Breaking Down the 3-4-3 Formation: How It Works and Who Uses It

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterDecember 19, 2012

NORWICH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15:  Roberto Martinez of Wigan looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Norwich City and Wigan Athletic at Carrow Road on December 15, 2012 in Norwich, England.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

The 3-4-3 formation is enjoying a slight renaissance of late thanks to the rise of three-man defensive systems in Italy.

Serie A has set the way, but there have been other examples dotted around Europe of how this formation is suitable for the modern game.

Here, Bleacher Report breaks down its core mechanics, explains why it works and provides examples of successful and unsuccessful uses.

The shape

Three centre-backs, two wing-backs, two central midfielders and three forwards.

The central striker generally plays as a target man-esque figure, while the wide forwards retain free license to drift inward, get in the box or drop in and join the buildup play.

The manager will never have to worry about a wide forward's free movement ripping or narrowing the formation, as the wing-backs will always stay touchline-wide to stretch the pitch out and provide an outlet.

Example: Wigan Athletic

The only team in the English Premier League who use a 3-4-3 is Wigan. Roberto Martinez snapped a nine-game losing streak last season by switching to this formation, and his players "got it" instantaneously.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

They're pretty good ambassadors for it as well, and Martinez is smart to use it when he has one of the most natural wing-backs in the game in Jean Beausejour.

The left-sided centre-back (usually Maynor Figueroa) will drift wide to create a passing lane and that encourages the Chilean to go forward, creating gaps for James McCarthy and James McArthur to receive the ball into or to beat his man and deliver a cross.

He's also got hold of some versatile defenders who are both comfortable in possession and compact in their shape. 

Here you see Wigan on the reverse. In attack the defenders spread out, but running backward they shrink into a compact shape that's difficult to overcome—they've nearly always got a spare man at the back to mop up the mess

Example: Athletic Bilbao

Marcelo Bielsa shifts from a four-man defence to a three-man defence midgame if he wants to. He's one of the most reactive managers around, and should the opponent go 4-4-2 to chase the game, he will instantly haul off a midfielder in favour of a third centre-back.

He's used a 3-4-3 on a number of occasions, and it also illustrates the importance of playing your players in their best positions.

Rather than go 3-5-2, Bielsa leaves Iker Muniain and Markel Susaeta in the wide positions despite the ability of Andoni Iraola going forward.

If the wing battle is lost, both players stay touchline-wide to stretch the pitch. If the wing-backs have it covered, they are free to dribble inside, contribute to open play and create mismatches in the defence.


The 3-4-3 is good for a number of reasons, and used wisely it can be a very effective formation. Tito Vilanova has turned to it at Barcelona this season, while other sightings of it are sporadically popping into focus.

What's the main difference between this and the 3-5-2? the wingers, of course.

Take Antonio Conte's 3-5-2 and see there are no wide men other than Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner. If the wing-backs lose the battle, the formation is stunted. With top-tier players this won't happen, but the 3-4-3 gives you that extra level of insurance due to the use of four wide men, not two.

Better to be safe than sorry?


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.