While it’s the iconic 4-4-2 formation that remains the single most recognisable set-up for any football team, it can be argued that the 3-4-3 system has the longest and richest history.
Unlike the 4-4-2, of course, the 3-4-3 has experienced various peaks and troughs in popularity throughout its history, recently enjoying something of a revival thanks to the exploits of managers like Antonio Conte and Thomas Tuchel.
In this post, we’ll explore the history and origins of the 3-4-3 formation, while appraising the player roles in the system and its current iterations.
Where Does the 3-4-3 Originate From?
Interestingly, the broader notion of the 3-4-3 shape can be traced back to the formative part of the 20th century, when the famous ‘W-M’ system evolved from the rudimentary 2-3-5 formation utilised in the late 1800s.
The system featured a classic back three behind two half-backs or defensive midfielders. In front sat two inside forwards or attacking midfield players, with three forwards (two wingers and a striker) leading the line.
Presenting as a unique W-M shape, the formation effectively consisted of three defenders, four midfielders and three forwards, laying the foundations for the 3-4-3 that we know and love today.
The modern iteration of this system evolved towards the late eighties and early nineties, with Barcelona boss and tactical innovator Johan Cruyff reimagining the 3-4-3 as a more attacking iteration of the 3-5-2.
More specifically, Cruyff would typically set up his so-called “Dream Team” in a more conventional 4-3-3 formation, but would convert this into a narrow 3-4-3 when in possession as a central defender stepped out from the back to form the base of a midfield diamond.
Tottenham manager Antonio Conte is a prominent contemporary exponent of the 3-4-3, using a variation of this at Tottenham.
This tends to alternate between a classic 3-4-3 and more nuanced 3-4-2-1 when in possession, with the two wider forwards dropping deeper and narrower to create greater fluidity in attack.
What Are the Player Roles in a 3-4-3?
This system consists of three central defenders, with one or two usually tasked with marking the opposition’s centre forwards.
Ofen, however, this system leaves at least one centre back free, creating a spare man who can often step out from the back, carry the ball into midfield and potentially break the lines with long, diagonal passes.
The wider centre backs must also be positionally disciplined to defend the right and left channels, as opposing teams will often use attacking width to exploit the space behind the wingbacks.
In many ways, it’s the wing backs that play the most important role in a 3-4-3. After all, it’s these players who will create the attacking width and provide outballs when the team is in possession, while they must also drop deeper and defend the full back areas when the ball is lost (occasionally creating a back five during extended defensive phases).
Because of this, wing backs must boast excellent positional awareness and marked stamina, in order to strike the ideal balance between defence and attack and get up and down the pitch effectively during each 90-minute period.
More recently, we’ve seen managers opt to deploy instinctively attacking players as wing backs, with this particularly effective when looking to press a little higher, establish genuine width when in possession of the ball and sustain attacks.
The two midfielders in a 3-4-3 usually form a double pivot, with these players dovetailing to provide defensive cover and supplement attacks throughout the game.
Typically, you won’t have to play a specialist defensive midfielder in a 3-4-3, with one of three centre backs capable of stepping out and providing additional cover in-between the lines. Because of this, you’ll often see two box-to-box players operating in the system, or an energetic ball-winner paired with a deep-lying playmaker who can initiate attacks.
Regardless, one or both of these players will have the freedom to join the attack and run beyond the forward players, although one must always remain deeper in order to protect against transitions (especially if the wing backs like to press high).
The forward three will include a single central striker, who will lead the line and often create a focal point for attacks. While the central striker can operate as the most advanced player on the pitch, he may also drop a little deeper in order to link play and create space for the wider (or deeper) forwards and midfield runners to exploit.
As for the wider forwards, they will typically flank the striker and operate within the width of the 18-yard box. Usually, they’ll play like inverted wingers, driving inside to link with their striker and create shooting opportunities on their stronger foot (think of the clinical Son Heung-min and his link-up play with Harry Kane at Spurs).
When these forwards drop a little deeper and start to play within the lines, the 3-4-3 can transition into a slightly more fluid 3-4-2-1. This can enable the attacking side to retain possession and create overloads in central areas more easily, while establishing a more effective press as the opposition looks to play out from the back.
Certainly, this allows teams to press man-for-man when playing against a classic 4-2-3-1 formation, with the wing backs challenging their opposing full backs, the wider forwards pushing against the centre halves and the striker sitting on the defensive midfield player.
The Last Word
Elite managers like Antonio Conte, Thomas Tuchel and even Diego Simeone have embraced various iterations of the 3-4-3 of late, with Tuchel’s now-trademark 3-4-2-1 particularly fluid in terms of how the front three interchange and when in possession.
Tuchel’s version also utilises attacking wing backs to establish width and press the opposing full backs tenaciously, with this capable of creating a de facto 3-2-5 (or 3-2-4-1) when in possession of the ball.
The efforts of the German and Conte before him have definitely helped to revitalise the 3-4-3 formation, which had been used sparingly at elite level through the noughties and the early stages of the last decade.
This system has also become increasingly attack-oriented of late, thanks largely to the use of more attacking wing backs and sophisticated movement of the wide forwards.