Heading, Marking, Passing, Tackling, Technique, Anticipation, Composure, Concentration, Decisions, Positioning, Teamwork, Vision, Agility, Balance, Jumping Reach and Strength.

In the case of the Fullbacks, their duties will differ based on the overall midfield setup, as they are required to work in tandem with the wingers. If you decide to play with Inverted Wide Midfielders, the Fullbacks will see their roles extend beyond defensive duties, as they are also responsible for providing width and overlapping runs in the attacking phase. This allows the team to stretch the opponent's defence and create more space in the wide areas for the wingers to exploit. However, if the team does not employ Inverted Wide Midfielders, the Fullbacks primarily focus on defensive duties, providing cover and preventing opposition attacks down the flanks.

One advantage of the 4-3-3 formation, with its single Defensive Midfielder, is the flexibility it offers in terms of utilising Inverted Wing-Backs. These players will cut inside from their wide defensive positions and move into the central midfield areas. By doing so, they provide additional passing options in the middle of the field, enhancing the team's ability to retain possession and build attacks from deep positions. This tactical variation can surprise opponents and create numerical superiority in midfield, facilitating more fluid and dynamic play.

Regardless, they will require Crossing, Dribbling, Marking, Passing, Anticipation, Composure, Decisions, Flair, Off the Ball, Positioning, Teamwork, Vision, Work Rate, Acceleration, Agility, Pace and Stamina.
 

The Midfield


As we mentioned, the midfield trio is the beating heart of the 4-3-3. The roles and qualities of the players that are part of it will dictate not only how it works, but have a big influence on how the rest of the team functions. While not always, in general, the configuration sees one player at the basis of the triangle, generally a DM but not always, with two others right in front of him. Like with the 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, it’s all about finding balance, with all three players being able to fulfil different roles and a wide range of specialisation in their tasks.

Broadly speaking, the trios can be divided into those with the Playmaker at the base and those with the Ball-Winner in that position.

 

Playmaker-led Midfield


A Playmaker-led Midfield will have a creator in the DM or central CM spot, anchoring the midfield and putting an emphasis on the control of possession and movement of the ball. The idea behind this system is to have a creator in space so he can pull the strings from behind, picking and choosing the right pass to unleash his teammates.

This player will require runners all around him, looking to unnerve the defence and constantly finding new open positions to receive and progress the ball. The Playmaker has to be a creative and skilled player who can pinpoint passes from deep positions and also carry the ball forwards. Good roles for this position are the Deep Lying Playmaker in Support, the Regista and the Roaming Playmaker and require attributes like Dribbling, First Touch, Passing, Technique, Anticipation, Composure, Concentration, Decisions, Determination, Flair, Off the Ball, Positioning, Teamwork, Vision, Work Rate, Agility and Balance.

Midfield three in 4-3-3 tactic Football Manager

In front of the Playmaker, the duo of central midfielders are expected to fulfil a number of tasks. With reduced playmaking roles, they’re better used in supporting runs and ball winning duties, while also joining the attack from deep and helping provide shadow cover on pressing duties. Ideal roles are Central Midfielder on Attack and Support duties, Box-to-Box Midfielder, Mezzala and Ball Winning Midfielder on Support. Key attributes are Dribbling, First Touch, Marking, Passing, Technique, Anticipation, Composure, Decisions, Determination, Off the Ball, Positioning, Teamwork, Work Rate, Acceleration, Agility, Balance, and Stamina.

The central weakness of this midfield construction is being exposed on the counter. While a more “mixed” style can be achieved by using a more defensively skilled player at the Playmaker role, there will never be the strength of a dedicated ball winner.

By not having a dedicated ball-winner in the midfield, the team may struggle to regain possession quickly when opponents launch swift counterattacks. The absence of a player with dedicated defensive abilities and the key responsibility of winning back the ball can make it challenging to disrupt the flow of the opposition's attacks. This exposes the team to potential defensive vulnerabilities and increases the likelihood of conceding goals when opponents exploit the spaces left open during transitions.

However, despite its weaknesses on the defensive end, this midfield construction offers significant advantages for teams that prioritise maintaining control of the game. By utilising midfielders with strong passing abilities and excellent movement awareness, the team can assert dominance in terms of possession and dictate the rhythm of play. This means this system is best suited for teams that have superior technical skills, who are expected to control the game more often than not, and can afford being open to a counter.

 

Ball-Winner-led Midfield


In this type of midfield, the DM or central CM is a ball-winning role, mainly tasked with providing defensive cover and regaining the ball, as well as keeping the defensive structure of the team. While ball recycling and distribution can be among its work description, this player will not be the main playmaker for his side and instead work as a linking bridge between the defenders and the midfielders during the build-up.

This player is hugely important for a team utilising this set up, as they both enable and require that the rest of the attack provide chance creation, remaining mostly as a first line of defence in counter-attacking situations and, by and large, not joining the attack. The best roles for this style of players are the Defensive Midfielder in Support or Defence duties, Deep Lying Playmaker in Defence, Ball Winning Midfielder in Defence, Anchor Man and Half Back. Key attributes include First Touch, Heading, Marking, Passing, Tackling, Anticipation, Concentration, Decisions,, Positioning, Teamwork, Work Rate, Acceleration, Balance, Stamina and Strength.

Midfield version number 2 in a 433 tactic

By having a dedicated ball winner, this means that the rest of the midfield trio must also carry out the playmaking role, no longer limited to runs and movement and aiding the creation of plays, but intervening directly and actively creating. This kind of setups is where the modern managers have employed the “Free 8”, such as Kevin de Bruyne or Martin Odegaard. These players can maraud in midfield, passing and moving and sharing some goalscoring responsibility, as they will be required to see much more of the ball than their counterparts in a Playmaker-led Midfield. Key roles to achieve this function are Central Midfielder on Attack and Support duties, Box-to-Box Midfielder, Mezzala, Advanced Playmaker and Roaming Playmaker, with attributes like Dribbling, Finishing, First Touch, Passing, Technique, Anticipation, Composure, Decisions, Determination, Flair, Off the Ball, Vision, Work Rate, Agility and Balance.

Ideally, only one of the two central midfielders is loaded with the playmaking responsibility, with the other being given a much more conservative role, to provide a link and function as the glue that keeps things together. While this midfield set up provides a much more resistant and mixed used style of football, it requires highly skilled players across areas as the team can lack punch if the two mixed midfielders can’t add the required creativity and dynamism.
 

The Attack


The attack in a 4-3-3 formation follows a similar pattern to that of a 4-2-3-1 system, in terms of how scoring opportunities are created and scored. In either formation, the attacking trio typically consists of two players who operate on the flanks, while a central striker occupies the central channel. In that way, scoring can either come from the flanks or centrally, with either party then acting as the supporting cast.

For attacks who are focused on a Line-Leading Striker, the flank players will then become Suppliers Out Wide and work in the creation of opportunities. The main difference with a 4-2-3-1 in this case is how those suppliers work in conjunction not only with the Fullbacks, but also the two central midfielders, ensuring that no unrequested overlaps occur if the midfielders are expected to arrive late in the box.

As a general rule, you’ll want to avoid players on support duty at the same end as a midfielder on attack duty, so they don’t occupy the same areas when that’s not the plan. In any case, roles for a Supplier Out Wide and the Line-Leading Striker are the same as it was described in the 4-2-3-1 guide and will work much in the same way.

Much in the same way, for teams employing Scorers Out Wide will require a Dropping Striker to link with the midfield and provide a bridge with the rest of the team. This setup works particularly well with the Playmaker-led Midfield, and the striker can find gaps of space where the central playmaker can find them for a flick or a reception with the back to goal. This will end up creating a shape similar to a 4-1-2-1-2 where a number of triangles appear on the pitch, which is very useful for teams looking to control and move the ball. This of course leaves width almost entirely on the hands of Wing-backs.

There is generally less worry of overlap with the central midfielders in this case, as Scorers Out Wide will generally stay higher up and occupy more attacking positions, and the Dropping Striker will remain central. Once again, you can revisit the 4-2-3-1 guide for further tips on key roles and attributes, since they work much the same way.
 

Conclusion


The presence of the Defensive Midfielder in the 4-3-3 creates a number of options for any team. It’s a versatile formation that comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Its offensive nature and ability to create numerical superiority in key areas of the pitch to control the ball, but it can also allow for gaps in defence and some defensive compactness is lost. However, as the game has evolved with more and more sides putting an emphasis on seizing possession and setting the tempo of the game, it trumped 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1, and the reigning setup in football, and any manager should be open to trying it out if it suits the qualities of their team.

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FM Blog | FM24: Mastering the 4-3-3 Formation: Unveiling Modern Football Tactics
Mastering the 4-3-3 Formation: Unveiling Modern Football Tactics
Dive into Football Manager with our expert guide to mastering the 4-3-3 formation. Unlock strategies and tips for game dominance.
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