3-4-3, or not 3-4-3, that is the question…
“My preferred system is the one that permits my team to win” – Antonio Conte
Somewhat surreptitiously Chelsea find themselves one point off the top of the Premier League table. Contrast this position with the despair after the debacle at the Emirates and it is certainly a surprising development. Conte’s greatest strength remains his flexibility: there is no dogmatic adherence to tactics or personnel. The shape that allows his side to best utilise their strengths will prevail. We have already seen Chelsea adopt around five different tactics this season with varying degrees of success (4-4-2, 4-2-4, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3).
For those of you who dislike tactics, look away now. Viewing discretion is advised.
The differences between many formations are so miniscule that they are no more than a paper exercise for the media. For example a 4-4-2 will often be a 4-2-4 in attack; a 4-3-3 can become a 4-2-3-1 in attack or a 4-1-4-1 without the ball. It is the instructions given to the players which really determine the effectiveness, not so much the starting shape. It was clear to Conte that variants of the aforementioned systems aligned to the personnel he had at his disposal were simply not going to produce the intended results.
According to Massimo Lucchesi, a noted Italian football writer (who has some recommended further reading for anyone interested), a good system should be:
- Unpredictable – the ability to play short, long, use width, play centrally and essentially show a variety of different attacking gambits;
- Effective – does it get the best out of your most impactful players? Are your definitive players (those who regularly create and score) in a position to do so freely and often?
- Adaptable – not only to the opponent (Liverpool’s pressing or West Brom’s low defensive block), but to the conditions as well (do you want to play a short passing game in torrential rain?)
Even before the Liverpool and Arsenal matches we looked unbalanced; stuck in a system that left Diego Costa isolated and Eden Hazard not able to influence games consistently. Defensively a shambles, nothing seemed to really work.
If conceding three goals in forty-five minutes at the Emirates acts as a catalyst for the rest of the season, it might be a punishment worth taking. In 3½ games of Premier League football Chelsea have not conceded a goal, scored nine times and actually resembled a team capable of playing cohesively. The shift to a 3-4-3 is not a microscopic change or one of semantics; it is a departure from a system Chelsea have played in for the past 10-15 years.
When talking about tactics I find Lucchesi’s approach interesting as he breaks down the “solutions” of a system into four key components:
- Strategy – the general approach that the team takes in and out of possession. This could be focusing attacks down the flanks while being aggressive in terms of pressing without the ball.
- Tactics – a key part of strategy inextricably linked with decision making. “While strategy defines the road to follow in order to arrive at our destination, tactics are the vehicle upon which me move along that road”. In essence tactics help to deliver the overall strategy. You hope to instil the right tactical information within the team to help individual players execute the strategy.
- System – the placement of the players on the pitch ~ 3-4-3; 3-5-2; 4-1-4-1 etc.
- Plays – the method in which the team opts to attack or defend
With the above in mind, we can try to analyse Conte’s transition to a 3-4-3 and potentially whether it has a long-term future at the club. It feels like it currently suits a strong 1st XI, but may not suit the wider squad. In fact, the West Ham game in the League Cup might have proven how far away the second string are from replicating the level of performance we have seen in the league.
3-4-3 Player Overview
Starting with the back three we have one central back and two side backs. Typically in a three man defence the defenders mark zonally. The midfield is made up of four players with two central midfielders and two wing backs. Lastly, the attack is made up of three forwards – a centre forward and two wingers. The following notes and analysis are based on the ideal qualities for a player in that specific role. After reading multiple coaching manuals, tactical analyses, articles and my own research, I have tried to produce a Premier League benchmark for each role.
Overview – the central back must have excellent communication skills as he orchestrates the defensive movements of the side backs. A significant amount of trust is placed in the central back from a tactical and strategic perspective. He should be athletic enough to cover the entire width of the penalty area to support teammates. He should be a robust tackler, able to confidently win possession regularly and a great 1v1 defender. With the ball he plays a key role and should be incredibly technically proficient. Passing must be a significant strength and more importantly the ability to play short, mid and long range balls. He should be the ultimate reference point for the team, always making himself available to receive the ball and recycle possession.
In possession – a central back needs to generally have a high passing completion percentage. Think of them like the anchor point for the entire team in possession acting as a libero/sweeper. Most of the time they should be looking to play simple passes into a central midfielder or to a side back. Ball circulation should be their number one focus. If the central back is a technically gifted passer, they can act as a deep lying playmaker. Quick diagonal passes out to the wings or incisive passes between the lines to a striker can take out 4-6 opposition players.
Defensive keys – must be able to quickly cover and support the side back in defensive situations. When the side back presses an opponent in the wide channel, the central back should move into their zone and bring the other side back with him.
Overview – perhaps the most important traits are a centre half who is a great 1v1 defender in wide channels and someone who has great awareness to mark zonally. The side back is essentially the most aggressive player in the back three from a defensive standpoint. They will often be tasked with marking and engaging forwards, allowing the central back to cover and sweep. While Conte’s Italy did not have exceptional athletes at the back, an agile centre half is ideal. Speed is desirable as both side backs will need to leave their zones to press wide defensively. Equally, in possession they are asked to split the pitch and push wide to receive the ball.
In possession – when they receive the ball passing back to the central back is the least preferable option. Ideally they are receiving the ball to make a positive movement, either by passing or stepping into midfield. There will be plenty of times that the ball will circulate between the back three, but we need players with enough technique and tactical acumen to spot the attacking passes when they are available. A pass into the winger is the most positive option (this was actually how Chelsea opened the scoring against Manchester United). Alternatively a shorter progressive pass to his central midfielder or utilising the width with his wing back are favourable. Having two side backs capable of stepping into midfield and/or passing aggressively really transforms the tempo and attacking variety of your team. Given many English sides play with a single striker, utilising two spare men as quasi midfielders in terms of skill set is hugely advantageous.
The below shows the options open to the side back in this shape.
- Cahill can play the ball into Eden Hazard’s feet (in this case he does). Hazard can then play the ball around the corner, looking for the return from Costa or feed Alonso (in the square at the top of the screen. In this case Hazard knocks it to Alonso who plays a ball in behind United’s back four and Pedro scores.
- Cahill alternatively could have picked out N’Golo Kanté in the central area. From here a quick ball to Azpilicueta would see the Spaniard pushing forward into the yellow space with both Victor Moses and Pedro overloading ahead of him.
- Cahill can play the safe ball to David Luiz, who in turn can immediately find Azpilicueta or N’Golo Kanté.
Defensive keys – provide immediate assistance to a wing back to counteract any 2v1 opportunities the opponent may be trying to exploit. The 3-4-3 does have a weakness out wide in the final third, but this can be alleviated by a side back and wing back working in tandem to reduce these chances. If the play is moving centrally it is typically the side backs role to mark the centre forward(s).
Overview – the wing back is arguably the most important player on the pitch to make this system work correctly. It requires an all-round player in every aspect of the game (think David Alaba): someone capable of both attacking and defending in wide areas. Given the volume of work required, a player with exceptionally high stamina is required. The wing back should be tactically aware and recognise when to drop into the back three to make it a four or five man defence. As the role is so all-encompassing the range of skills required to be a game changing wing back are equally diverse. From an attacking perspective someone capable of interlinking play in the final third, without being a hindrance, is a must. Good 1v1 dribbling skills, crossing and shooting are assets: wing backs are presented with opportunities to score, i.e. Victor Moses vs Leicester. Defensively, they must be proficient at dealing with wingers in a 1v1 situation. They will help the side back extensively in wide areas.
In possession – wing backs exist to extend the width of the pitch to its fullest potential and to create overloads. You are looking to have your winger drift into the halfspaces (as outlined below) to enable them to link with the centre forward and create opportunities to shoot/cross/pass. This often will have the effect of narrowing the pitch, something Chelsea fans will recognise. You want the wing back to counteract this narrowness by playing almost exclusively in that outside channel, with chalk on their boots, to stretch and drag the opponent out of their defensive structure.
** the image below comes from an excellent article that explains halfspaces in depth here **
In terms of passing options the neutral pass is back to the side back to circulate the ball. Ideally you want to push the ball to a central midfielder or winger and then accelerate downfield. The ball around the corner to a centre forward, something akin to what Alonso did for Pedro’s goal against Manchester United, is also an aggressive way to push possession forward.
Defensive keys – intelligence is a crucial aspect of wing back play and from a tactical perspective whether dropping back into a five or four is situation dependent. With possession being played along Chelsea’s final third we can see Kanté and Matić pressing the interior channels with Hazard and Pedro effectively dropping to formulate a 5-4-1 formation. Alonso on the left and Moses on the right have dropped into a flat defensive shape. As the ball moves from right to left Moses will push out to help Pedro and in turn Azpilicueta will adopt a covering position to back up Moses.
Overview – while complementary midfielders can work, the perfect combination would be to utilise two box-to-box players with high athletic quality and technique. Playmaking duties tend to move more towards the wing backs, wingers and centre forward; however, the midfielders still need to be very technical to move the ball at pace. The ability to develop play from deep when receiving the ball from the back three is a crucial element. Being able to dribble through midfield or play accurate long passes (ground and air) is needed for fluidity. At least one of the pair should be an incredible ball winner and have a high defensive skill set: tactically intelligent to cut off passing lanes and protect the back three.
If looking to play a complementary pair you can classify the roles loosely as a defensive central midfielder, passing central midfielder and an attacking central midfielder. A box-to-box player should be a decent hybrid of all three.
DCM – a pivot player, much like the central back, who will sit in a more defined role ahead of the back three: powerful, fast, able to defend 1v1s and cover a large area defensively. Good range of long and short passing. Metronomic passing to establish rhythm will typically come from a more defined DCM. A possible defensive tactic when playing with a DCM is them having the ability to drop into the back three to form a four.
PCM – the PCM is a true link player between defence and attack, with more freedom than a DCM but more defensive responsibility than an ACM. The player needs a high level of technique as you will want them to try more aggressive passes to feed the wings and centre forward in tighter windows. The engine of the team and as such cannot be a passenger defensively. Expected to contribute effectively as a defender and aggressively link play as a forward. No hiding.
ACM – a very good 1v1 player with a skill set comparable to a classic number ten or goal scoring number eight. Creative, unpredictable and should contribute both lots of created chances and shots. If you are playing with an ACM within the midfield two they should be expected to directly contribute to the result with assists and goals as you are somewhat limiting their defensive responsibility. In terms of defensive workload, they will most likely be someone very good at pressing and will lead that effort to recover the ball.
In possession – a varied approach to distribution that interlinks the wing back, wingers and centre forward. Having players with the ability to shoot from distance adds a serious threat to the team. Regardless of the style of the midfielder, ball circulation, ball retention and ball advancement are key requirements of the central midfielder.
Defensive keys – they are the main aggressors in terms of ball recovery and defensive structure. Depending on the point the game transitions from attack to defence they could be flanked by both wingers or isolated in front of the back three. The key remains to block passing lanes. Graeme Souness made an interesting point after the game about his job as a central midfielder. To paraphrase he essentially said that half the battle is simply being in the eyeline of the person on the ball. If they cannot see the forward or attacker behind, then he had partly done his job. This ability to cut off passing angles and divert play wide is crucial to the success of the 3-4-3, which is a formation noted for its strength in central areas. Once the ball shifts wide the defence can pivot with the opposite wing back dropping into the back three. In theory they need to patrol the width of the penalty area aggressively and press where appropriate to keep the opponent moving laterally.
Overview – they are the chief creators and tormentors in this shape. Blessed with pace, dribbling ability, a decent end product in the final third, they must work hard for the team. Driving in-field with the ball to link with the central forward is crucial, in this respect playing with at least one inverted winger helps (right footer from the left or left footer from the right). Must be able to orchestrate attacking overloads and therefore requires good combination play between the wing back, central midfielder and centre forward. Balance is the key aspect here and the relationship with the wing back is crucial. If playing with an inverted winger an overlapping natural wing back is essential. Equally, if you are playing with a more defensively aware winger you can play with an electric wing back.
In possession – needs to be good at making penetrative passes to the centre forward, to the other winger cutting in and the overlapping wing back. Ability to shoot from far out or drive into the area and create space to shoot. Combination play is essential to maximise overload opportunities and create chances for them to create and cause chaos. An example of combination play is when Hazard drifts into a more central midfield position and pops the ball around before shifting the attack elsewhere.
The below led to an opportunity for Pedro to cross to Diego Costa. If we analyse the set-up we can see Hazard has left his starting role on the left and drifted into a halfspace. Kanté plays him the ball, but can equally find the side back (Azpilicueta) who in turn has an easy ball to the wing back (Moses) down the line. Hazard can pop the ball off to Moses or flick the ball over for Pedro. When we speak about the options that the 3-4-3 presents this is key. Having the side back this far forward leads to a huge numerical advantage if the passing is crisp. Herrera presses and Pogba is in two minds – worried about Azpilicueta but also Moses. Smalling does not want to step out to engage Hazard and Fellaini is miles away. It gives us plenty of options to maintain the width (with Moses) and let Hazard come more central where he can influence the play off his wing. Costa can equally spin in behind the space that the oncoming Smalling is creating.
Here we see the pass before Eden Hazard scores Chelsea’s third goal against Manchester United. A lot was made of Juan Mata failing to stick with Hazard’s great piece of movement, but actually the key part of the goal is out of sight. No more than 3 seconds prior to this still, Antonio Valencia (right back) has charged out wide to pressure Alonso who has pushed forward to overlap Hazard. The chasm of space is created purely because of Alonso’s understanding that Hazard likes to cut infield and his need to overlap to maintain width. This is another example of how utilising the halfspaces with a proper wing back/winger relationship can cause momentary lapses in concentration. Should Valencia have tracked the run? Does Mata need to do better? Or do we appreciate that the system designed to exploit these nuances found a lapse and it produced a goal?
Defensive keys – depending on the skill set of the players concerned the wingers are either going to fill back and work as a deterrent (Hazard) or press and look to force mistakes (Pedro). While being great defensively would be wonderful in terms of an all-round player, the key here is the willingness to get back and support the wing back and side back where required. Chelsea appear to be favouring a 5-4-1 defensively, as such the wingers are required to drop and pressure when the ball moves into their zone.
Overview – they are typically a target player, capable of working the entire back line and occupying multiple defenders at a single time. Someone who is good at receiving possession with their back to goal and quickly bringing into play advancing wingers, wing backs and central midfielders. They should be a focal point in the penalty area to finish chances. Given the interplay around the area can often be quite intricate, having the ability to create shooting opportunities in limited space is crucial. Can play in front of or alternatively on the shoulder of the opponents defence.
In possession – must be an efficient finisher, who makes the most of opportunities from crosses, cut backs and any through balls. Is often going to be receiving fast passes into his feet from all teammates and as such needs to have the hold-up play required to retain possession. Should be looking to play on the half-turn to drive past his initial marker or look to play short and spin.
Defensive keys – the main aim of the striker is to lead pressing where appropriate, but ultimately push the ball wide and not allow central passes.
The improvement in fluidity we have seen over the past three matches has been something that is self-evident. Chelsea have far more options on the ball and a greater flexibility about their play. Interestingly enough the average position data almost hints at a 4-3-3 shape. Alonso is key in this respect as his defensive acumen is allowing Eden Hazard the freedom of the park. Where Pedro is more likely to press and defend, Moses has a more aggressive position on the pitch. Gary Cahill is also in a far more defensively supportive position and backs up Alonso to give Hazard this freedom. We give on the left with Alonso and Moses takes on the right.
David Luiz playing as the central back has been a key feature of this resurgence and the success of the system. Not only has he simplified his game, but his ability on the ball under very little pressure makes him a dangerous weapon. He has played some incredible long passes (both in the air and on the deck) which have allowed us to play at a far greater tempo. We saw him pick Leicester apart with a number of fantastic passes, while he was content to organise and keep it simpler against United.
While Azpilicueta and Cahill have been playing far better as side backs, I think this is where we need to target improvement. We do need capable defenders, but equally adding in centre backs with a real technical element to their game will do wonders for this system. Someone who can drive into midfield with the ball and use it properly almost gives you eight people attacking. We saw in the clip above how far forward Azpilicueta was getting as a side back. If you put someone who could really pass in his position, the opportunities are endless. The same goes for Cahill. However, it is nice to see both of them up their games.
In midfield I think Kanté has the energetic midfielder down to a tee. He will continue to improve from a technical perspective and this should again give Chelsea more options going forward. While Nemanja Matić has definitely been playing better this season, I feel having someone with more ability in the final third would take this team onto another level. We are looking for an Arturo Vidal to pair with Kanté, someone who can do all the defensive work, run box-to-box, but has the technique and skill to find intricate passes in the final third and shoot from distance.
Looking at the front three I struggle to see anyone displacing them on current form. I am often critical of Pedro but his directness has helped recently. Perhaps not having to receive the ball constantly with his back to goal is changing how he plays. He seems to be playing on the front foot much more and is a goal threat with excellent finishing quality. Willian just does not offer the same level of dynamism as Pedro and his slowing down of the game does nothing for the side as a whole. Costa seems tailor made for this system and I really doubt anyone usurps him barring injury or suspension.
The difficulty in stopping the system really comes from how much it changes throughout the game. At points it’s a 4-3-3, then a 5-4-1 and back to a 3-4-3. In fact, the starting personnel actually allows for a “proper” back four to be fielded without making any substitutions. The interchanging and free role that Hazard has is totally offset by the rest of the team and is getting the best out of the Belgian. Balance, despite the somewhat lopsided shape, has been fantastic and should only improve with comfort.
So what are our priorities? I think we will need to improve in the wing back area at some point, although Moses and Alonso are doing extremely well. I like the option of utilising Alonso as a left side back and playing a wing back ahead of him. Can Baba Rahman step up next season? Or do we buy someone (hello Ricardo Rodríguez…)?. Moses will continue to do well, but I see him as the ultimate right hand sided utility player as opposed to the solution out there. I would like another central midfielder and a right winger to really step things up. Maybe too obvious, but we really need a centre half and if we were to open up the cheque book in January then I would seriously consider going big here. I think our starting XI looks good enough to make a push, but beyond that the depth is concerning.