The 4-3-3: A Revolution, Triangles and Arrogance

Art by Charbak Dipta

On the 16th of July, 1950, a great crowd surged into a seatless, concrete grandstand in Rio to watch a football match. It was supposed to be a trivial impediment that would be easily overcome, a simple victory for the home team being the overwhelming public prediction. Many had gathered to sing and dance at the carnival that would inevitably follow, the game itself being an added bonus.

In the decades to follow, Maracanaço — “the Agony of Maracanã” — would haunt the Brazilian psyche. It was the final of the 1950 World Cup and, overwhelmed by a sudden tactical adjustment in their Uruguayan opponents, Brazil faltered and were beaten on home soil. “Silence at the Maracanã,” the losing coach Flávio Costa would later remark; two hundred thousand spectators stunned by what they had just witnessed. 

They had witnessed the beginnings of a revolution.

Until that point in spite of experiments here and there, the dominant formations in top-level football were a 3-2-2-3 (abbreviated popularly as the WM) and the more antiquated 2-3-5 (also known as the Pyramid). For the final, Uruguay innovated. A fullback was pulled deep and operated almost as a sweeper behind the defence and the two inside-forwards were withdrawn into a shape that resembled a 1-3-3-3 — essentially a 4-3-3 with a libero

The seeds of an inevitable change had been planted. By 1958, Brazil themselves played with a back four. On paper this was a 4-2-4, but the frailties of a two-man midfield were understood soon enough and a forward operated slightly closer to his centre-halves. While opposition defences were picked apart by the chaos and artistry of Garrincha and Pelé, Mário Zagallo quietly dropped deeper and deeper from the left wing. By 1962, he played as a midfielder and the system was formally recognised as a 4-3-3 for the first time. 

A third consecutive World Cup success of the still relatively obscure formation came with the much-eulogised English victory in 1966. Alf Ramsey’s side played its most radical interpretation yet with an out-and-out defensive midfielder in Nobby Stiles — probably the game’s first proper holding midfielder — shielding the defensive four while more attacking, technical names in Bobby Charlton, Alan Ball and Geoff Hurst played ahead. Ramsey, however, ever-pragmatic and determined to keep his new system secret, used it in only a handful of games and, as Stiles notes later, it was really more a narrow 4-1-2-3; a lopsided mirroring of what the Brazilians had done four years earlier. 

Brilliant Orange

It was only four years later in the sleepy city of Amsterdam that the 4-3-3 took on a familiar look. After almost five years of using the 4-2-4 with his revolutionary style of Total Football, Rinus Michels had to reckon with the consistent failures of his system. His Ajax side based their game around keeping the ball, but, as Jonathan Wilson writes, “playing four forwards could make it very hard to regain possession [in the first place.]” Necessity is the mother of all new footballing formations, it seems, and the definitive adoption of the 4-3-3 by Michels in 1970 marked its entrance onto the hallowed grounds of Europe.

A monstrous Dutch machine was unleashed. Ajax went on to win three consecutive European Cup titles while the national team reached the final of the 1974 World Cup and won the 1988 European Championship, all playing variants of Michels’ blueprint. This was the blueprint of Total Football—zonal marking, a raging offside trap, high pressing, ball possession—that was to captivate the collective imagination of all possession-minded teams to come. 

As David Winner says in Brilliant Orange, the Dutch game was based on one overarching principle, the manipulation and control of space. In a 4-3-3, fluidity was encouraged, necessitated even, by the positional interchanging required for a sustained press. The position on the pitch was delinked from the profile of the player. Johan Cruyff, the centre-forward, for instance, would frequently be found initiating attacks from the right of midfield or running along the left wing while Johan Neeskens and Rob Rensenbrink, a midfielder and a winger respectively, swapped places with him and with each other. With this advent of vertical positional flexibility, traditional lines of delineation were blurred; the philosophy of Total Football requires attacks to begin with the goalkeeper while defensive pressure is initiated by the forwards. 

Michels also favoured a sort of withdrawn central striker, a Dutch forefather of the role Lionel Messi would come to play in Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona thirty years later. This adaption suited the shimmer and grace of Cruyff and satisfied his tendencies to be involved with the play while ensuring technical superiority in middle through the midfield diamond without ceding any defensive stability. The essential innovation of the false nine, as it later came to be called, lies in the confusion that it leaves in its wake for defences — centre-backs hesitate to follow the striker deep in fear of leaving space behind them while midfielders hesitate to do so in fear of leaving space ahead. 

Thankfully for Michels, Cruyff and their footballing heirs, the 4-3-3 was also favoured by the historical context it was placed in. When it burst onto the scene, it was such a revelation precisely because it found itself in a footballing culture that primarily employed two-man midfields with the 4-4-2 and its variations being the favoured formations throughout the 70s and the 80s. They were all overrun by the Dutch diamond midfield, their fullbacks pinned by the wide wingers and their forwards caught offside time and again. 

Football is a game of numbers and the corollary of this midfield superiority was numerical too: more passes were played, more possession was maintained, more control was imposed, more chances were created, more goals were scored and more matches were won. 

Natural Triangles

In the modern possession game, the most fundamental objective is to retain the ball. At its simplest, it means a player is to pass to a teammate, and he to another and so on in a continuous, unbroken chain of passes. This is made easy when the player on the ball has options to pass to on all sides at all times without fearing the loss of possession. The 4-3-3 creates natural triangles between its players and is therefore ideal for such a passing game. Passing lanes open up on both sides ahead and behind the ball carrier due to the staggered, angled nature of player positions relative to his position; the system simplifies the style.

Triangulated passing lanes

When Cruyff took over as manager of Barcelona in 1988, his preferred 3-4-3 was a further evolution of the system he had played in himself, a slight adaptation of the 4-3-3 without relinquishing its identity. The stylistic priority, as always, was passing and pressing and making mechanisms of passing and pressing simpler but in cruder, structural terms he attempted to merge an out-and-out front three with a midfield diamond. The marriage worked — Ronald Koeman played beautifully as an adventurous, ball-playing centre-back, a young Guardiola acted as the pivot in every sense of the term, moving the ball to midfield and shielding his defence while the silky feet of Michael Laudrup, Txiki Begiristain and Hristo Stoichkov confounded opposition defences with their quick pass-and-go combinations.

Johann Cruyff’s 3-4-3 with Barcelona’s Dream Team

The advantages of the midfield diamond in addition to a forward trio were resonant. Not only could the diamond be divided into smaller triangles within the midfield, they also allowed triangles without; a labyrinth of passages through which the ball was moved swiftly, literal circles woven around defensive blocks as they puffed and panted to make sense of the cages that they were being built into. Again, contemporary ideas of football played their part too. This diamond worked only because Barcelona could risk a three-man defence against the two forwards of the prevalent 4-4-2; in modern systems where attacking trios are the norm this 3v3 is too perilous a gamble to take. 

As they evolved, there emerged certain player profiles most closely associated with traditional possession-based 4-3-3 systems. Ball-playing centre-backs patrolled ahead of a ‘sweeper keeper’ comfortable with the ball at his feet, energetic fullbacks shuttled up and down the flanks providing width and numbers where necessary, a staggered midfield trio consisting of a defensive midfielder and his more creative partners (one of whom was usually what is called a ‘box-to-box’ midfielder) set the tempo in the centre, skilled wingers stretched the play while comfortably playmaking or finishing when needed and a tenacious striker adept at holding the ball up linked with his teammates or finished attacking sequences. 

Perfection At Great Cost

At its best, the 4-3-3 is an elaborate apparatus, not just a formation dictating the positions of players on the pitch but an entire system of playing. It works with ruthless efficiency, assimilating individual flair within the collective context and produces free, flowing, beautiful football.

 It is, however, still a system, and a tiny mathematical imprecision, a momentary miscalculation or the slightest oversight endangers its foundations. Built on a fragile defensive line, the possessional 4-3-3 cedes stability in favour of offensive domination, relying on counterpressure to regain control before it becomes too dangerous. Spatial control in the defensive third is relinquished for supremacy in the middle and final zones. Often this surrendered space is manipulated and exploited by wily opponents. This, coupled with uncoordinated pressure, lethargic work-rate or incompatible player profiles awkwardly bundled into midfield lead to a particular vulnerability to quick transitions and counter-charges. If one watches such a system regularly, one will find a pattern: most goals are conceded due to some combination of passes sprayed over the top, quick surges forward, trickery by technical wingers, pace on the counter-attack and quick passing combinations in the final third. 

Perfection comes at great cost; freedom turns swiftly into anarchy and beauty to debauchery. 

The Hubris

In many cases though such inadequacies are disregarded, embraced even. This may sound counter-intuitive but it should be remembered that a formation is as much a psychological weapon as a tactical one. 

The 4-3-3 is an expression of aggression, arrogance and authority, an image of formidability that sacrifices any impressions of defensive solidity. The hubris! — laying its weaknesses bare and then mocking the opponent’s incapacity to take advantage of such weakness. And such hubris can only be found among the wealthy and the powerful elite of football, all of whom play with variations of the 4-3-3—Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Barcelona—big clubs that boast powerful histories, financial powerhouses signing the biggest names and drawing the largest revenues; one expects them to dominate. 

To win is not enough, victory must come in style. Crowds assemble around the world to watch them saunter disdainfully against lesser names, weave patterns of passes around them, tease frightened defenders with slaloming runs and press ferociously if the ball is lost — how dare they even dream of having the ball? 

But What is a Formation?

In many ways the formation is dead. How does one define a formation? The decay of the narrow divisions between attackers and defenders that was begun in Amsterdam all those years ago is complete. Teams employ a variety of shapes throughout matches with a 4-3-3 only truly resembling one for brief periods. For some teams this is during build-up, for others during the first stage of pressure. The defensive shape of most four-at-the-back teams is almost invariably a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 while they spend more time as a 2-3-5 or a 3-2-5 in offence. 

There are subtler differences, of course. Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 at Manchester City, for example, is different from Jürgen Klopp’s 4-3-3 at Liverpool. Both employ 2-3-5s in the attacking phase, but while City’s interiors are the silky feet of Kevin de Bruyne or Bernardo Silva, Liverpool has to make do with more direct, aggressive names in Georginio Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson.

Liverpool’s 2-3-5 under Jurgen Klopp. Spaces on the wing are taken up by advanced full-backs.

The difference? Guardiola emphasises the control of half-spaces. His front five, made of wingers, midfielders and strikers, is instructed to stretch the play with creative duties falling to his interiors in the half-spaces (Kevin de Bruyne. David Silva and, more recently, Raheem Sterling) while his fullbacks are inverted into the midfield three. Klopp keeps his midfielders as they are — in the middle of the field — to provide defensive cover while the front five is completed by Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, both very aggressive fullbacks with tremendous vision and range of passing and much of the playmaking relies on their passes from deep.

Manchester City’s 2-3-5 under Pep Guardiola. The anchor in the midfield is joined by two inverted full-backs.

The similarity? Both systems are adaptive. There is no one ‘correct’ way of playing the 4-3-3 and the profiles on the pitch dictate the adaptation to be used. Today, a formation is only a vague framework that teams drift in and out of within which specific player profiles carry out specific tasks according to their specific abilities.  

A Variety of Contexts

In this context it would be wise to remember that the 4-3-3, despite all its conflations with intricate, mobile football, has not always been linked with an offensive tactic or a possession-based style. Marcello Lippi once explained the different forms of the formation — “There’s the 4-3-3 with a centre-forward and two wingers, the 4-3-3 with two forwards and a player behind, and the 4-3-3 with three proper forwards.” It is a variety of different shapes corresponding to the team’s philosophy; sometimes the shape itself influences the philosophy. While three-in-midfield teams were common in Argentina and Uruguay in the 60s, they were more associated with violence rather than skill. The Estudiantes side that won three consecutive Copa Libertadores titles and one Intercontinental Cup between 1968 and 1970 combined the 4-3-3 with a high press and a fierce offside trap but were infamous for their barbarity — the media invented the term antifútbol to describe their style. 

More recently, Jose Mourinho’s 4-3-3 in his first spell at Chelsea, sacrificing a striker for the defensive-minded Claude Makélélé beside two direct, box-to-box midfield partners, combined solidarity at the back with quick transitions and counterattacks and catalysed English football’s shift from a stale 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1. In Italy, Zdeněk Zeman’s Foggia and Roma sides of the late-80s and the 90s lined up in a 4-3-1-2 system and Marcelo Lippi’s adventures with the 4-3-3 at Juventus in the mid-90s established it as an exciting alternative in an Italian footballing culture that valued defensive solidarity more than attacking prowess. 

The 2010s have been the decade of the inverted winger, another descendent of the 4-3-3. As newer approaches of attacking came about, football experienced a global re-examination of the role of the winger. Tradition would have wingers blaze up and down flanks, beating fullbacks on 1v1 duels and racing to the touchline before floating crosses into the penalty box. The 4-3-3 and its cousins seeping into the mainstream breezed a change into the footballing landscape. Wingers were now required to cut into their stronger foot, dribble inwards instead of sprint outwards, be direct threats to goalkeepers and be more goal-scoring rather than goal-creating.

This paradigm shift was also accompanied by the meteoric rise of attacking fullbacks, mostly all still playing on their stronger sides (right-footed players as right-backs and vice versa) and the apparent death of the ‘classic number 10’, the centrally-placed playmaker operating freely between defensive lines behind the striker. Wide players were now not only playmakers but also finishers and while the prelude to this great symphony was performed by the Begiristains and the Rivaldos of Cruyff and the Duffs and Coles of Mourinho, it was only after this that a radiant generation of skilful truly-inverted wingers overwhelmed football. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo earned their badges playing as one, as did Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery and, earlier, Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho. 

Today traditional wingers are almost obsolete, even in teams that do not use a 4-3-3 and it would be strange to imagine Neymar and Eden Hazard anywhere but the left wing or Gareth Bale and Mo Salah anywhere but the right. 

Curiously enough, while several national teams associate themselves with possession-based, pressing football, very few actually play it in a 4-3-3. Each of the last three World Cup winners have played in some variation of the 4-2-3-1—which is what most footballing countries play anyway—while three-at-the-back formations have experienced a recent ascent, with Belgium and England preferring to play variations of the 3-5-2; the only dominant nations to truly play 4-3-3s to varying degrees of success in recent years are Brazil, Spain, Italy and Germany.

Whether this is because of short-term, tournament-oriented approaches forcing teams into playing more defensively than they would’ve liked, struggles to fit varied personnel into the same team or the general air of caution that hangs over every major international competition is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps it is a combination of all three. The 4-2-3-1 is more accommodating than the 4-3-3, is flexible in offence but secure defensively and requires teams to take fewer risks (admittedly at the cost of prettier football). 

Besides, the 4-3-3 demands precision and clarity and most nations must do with the players they possess within short spurts of time. At a time when even the mighty Dutch cannot find the necessary profiles to line up in one, perhaps the 4-3-3 has been relegated to the comfort and continuity of long club seasons and inflated transfer budgets. 

The Great Tradition

In 1867, a young teacher of chemistry chanced upon repeating patterns in elements while preparing for his next lecture, and made a table based on this property of patterned repetition. Two years later when Dmitri Mendeleev presented his findings to the Russian Chemical Society, he termed it as “periodic recurrence.” 

While football may or may not be a science, it does obey this one law of periodicity. The modern 4-3-3 is the latest of a tradition that has roots stretching back to a dusty afternoon at the Maracanã and perhaps even beyond. The pyramids were not built in Egypt two thousand years ago, but in the playgrounds of Cambridge in the 1880s. The 2-3-5 was born here, it grew and went abroad, it was slain on foreign shores and lay interred until its resurrection, a descendent of its own past. The pyramid has been inverted and then reinverted, the 2-3-5 has become a 4-3-3 has become a 2-3-5 again. Inevitably, there is more to come. 

A Great Tradition. Periodic recurrence.

Sushen Mitra

Sushen Mitra loves football, studies politics and history, and writes about all three. At other times he plays the piano and composes and releases music.