Modern Soccer Formation (The Masterminds Default To 4-3-3)

Modern soccer is fun to watch, fun to play and it’s a spectacle that is driven by passion. However, at times it can be more boring than watching paint dry. When watching closely even teams battling in the knockout phase for a major trophy, it looks more like a chess match. They rarely attack with a numerical advantage, close all their openings, and generally wait for the other team to make a mistake. When it works out, the coach is praised for their tactical brilliance and how they picked the soccer formation to use. When the team loses, the coach is blamed for strategic mistakes and not getting the best out of the team.

The reality is that teams practice one main formation and system of play. When that system is not appropriate against certain opponents, it causes big headaches. For example, a team might want to play possession-based soccer and will do everything in their power to do so. However, if they try to do that against a team that also plays with lots of possession, but also have objectively better players, or play against a team that is superb in pressing them, then that will not work well. Having said that, we use the formation as a rough guide on how to shape up. We maintain the position of the players, even if the roles are different.

What is the best soccer formation?

While there is no guarantee to bring success to every team and against every opponent, the best soccer formation in the 21st century is the 4-3-3 formation, with variations of 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-2-3. Over the years the popularity of the formations has varied. However, the idea of lining up with 4 defenders, 3 central midfielders, two wingers, and one striker has remained. We pick this formation because of the fluidity to adapt to situations. Sometimes, we add more attackers by pushing the wide defenders forward and midfielders to attack into the box. Similarly, wingers can become midfielders in a 4-5-1 formation, and holding midfielders can drop in defense to create a defensive 5-4-1. Overall, it is the formation that experts in the field are most likely to use today.

Because of the versatility and the options to play different roles, the formation is also perfect for coaching youth teams. For example, the players can learn to play in the defensive lines of 3, 4, or 5 players, depending on the instructions of the defenders and the midfielders. We can play with two pivots or a single pivot, or even some hybrid with inverted full-backs. The role of the striker can vary significantly – from nomadic target man to false nine or a trequartista. Furthermore, as we train young players in these formations, they have become more knowledgeable and familiar with them. Then going to the professional level is easier when the basis is there.

What does the 4-3-3 soccer formation look like?

The fundamental definition of the 4-3-3 formation is to have 4 defenders, 3 central midfielders, 2 wingers, and 1 striker. In modern soccer, this has become the standard on how teams defend to bring structure and compactness. This structure should condense the middle of the pitch, creating a semi-circle boundary protection for the goalkeeper. This forces the opponents to attack from the flanks or far from the goal, with little chance of getting into situations with a clean shot on goal.

The attacking formation can change significantly to account for quality advantages that the players have over their opponents and then let the players use creativity to have a shot and score. However, the defending formation must be more rigid and collectively get the numerical advantage in the most critical areas closest to the goal.

4-3-3 Soccer Formation Attack variations

Defenders – the wall of the 4-3-3 soccer formation

Usually, the defenders are in a flat line when defending, often creating offside traps. In attack, the wide defenders attack up the field on their side when the ball is on their side. For the central defender, the role is usually straightforward. They defend and distribute the ball sideways and forward. They can’t allow mistakes, as that would be an opportunity for a goal. In an ideal partnership, one defender would be the aggressor, trying to mark the striker tightly. In that case, the other defender will provide cover and security.

For particularly talented wingbacks, it is normal to push all the way to the other goal. In the last few decades, players like Daniel Alves, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Roberto Carlos, and Marcelo, have shown amazing results in attacking as wide defenders. However, we have seen other tactical plans where the preference is for an inverted full-back. This means that the wide defender comes to the center of the field and acts as an additional pivot. In recent years, Zinchenko has done that both in Arsenal and Man City. Similarly, a central defender can do the same in a different system. This was something new that John Stones did for Man City’s legendary treble season 22/23.

Midfielders – the heart of 4-3-3

The most traditional way of thinking about the central midfielders are 6, 8, and 10. The holding midfielder, also called #6 or pivot, has primarily defensive responsibility and just simple passes that retain possession. The attacking midfielder, also known as the #10 or the playmaker, is the creative outlet of the team with fewer defensive tasks. Finally, the box-to-box midfielder, referred to as the #8, is a hybrid of the two and has the responsibility of bringing balance to the team. When the team needs to protect the goal, the role can instantly change to a double pivot, to support the defense. When chasing an equalizer, the player pushes up with attacking duties in mind. Positional awareness and versatility are the key attributes of this player.

Attackers – the creativity of the attacking 3

There are two main positions to be analyzed here – wingers and strikers. The wingers can be classic wingers, staying up and wide. They often get few touches with the ball but are usually very fast and clinical in the opposition’s half. However, if the team plays with fullbacks that do overlapping runs, then these players act as inverted wingers, cutting into the middle of the pitch. Sometimes they are attacking the half-spaces, other times they drop back or push behind the defense. It is often hard to get the mindset of a winger right in their youth. It requires a balance of patience to wait for the ball, combined with speed and aggressiveness when they get the ball.

On the other hand, the rarity of a quality striker is what makes them even more in demand. There are many flavors of them. Some are big and strong, like Lukaku or Haaland, known as the target man. They hold the ball high and shoot from a cross or a pass. Others are very technical, like Messi and Firmino, often dropping to help the midfield and leave space for the wingers to run behind the defense. We often call them “false nine”. Then there is the classic 9, like Lewandowski and Benzema, who are adaptable, but are there primarily to score the total. There is more than one way to being a good striker, but usually, it is because of one or more characteristics of the players are dominant compared to others.

The Fluidity of the Attacking Formation vs. the Strictness of the Defense

The key to the 4-3-3 formation is to provide stability and structure in defense while giving options in offense. We keep the defensive shape strict and only change it if there is a particular need for it. The attacking shape must be fluid. That also gives the opportunity to adjust based on the advantages and disadvantages of the opponents.

Disadvantages of the 4-3-3

We must not pretend that there are no disadvantages to the 4-3-3. Statistically speaking, most soccer teams don’t play this formation. When playing against two attackers, like 3-5-2, it can lead to confusion in the defense. Say both central defenders are pinned by the strikers, and the opponent’s wingers push against the fullbacks. Then, we get into too many 1:1 situations. Ideally, we would shift whenever the ball goes side to side or we would drop the holding midfielder back as the extra defender. We need to practice this, in order to work.

Another disadvantage is when playing against one striker, like 4-5-1, attacking with 3 defenders in the back can give the opponents a numerical advantage and not allow chances. This usually means that often we need to make both fullbacks to push forward. They can do overlapping runs or invert to the middle. Nevertheless, we cannot allow for a significant numerical advantage of the opponents.

4v4 Formation by Rondo Coach Formation Tool
8v8 Soccer Formation 2-4-1
9v9 soccer formation 2-3-2-1 by Rondo Coach Formation Tool
6v6 Soccer Formation 2-1-2
7v7 soccer formation 2-3-1 by Rondo Coach Formation Tool