Premier League
January 19, 2017

Why is the 3-4-3 so hard to play against?

Why Leicester's 4-4-2 is so last year


It’s always so poetic when a hero’s biggest strength is also their biggest weakness. Makes the tragedy even more moving – comical if you’re a cold bastard – if you can see it coming.

And football, like everything else in life, throws up its moments of poetry, along with regular doses of irony, comedy and tragedy, sometimes all mixed into one. There’s poetry to be found in the last twelve months of the Premier League’s tactical talking points; from Ranieri’s revolution riding on a rickety 4-4-2 and Guardiola, a man famed for evolving more than the average Pokemon trying out the 3-4-3 and losing to Chelsea, to Tottenham actually slaying Antonio Conte at his own game, at the start of 2017. If the way to beat a 3-4-3 is to play a 3-4-3, whose strengths and weaknesses are you actually playing to, exactly? That’s, potentially, where the poetry lies.

There’s no doubt that 2016 in the Premier League was a weird one, that like many other things that year, was killed off spectacularly. Just as a billionaire won the White House, the year of the underdog ended with the expected Prem top six in the top six places: Leicester City being Premier League leaders sure seems like a fairy story now. N’Golo Kanté’s top of the tree in different tint of blue now, and the Foxes’ 4-4-2 has gone from formidable to forgettable, as the country raves about Conte’s 3-4-3.

The record speaks for itself. With one defeat since the tactical tweak and only a handful of goals leaked, Chelsea’s renaissance is being linked solely to the on-field set-up. In perhaps the Blues’s biggest test of the season that far at the Etihad earlier this season, Pep organised his City players in a similar manner. City dominated the ball. Kevin De Bruyne came close to getting the winner. But a few counter attacks and two Citizens sent off later, and Chelsea were deemed unbeatable.

The success of Chelsea’s 3-4-3, just like Leicester’s 4-4-2, could be put down to organisational drilling from an Italian manager. But as City might have come close to beating Chelsea had they have been more clinical, Mauricio Pochettino fielded a 3-4-3 against Chelsea and actually triumphed. Is it all about shape or style?

The first thing to note about the 3-4-3 is something that worked in Leicester’s favour when they employed the 4-4-2 and won the title. Both formations offer extra numbers in midfield to play out with, primarily in the centre of midfield: Tottenham for example deploy Rose and Walker on either wing in their 3-4-3, meaning that they can either play with a back five or a midfield six, with the two full backs either side of Eriksen, Alli, Wanyama and Dembélé.

The 3-4-3 is obviously a 5-4-1 for the first phase of play and more of a 3-6-1 when the team are in possession and dictating; it’s a more obvious ‘1’ too, should you have a natural striker, someone like a Kane, Costa or even Agüero. A 3-4-3 can outnumber the opposition in the first phase to pass out from the back, and are compact enough in the centre of the pitch that passing options are simplified against a press. The work-rate of the wing-backs is important too though, as they offer passing options to keep the centre of midfield compact, as well as width beyond the midfield.

Two against one on either flank is an advantage in any system – see classic Brazilian line-ups – but where teams playing the 3-4-3 this season have really thrived in possession is the unpredictability of their wing-backs’ runs. Victor Moses, a natural winger, has got back  just enough for Chelsea when his team need to defend, but cuts into the midfield to create options when on the ball. Leroy Sané has operated a similar role for City, and observe below the positions Danny Rose drifts into from his left wing back slot to recycle possession around the area.

With a shapeshifting midfield of four to six men, Spurs are able to disguise the focal point of their attack; rather than having an obvious number 10 in Alli or Eriksen, both offer fluidity behind Kane. A case in point of this is not just how Alli stole into the area twice against Chelsea to head home, but how Eriksen was able to find pockets of space twice between the defence and midfield. When a 3-4-3 has been deployed correctly this season by the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham, goals have been scored by pulling the opposition into no man’s land, before exploiting the spaces left behind. Look at the number of early goals scored by Chelsea on their winning run, and remember the number of times a defence was split by a Chelsea long ball (see goals against both Manchester clubs, for a start). Chelsea’s forwards have reveled in chaos this season and capitalised on teams stepping out of defensive shape.

In theory, there should be less space left around your own defence in a 3-4-3, too. Should you lose the ball high up the field in a 4-2-3-1, the central midfield pivot, plus the two centre backs, are left in the middle of the pitch with space between and either side of them, with the full-backs having to retreat, and space for the opposition to exploit in a counter. In a 3-4-3, each centre back takes the right, left and central sides of the pitch respectively. It works out as one less or one more man, depending on how you look at it, but sides playing a 4-3-3 with a regista defend similarly on the break. Take Arsenal’s Invincibles in 2004, though: they played a bog-standard 4-4-2, but when in possession, Gilberto Silva sat ahead of Campbell and Touré, while Patrick Vieira joined in on attacks, meaning that they could snuff out counters in a similar manner.

In principle, the key to a well-oiled 3-4-3 is actually fairly similar to that of Ranieri’s famous two up front last season: never leave a player isolated. Leicester’s 4-4-2 was more of a 4-5-1 without the ball, with Okazaki dropping deep into the midfield to pick up possession and Mahrez drifting centrally when on the ball. A similar philosophy applies with Hazard and Pedro: they never leave too far a distance from each other or Costa. When Costa was absent against Leicester, also experimenting with a back three (in a case of not-quite poetic irony), Hazard in his trequartista role combined even more than usual for tighter passing triangles. In what appeared to be a Tory’s wet dream, the West Londoners eventually ripped the Foxes apart.

Compare this movement to Arsenal or United, both employers of a conventional 4-2-3-1 at some point this season, both guilty for leaving Giroud and Ibrahimović respectively as an obvious but lonely frontman up top for swathes of games, both unable to capitalise from movement in a midfield. The 3-4-3 isn’t a well-kept secret on how to magically unlock games with exactly the same footballers at your disposal, but provided you have the personnel, disciplined in their individual roles, it’s a system that maximises dynamism.

However, just as the system makes the most of space in your opposition, it can open unwanted space in your own side. Just as Chelsea failed to keep track of Alli and Eriksen combining at White Hart Lane, twice, they capitalised on Man City’s, Everton’s and Leicester’s wing-backs neglecting to track back when all three matched Conte’s formation. Chelsea themselves have almost been caught out a few times by marauding Moses leaving the door open for play to be stretched. Even Tottenham, the latest side to look unbeatable with a 3-4-3, should’ve been made to pay by Arsenal’s mazey movement-based game in November, but for a then-uncharisteristic, sluggish Gunners performance, and a Harry Kane penalty.

Chelsea and Tottenham haven’t just employed a new shape to miraculously cure defensive frailties and bamboozle teams in attack. Like any successful system, the 3-4-3 takes a lot of drilling to get right, from the way Conte’s team utilise an extra man in a passing move, to the way Spurs can shift the ball from one flank to the other via the central midfield pivot. Football is a game based not on where you stand in relation to your team mates, but where you move. How you react as a unit. Some see football as an art reliant on movement. Like dance. That’s where the poetry of the sport lies, and the 3-4-3 just happens to be evoking it in the Premier League right now.

About this author

Mark White

Journalist, Photoshop artist, Arsenal fan

Premier League