In a game where complicated build ups are difficult to engineer, I can see the appeal of the 4-3-3. A traditional 4-3-3 allows you to play vertically. You can pass behind the opposition’s backline as if there’s a shining halo there; it has half a chance of reaching one of your strikers.
It’s also an effective system for keeping possession. With players close to each other in a narrow formation, it’s easier for players to find their teammates with quick passes. They can roam around the field to receive the ball in pockets of space. Someone else in their position can often cover for their ill-discipline!
Unfortunately, that plan can become unstuck. Getting strikers to track back isn’t an easy feat on FM19. Neither is asking them to come sufficiently deep. How do I fit these strikers into a coherent system and get my team play football I like watching?
I wouldn’t look too much into the table. It could be better and I change my tactic far too much for it to demonstrate anything in this guidance. The information below is based on experience of solid overachieving, but with plenty of mistakes learned from along the way.
Make it centrally-orientated if you like to keep possession
For a long time I had a problem getting setups like this to work. I’ve always loved the idea of false nine and consistently picked them. My best compliment for their performances was often that they stood in the striker’s position.
So, recently, I’ve tried flooding the central areas with supporting options. The inverted wing-back role is often misunderstood.
While inverted wing-backs come inside and supposedly offer less traditional wing play, they need wide players ahead of them. Otherwise, they will operate more like a standard wing-back. Fortunately, the inside forwards start from a wide position; this means the inverted wing-backs ‘invert’ before the ball is played to them. If you can deduce what that means!
Here, left-back Sam Field tucked inside. This happened as soon as half-back Gonzalo Melero received the ball from my goalkeeper, looking to play out. The inverted wing-backs, in tandem with my half-back, help us progress up the pitch through the middle.
When you start attacks through full-backs, that’s a signal for the opposition to press. Rather than being dispossessed, the closed down full-back with less space might hit the ball out of play. If not, they could hit a 50-50 pass down the line in their channel. Even if the ball comes off the pressing winger last, they’ve broken down the attack. Throw-ins in a vulnerable position are a magnificent way to gift the opposition possession!
I digress. Now you have that platform to play out of the back, your 4-3-3 needs those match-winners in the final third. That will complete the strangling quality your team needs. The opposition can’t get the ball of your side; now they’re just hoping these guys don’t get hold of it.
You want your wide forwards to be all-rounded players. They should provide width and a change of pace, while also being strikers. Inside forwards are ideal. As the main source of width, they can come deep and be an out-ball. They can drive the ball up the pitch. When they have the ball, they try to drive into any space inside them, giving your team a plethora of passing and shooting options.
And there’s the attacking central midfielders underlapping them.
Now, attacking central midfielders aren’t the same as mezzala’s, box to box midfielders, advanced playmakers or roaming playmakers. Their only fixed PI is ‘get further forward’. They won’t stay in the channels hoping to spray a killer ball, in one of the worst positions possible to defend counter-attacks. They won’t roam from their positions non-stop, determined to stop their teammates from imposing a shred of their importance.
Attacking central midfielders just make late runs, giving the front three more space. It helps with passing and moving.
Just watch Leko, my central midfielder, go! He will open passing lanes without ever making the team too vertical or standing offside.
Make your pressing settings aggressive to push your full-backs higher off the ball
The 4-3-3 can appear to lack width. Hopefully your wider central midfielders and attackers should automatically pass to an overlapping teammate or jolt out wide themselves. Useful when the midfield’s overcrowded.
However, the wide areas are vulnerable to counter-attacks; I only managed to tighten my team up after giving the most central midfielder of the central midfielders a defend duty. I had to make them a half-back.
Wide areas are particularly vulnerable if you’re playing against a team with wide midfielders. The wide midfielders can receive the ball unopposed, drive inside or outside, and make your team’s life chaos. Full-backs don’t like doing all the work.
Your wider central midfielders aren’t predominantly defensive and the inverted wing-backs are meant to roam around. With an open style of football, giving the opposition space to counter-attack is almost an inevitability.
Therefore, make sure those opportunities are halted before the opposition have the chance to pick those passes. If that means making a quick tackle, great. That can easily create a chance to break forward. Even fouls are necessary sometimes. Without instant counter-pressing, you’re left with an outnumbered midfield and the rest of the team set to stay in their zonal positions until it’s too late. Using tight marking and an offside trap is recommended too.
Opposition instructions are another unconventional way to solve any discrepancies with your formation. The above settings ensure that everyone does their defensive job and attempts to close any spaces left wide open. Whenever it works and the ball is quickly recovered, your team should have space to break. With the right defensive setup, you should be able to implement these settings without leaving spaces for runners to expose.
Position your centre-backs carefully
With a high pressing, aggressive setup, having my central defenders press less often has been instrumental. They now focus on dropping off, sweeping up balls and holding their line. This isn’t being cautious; the 4-3-3 just needs players to ensure that the opposition have no route to progress up the pitch. With security behind them, the players ahead of your centre-backs should feel more confident and single-minded about their aggressive pressing.
Remember, if you play with inverted wing-backs, the central defenders are also covering out wide in possession.
The covering centre-backs are the layer of protection. They facilitate what should be a fluid, interchanging unit ahead of them.
Carefully envisage the relationship between your midfield and forwards
With a false nine, you’re relying on the movement around them. The forward runs of the attacking central midfielders and inside forwards. The false nine can be good when you want someone who can drag defenders away and leave space for your other attackers.
In your number nine position, you could also use a target man. With a direct, vertical style of football, they can be brilliant at bringing others into play. However, as they’re set to dribble less and hold up the ball, they’re protecting the ball in a stationary position. It can work. with a strike partner who they can make a simple pass to. The target man can also hold the ball up while his teammates catch up. They’ve probably been defending deep, doing lots of running and are in need of a breather.
You might want all three forwards close together, to maximise your chances of Hollywood passes creating clear cut chances. In this scenario, any forward role which looks for space in behind can be useful. I’ve found using three Trequartista’s to work. They stay forward, looking for space to counter-attack while the team defend. That can mean dropping deeper or going in behind.
The midfield must complement the specific needs of the attack. The same can be applied to any positional relationship in any formation. However, without synergy between midfield and attack in a 4-3-3, you’ll have three isolated strikers and goals flooding in your net.
I’ve explained why my midfielder setup works with the strikers. To complement the Trequartista’s, you might need less final third runs and more general bursts forward. The midfielders must be close enough to provide the vertical passes, but also protect the defence. Ball-winning or box-to-box midfielders could work well.
Playmakers can work brilliantly if your midfield usually sits behind the ball. That way, their roles won’t draw them out of position too often. When counter-attacking, they’ll be best equipped to send that hanging ball out wide, or the long ball for the target man to hold up.
When contemplating your setup, ensure the interlinking of the midfield and attack is at the forefront of your thoughts!
Here are a couple of quotes to remember:
- “I don’t have Romario’s technique, Overmars’ pace or Kluivert’s strength. But I work hard than others. I’m like the student who is not as clever, but revises for his exams and does ok in the end” – Carles Puyol.
- “When it’s not going well, they say we have to change. No, we have to improve. When you change your style, the players look at you and say, ‘ok this guy is scared now.’ They would say, ‘The manager doesn’t trust himself and his work now’.” – Pep Guardiola.
The key is visualising how you want your 4-3-3 to work and making constant adaptations in order to achieve that.
If you have any thoughts on anything within this article, please don’t hesitate to start a conversation in the comments below or via our social media channels. Alternatively, I can be found at @BenDewison on Twitter.
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- Home Comforts and Playing the Long Game
- Youth Development at US Triestina
- Fresh Start For African Football
- Serie B continues: Can US Triestina avoid the drop?
- How to Build Your Midfield in FM19 | Football Manager Guide