Football in the UK has undergone a marked transformation through the Premier League era, and not only in terms of the number of foreign players and the influx of huge cash sums.
The game is also different tactically too, with pretty much all of the sides that lined up on the opening weekend of the inaugural EPL season in 1992 adopting a simple, 4-4-2 formation with two high centre-forwards and a couple of energetic, box-to-box midfielders.
One of the biggest evolutions has seen the emergence and popularisation of the 4-3-3 system, which is currently deployed by the league’s top two sides (namely Liverpool and Manchester City). But what is the 4-3-3, its history and the responsibilities of players within the system?
What is 4-3-3 and Where Did it Originate?
Featuring a flat back four complete with three central midfielders and a further three forwards, this system can be traced back to the early fifties,
Following the World Cup final defeat to Uruguay in 1950, Brazil transitioned to a 4-2-4 formation, before evolving this to a 4-3-3 to afford them an additional man in midfield during their World Cup win in 1962.
England evolved this into a de facto 4-1-2-3 in their 1966 World Cup win, deploying Nobby Stiles as a specialist defensive midfielder in order to assume greater control of matches during the tournament.
The 4-3-3 subsequently became popular across Italy, Argentina and Holland, with Rinus Michel’s Netherland and Ajax sides of the 1970s utilising this shape as the bedrock for their strategy of total football. This shape could be adapted to a 3-4-3 when in possession of the ball, as the central midfielder dropped back to the defensive line and the full-backs pushed higher up the park into attacking positions.
Interestingly, the system only really became popularised in the EPL during the mid-noughties, when Jose Mourinho deployed a 4-3-3 formation (4-5-1 when out of possession) and utilised this during this initial, three-year spell at Chelsea.
This system also saw the deployment of a specialist defensive midfielder (Claude Makelele) at the base of the midfield three, while wide forwards Arjen Robben and Damien Duff were expected to play centrally when the ball was on the opposite side of the pitch.
Player Roles in the 4-3-3
While the 4-3-3 can be used flexibly when in and out of possession, it’s generally accepted that the full-backs will push higher to provide natural width while attacking. At this time, the deepest of the three midfielders may drop into the backline, creating a 3-4-3 shape where the forwards can play quite centrally.
Of the remaining two midfielders, one will usually play in an attacking role where they’re tasked to arrive in the box and create a goal threat from deep.
The other may well act as a double-pivot or deep-lying playmaker, supporting both attacking and defensive plays and providing balance to the midfield unit (Ander Herrera and Xabi Alonso have been expert exponents of this art in recent years).
As we’ve touched on, the wingers will often play quite narrowly to supplement the attack, while drifting wide when the ball is on their side of the pitch.
Similarly, they’ll chase out into the full-back areas when out of possession in many cases, while the lone striker holds the centre ground and applies pressure to the opposing centre-halves.
Offensively, the central striker may also drop back into midfield to create overloads, or maintain a high line and create space for the attacking midfielder and wider forwards to move into.
The Last Word
Aside from Brazil and England’s World Cup-winning sides of 1962 and 1966 respectively, there have been notable exponents of the 4-3-3 in recent times.
These include Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, of course, along with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Manchester City also deployed a fluid 4-3-3 under Pep Guardiola, with this presenting as an attack-minded 3-2-2-3 when in possession of the ball.
Perhaps the single best exponent of this system was the Spaniard’s Barcelona team between 2008 and 2012. Utilising Lionel Messi as a ‘false nine’ to create those aforementioned overloads in midfield, Barcelona won 14 major trophies during this four-year period, including two coveted Champions League titles.