Why 3-4-3 Is the Least Popular Formation in Europe's Top Leagues

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Why 3-4-3 Is the Least Popular Formation in Europe's Top Leagues
Steve Bardens/Getty Images

World football undergoes change every other year with regard to systems, formations and ideologies.

There's always an in-vogue formation that everybody is trying to use, be it the 4-2-3-1 formation post-2010 or the 3-5-2 in Serie A post-2011.

But spare a thought for those formations that simply don't see the light of day for long stretches, and today we honour one of the most unpopular (yet very effective) formations here.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the 3-4-3.

According to WhoScored? the 3-4-3 has been used 26 times in the English Premier League this season (all Wigan Athletic), nine times in Serie A, once in Ligue 1 and twice in La Liga.

That's not a lot of usage, especially when you consider that the 4-2-3-1 has been used more than 1250 times.

So why is it so unpopular? Wigan, the chief proponents of the system in 2013, may be lingering just outside the relegation zone, but they play some of the finest football in England, have reached an FA Cup semifinal and struggle largely due to the lack of a 20-goal striker.

At times the play is jaw-dropping—the sort you would expect from a 2004 Arsenal side with their past all-stars present—and it begs the question: why don't other teams try it?

Each manager will have his own answer to the question, but the most common one you are likely to find is that it is so very, very different.

Wigan in a 3-4-3

Almost every element of the game changes when placing this template over your side, and the new roles it creates doesn't suit every organisation.

Firstly, not every team has bonafide wing-backs just sitting around waiting for their chance; it's not as simple as asking your left-back to play left-wing-back, and the specialization required in the modern game almost demands you purchase a new player.

That's exactly what Roberto Martinez did, picking up Jean Beausejour (who was badly misused by Alex McLeish at Birmingham City) and playing him in a similar manner to Marcelo Bielsa for Chile in the 2010 World Cup.

The wing-back's role is one of the most influential and important in a 3-4-3, as he has the ability to drag his side up the pitch, keep the playing surface nice and wide and go either direct or short.

Many teams—particularly in Serie A after Antonio Conte's Juventus blueprint for success—have opted for a 3-5-2. This system relies on the wing-backs to win the battle or face being hemmed into your own half.

Paul Thomas/Getty Images
Limited work load in midfield, deputises as a ball-playing CB

The 3-4-3 places a winger ahead of each wing-back, giving the presence of four wide players and, consequently, two central midfielders. This gives the wing-back a level of insurance, and ensures your team's fate doesn't rest solely on him.

It's starting to look like a 4-4-2, isn't it? That's the formation everyone is trying to move away from, and it's no wonder managers stray away from it; many are uncomfortable with a two-man midfield as they will invariably face three or four in opposition.

The three-man midfield is common: It's found in a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3, a 3-5-2 and most other popular formations, so subjecting your side to that kind of mismatch sounds insane.

But that's only if you emphasise all your playmaking through the middle, and this is the critical factor in the 3-4-3 becoming a non-factor.

The formation bypasses the central midfield and focuses on the battle for the wings, opting to use one of the left or right forwards as playmakers rather than one of the traditional midfielders.

Many teams have spent huge amounts of money on world-class central midfielders and, quite simply, are not willing to waste the investment by limiting their role. It's too different to switch that role or the onus of your team, as your players have gelled into a certain way of playing with a "go-to guy" in the middle.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Three centre-backs is becoming more common, but the outside centre-backs need to be more mobile and comfortable playing out of defence than the traditional pairing we see. It's a different job again, and we see midfielders being placed in the back line due to their ability on the ball.

Daniele De Rossi, a world-class defensive midfielder, dropped into Italy's defensive line during Euro 2012. Why? He can carry the ball out, pass and dribble while still remaining defensively able and positionally excellent.

Again, managers are unwilling to move big-money investments into unfamiliar areas.

What you'll find is an immediate dismissal from most managers with regard to this formation—it's too different, too complex and changes everything they've built over the last several years in the job.


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