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4-3-3 Role Guide: The Back Four

This articles continues my guided series on crafting the ultimate 4-3-3 Possession Tactic. I have been enamoured with this formation in FM20. I believe it offers the perfect balance of attack and defence while maintaining high possession. Possession has always been important for me when creating tactics although I have never been a fan of possession just for the sake of possession. Thus the main of this series is to find ways to optimize possession with intent within the limits of Football Manager. In my tactical creation, I am loosely inspired by historic teams such as 1970s Netherlands or Ajax and 2010 Barcelona. This is not meant as an accurate tactical recreation, as I will mix different tactics looking for my ideal 4-3-3. So without further ado, lets take a look at what roles make up the back four.

I started last article with a nod to Arsene Wenger and his ill-fated attempt to bring Tiki-Taka/Total Football to England. Under the Frenchman’s guidance Arsenal played some beautiful possession football, but failed to claim any more titles after their historic 2003-2004 unbeaten season. To this day their perfect season is a record that has not been broken by any team in Premiership. Wenger has always been a manager to put emphasis on solid defense as a foundation in all his tactics. This was especially evident during Gunners’ Invincible season. As if the perfect 38 games without a loss record was not enough, Arsene’s boys kept 21 clean sheets

Interestingly enough, the team that came closest to beating Arsenal’s defensive record was Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea one year later. The Blues managed to capture the Premier League title in 2005 with an almost perfect record. They only lost one game; a surprising 0-1 defeat to Keegan’s Manchester City. The following year they retained their title along with the impressive defensive record. For 2005-2006 season Mourinho’s Chelsea had conceded the fewest goals in a Premier League season. The record still stands today at just 15 in 38 games, whilst their 25 clean sheets is another Premiership record. What is more interesting in context of this guide, is that Mourinho’s formation of choice during this time, was 4-3-3.

A Man from Porto

Arsenal stuck with a traditional English 4-4-2 for its title-winning season. Whereas Chelsea’s tactics flipped the tables and showed that other formations could be just as successful in Premier League. Always the outsider, Mourinho arrived in England hot on the heels of his career-defining stint with Porto, where he used a Narrow 4-4-2 Diamond (or 4-3-1-2). The advantage of this shape became most evident in Champions League. In this competition Porto were able to win this sought-after trophy due to the defensive solidity offered by 4-3-1-2.

Mourinho gave much more freedom to his 3 attackers to roam around and create chances as they wished. At the same time midfield trio gave Porto a numerical advantage that most formations could not match. Additionally, Jose borrowed the Brazilian utilitarian approach to wingbacks, using one very attacking wingback (emphasis on “winger”) and one defensive one. If you are interested in more musings on recreating this iconic tactic, check out my earlier attempt with FM19.

For my tactic, I am going to borrow a bit of Jose’s sensibility in structuring my own defence. As you will see, it is important to realize that when one element of your tactic goes up the other must come down or stay back. For instance when using an aggressive attacking mentality, I tend to set my tempo to low and vise versa. Balance is everything, especially in FM20. But more on this later, as first lets take a look at Mourinho’s Chelsea and its 4-3-3 formation.

Mourinho’s 2004-2006 Chelsea

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So in 2004, Jose Mourhinho took the lessons learned in Portugal and tried to transplant them on English soil. He found it rather fertile. With Chelsea he could operate with a much bigger budget and better quality of players. Thus he went with a more open attacking approach offered by 4-3-3. Although the principle of midfield control and solid defense in the back remained. In 4-3-3, as in 4-3-1-2 you cannot have effective defence without having a solid midfield trio in front. This is where your best, most well-rounded players should go. And if you need more justification for this then you can refer back to Part 1 of this series.

Jose Mourinho described the advantage of 4-3-3 over a classic 4-4-2 in the following way:

‘Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. They are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help. It means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things’.

With a solid midfield trio in front, we can afford to be a little more adventurous with our back four. When operating with a 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-3, my motto is simple. Your attack is the best form of defence. And you will need high energy players in both central defence and fullback positions to make the best of it.

Defensive Unit

Lets start with your two central defenders. They must work well as a unit with the two fullbacks and the defensive holding midfielder in front of them to plug any gaps that the attacking players leave behind them. While on the surface it might seem that their function is very basic. Stopping the opposition from getting through. How you want them to go about this however, makes all the difference.

Centre-backs in any formation must be strong in jumping, tackling, positioning, and heading. They get to the ball before first to pass it to a team-mate, clear it away or tackle the opponent. In the air, they should ideally win most of their headers. Essentially they cannot allow opposition’s strikers to control the ball and bring their team-mates into play. As a last resort they need to know how to clear away the ball safely. Seeing how we are trying to achieve possession style of football, I am looking to get more passing than clearing. To achieve this, specific Team and Player Instructions, as well as Roles and Player Traits are needed.

The Team Instructions that will make your defenders play TikiTaka/Total Football are Play Out of Defence and Higher Defensive line. The high defensive line will make sure that they stay closer to your midfield which in itself will both encourage them to pass it short and discourage to conservatively hoof the ball over the midfield. And attacking mentality works very well in combination with these two.

The reason why I prefer to play on Attacking or even Very Attacking is that it increases the mentality of my centrebacks (especially the BPD) and makes it even more likely that they will make risky plays like dribbling up with the ball. I might just go as far as stating that in FM20, on anything lower than Attacking Mentality, your Ball Playing Defenders won’t really act like proper BPDs. When playing on a lower mentality and faced with pressure from opposition pressing, they tend to still act rather conservatively. Meaning that rather than dribbling with the ball or passing it short, they will kick it long towards your strikers or even out of bounds.

Ball-Playing Defender (BPD) – The Quarterback

As the name states, here you want to put your smartest, most technical defender. He might not necessarily be the strongest CB with top positioning and tackling. But he does need to have the best technicals and mental attributes. Thus first touch, passing, technique, decisions, anticipation and vision need to be among the best on the team. Also decent dribbling is always welcome.

Much like the quarterback role in American Football, your BPD is a key player with a huge weight resting on his shoulders. Not only does he have to withstand enormous pressure from the opposition’s high press but also needs to make quick decisions on how to distribute the ball. His distribution skill (linked to his mentals) is vital as one good pass could unlock a stubborn defence. In the following clip, you can see how the right player in this role can create a goal from nothing. In the video, my BPD Aritz Elustondo makes a long pass to the Inverted Winger, Odegaard. The goal that results from this shows that short-passing possession style cannot be without a bit direct bite. 

In terms of player traits (PPMs) I am going to use an example of Ajax’ player Lisandro Martinez. He already possess all the attributes needed for the role, as well as two important traits. Both preference for Long Passes and Bringing Ball Out of Defence, will make a defender behave like a ballplaying defender. Another two that are important to have are Runs with Ball through Centre and Tries to Play out of Trouble. In combination these two will discourage the player from hoofing the ball when under pressure. Instead he will be encouraged to dribble with the ball through opponent’s press and make defence-splitting passes towards your midfield. Of course for this too work he needs good dribbling as well as passing, vision and decisions.

Sweeper Keeper – High Press Breaker

When using Ball-Playing Defender role, one must also use a Sweeper Keeper (SK), as the two work in tandem. Similarly to BPD, a highly technical variation on the traditional defender, SK is a very technical version of Goalkeeper. Both are ideally suited for possession football because of their focus on ball distribution. Sweeper Keeper will need other ball-playing players close to him to offer passing options. So roles such as BPD, Deep-lying Playmaker and Libero are ideally suited to work with a SK. A partnership of SK and BPD will not only counter the opposition high press but will also prevent them from disrupting your short goalkeeper distribution.

How does Sweeper Keeper nullify opposition high press? When pressed by opposing forwards your SK will always have a passing option in the BPD. A good Sweeper Keeper will draw the opposition in before pinging the ball to your playmaker or BPD. The Ball-Playing Defender can then send a long ball over their high press and to your inside forward who suddenly finds himself with lots of free space to exploit. Without his BPD partner, the SK will try to pass the ball to the nearest fullback. This is fine although much easier to predict and close down by an organized defence.

Apart from the typical goalkeeper attributes, a good SK will need good technique, first touch, passing and kicking. The only preferred move that I would train in every Sweeper Keeper is Tries to Play Way Out Of Trouble. As its description states, it increases the chances of a player looking to pass or dribble against pressure, rather than opting for safety-first approach of clearing the ball.

Right Inverted Wingback – Swiss Knife

Total Football is all about balance. And even-though you will need well-rounded players to make this tactic work, it does not mean that all the roles will need to be generic or act the same. To the contrary, in every strata of 4-3-3 formation, you will need one reserved/defensively responsible player for every attacking runner/dribbler. In attack, theres is the inside forward making forward runs in contrast to the inverted winger coming deep on the right. In midfield: the aggressive dribbler – mezzala is offset by the more conservative roaming playmaker. And the generic left centreback covers for the more adventurous BPD. Its no different with my two inverted wingbacks. The left one must be more defensive, in order to get the most out of my right inverted wingback. As you can see below, in this role you cannot play your typical fullback. Here lies his strength.

Quincy Promes at Ajax fits perfectly the mold of my ideal attacking Inverted Wingback. As you can see he is a natural inside forward with PPMs of one. But has a really interesting attribute distribution, possessing good values in key IWB attributes as well as those of a forward.

These attributes include Dribbling, First Touch, Passing, Anticipation, Off the Ball, Work Rate, Acceleration, Pace and Stamina. He is a great physical specimen who is as comfortable in attack as in midfield. While decent tackling and positioning complete his well-rounded profile, assuring that he won’t be a defensive liability. I really like Qunicy’s PPMs. They all encourage him to make tricky runs into the final third. Traits such as Gets Into Opposition Area, Cuts Inside and Runs with The Ball are all required here as they will make your IWB into a potent weapon.

Finally, you do not need an amazing player or even very fast one to play this role well. Sometimes great mental attributes are much more important. For example, in my save with Real Sociedad, my Right Inverted Winbgack is Portu, a very different kind of player. He almost like a deep Raumdeuter who is capable of offering attacking threat anywhere across my formation, from striker to fullback position. Swiss Knife indeed, and a veritable poster-boy for Total Football.

So this covers all the roles in my Possession 4-3-3 Tactic. In the future articles I will be covering other aspects of my TikiTaka Possession philosophy that contribute to its success. Specifically the elements other than the tactical ones that make the whole system tic. For sometimes what happens on the training room or dressing room is equally as important. This is hopefully something I can show in the next update. Until then if you enjoy our content then please like and follow us on @ Dictate The Game’s Facebook and Dictate The Game’s Twitter

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Written by crusadertsar

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