Earlier in this series, we discussed the best defensive strategies when playing against a team in a 3-5-2 shape.
However, the 3-4-3 is arguably a more contemporary and popular iteration of the 3-5-2 formation, with this having been deployed by great managers like Rinus Michel’s, Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel over the years.
There are also different ways to defend against the 3-4-3, which is often relatively fluid and incorporates an additional attacking player. So, here are some tips to help you counter this shape and mount your own attacks.
Consider Using the 4-2-3-1 Formation
If you’re tactically flexible and setting up your side to counter a 3-4-3, I’d recommend deploying a 4-2-3-1 shape (or a 4-3-3 formation with wide forwards).
One of the main reasons for this is the pursuit of midfield dominance, as these shapes enable you to play with three central midfielders both in and out of possession and outnumber your opponents. In a 4-2-3-1, at least one of the wide forwards can also play narrow and create central overloads, making it much easier to dominate possession and counter press successfully.
Of course, your back four will need to remain compact and well-organised to cope with the three forwards, while you may also want to consider deploying an inverted full back in instances where one of the opposition forwards drops into half spaces behind the front line.
When in possession, you could also look to push at least one of your wide forwards higher and ask them to patrol the touchline. This will occupy the opposition’s wing back while potentially stretching the back three and create space for runners
Exploit Your Opponent’s Lack of Defensive Width in Transition
One of the biggest weaknesses associated with the 3-4-3 is the formation’s lack of defensive width, which is particularly easy to exploit during transitions and in instances where your opponents have committed their wing backs forward.
In this case, you could consider using a simple 4-4-2 system when out of possession, with two banks of four players remaining compact and marking different zones.
Then, when you recover possession, you can play direct balls or execute quick switches of play, getting your wide players into advanced positions and isolating the wide centre backs.
This will also stretch the back line and create space for central runners, including your side’s two forwards and any midfielders who may be breaking from deep.
Adopt a 3-5-2 Formation
Playing a 3-5-2 is also a tried and tested way of countering the 3-4-3, especially if you have talented individual players who are comfortable when going man-for-man in different areas of the pitch.
When Manchester United shocked champions-elect Chelsea in April 2017, Jose Mourinho followed this template exactly, by introducing Marouane Fellaini as an extra man in midfield. This enabled United to outnumber their opponents in the middle of the park and retain possession far easier, while freeing up Ander Herrera to man-mark Eden Hazard and nullify his attacking threat during defensive phases of the game.
At the same time, his quick and athletic wing backs looked to pin back and dominate their counterparts, while Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard pressed aggressively as a front two and stretched the Chelsea backline in the channels.
Of course, this tactical approach requires excellent organisation in addition to skilled and physically dominant players, while it relies heavily on the ability of individuals to win their respective duels.