Breaking Down the 4-3-3 Formation: When to Use It and Why

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterDecember 5, 2012

DONETSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 27: Fabio Coentrao of Portugal looks on beside Coach Paulo Bento of Portugal during the UEFA EURO 2012 semi final match between Portugal and Spain at Donbass Arena on June 27, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine.  (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

World football is essentially a plethora of choices. Which formation to choose?

The 4-3-3 is one of the most popular and successful in 2012, with both international and domestic teams mastering it. Here, we'll explore how it works and who uses it.

The basics

Some often mistake a 4-3-3 for a 4-5-1, so first and foremost it's important to distinguish between the two setups.

The 4-3-3 is a fluid template that allows players to contribute in every phase of play—it will house a left-back who bombs forward to overlap the winger, but also tears back to defend his own byline.

In the corresponding 4-5-1, that left-back will be purely defensive, rarely venturing forward to contribute to the attacking phase of play and instead sitting on his halfway line (see Jose Mourinho's Chelsea as an example).

The midfield will house one certified anchor accompanied by two all-action pure central midfielders who are required to scour the pitch like crazed ax men and contribute in every move.

The forward works in tandem with his wingers and, in turn with the two central midfielders advancing. A varied style is used, as the formation's expanded tendencies allow crosses, inverted wingers, long shots or through balls.

It's up to the manager how he wants to manipulate his players inside the shape, so how have we seen notable figures use the formation?

Case study: Paulo Bento's Portugal at Euro 2012

Paulo Bento set a standard for the 4-3-3 this summer with his Portugal side.

He looked at his players in qualifying, realised what talent he had at his disposal and picked the perfect formation to utilise their strengths.

His two flying full-backs, Fabio Coentrao and Joao Pereira, roamed forward liberally and connected with wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani.

With Ronaldo cutting inside from the left, that left Coentrao with 90 yards of space down the left-hand touchline. He used it well and was easily one of the better players in the tournament.

The midfield, consisting of Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso, was also a perfect fit.

Veloso was the anchor, sitting deep, collecting the ball from his centre-backs and initiating attacks. Moutinho and Meireles did a lot of running, stretching the midfield horizontally and vertically to create options for the pass.

Czech Republic manager Michal Bilek decided to man-mark Ronaldo with Theodor Gebre Selassie in the quarterfinal. It wasn't the right choice—the movement of the Portuguese winger pulled his marker so far out of position Coentrao must have thought he'd stumbled upon a deserted field of daisies.

Case study: Nigel Adkins' Southampton in the English Premier League

Domestically speaking, Southampton's 4-3-3 is among the best. While the Saints aren't flying high in the EPL, they're finding their feet and producing some absurdly good free-flowing football.

At times it's a 4-4-1-1, but the South Coast club mix it up so well it gives opposing managers nightmares.

Nathaniel Clyne is Adkins' Pereira, but the former Scunthorpe man had a problem on the left. The 4-3-3 is a delicate balance, meaning you need two premium quality full-backs or it's best to use none at all.

Danny Fox has been woeful for well over a year now, so Adkins looked at Luke Shaw from the academy. All of a sudden, Southampton had two players capable in both areas of the pitch and the formation came to life.

The engine room houses two hard workers in Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork and a flair player in Gaston Ramirez, while the forward line sees Rickie Lambert become the focal point.


The 4-3-3 is an excellent formation, providing you've got the right players to fill it with.

Perhaps that's why Jose Mourinho used a careful 4-5-1—did he entirely trust Paulo Ferreira at right-back to give the balance his side would require?

Southampton are an excellent study in how that balance is crucial to a formation. We're not picking on Danny Fox's individual errors; it's his general lack of ability that saw the Saints became very lopsided.

His teammates didn't trust him to provide attacking width or defensive solidarity, causing a realignment of the entire team. 

Bento had no such problems, as Pereira and Coentrao were evenly matched and formed the very framework in which his entire team would play.


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