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Sep 2011
11:35 Comments (25)
Can you play 3-4-3 in the Premier league?

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Rafa Benítez

Today I would like to talk a bit about the game I was at last night, Manchester City against Napoli and thanks to my technical staff and the TV we can also make a few comments about the other matches that completed the first week of the Champions League.

Real Madrid in search of their tenth title began with a win. There wasn’t too much that stood out tactically. Coentrao again played in the middle and 4-2-3-1 seemed to be the system Mourinho chose. They had some chances but also had problems holding on after the Marcelo sending off, mainly through the pressure of their opponents rather than through a clear idea of attacking.

Because of their system and style, Real Madrid continues to look more dangerous on the counter attack. When they regain the ball they look to play to their players up front who, with their ability and mobility, are very dangerous.

Yesterday I talked about the strength of the German teams and in particular I made a reference to Bayern Munich who because of their potential and tradition seem to me to be the strongest of the Bundesliga teams. They showed it in ‘El Madrigal’, where they were better than Villarreal who year after year are amongst Europe’s elite thanks to their model club structure.

Villarreal played with De Guzman playing behind Nilmar and Rossi, trying to be stronger in the middle with Marchena, Senna and Bruno, and giving more freedom to their offensive players. But this attacking strategy didn’t help them stop a more powerful Bayern with players such as Ribery who made a difference with his ability on the wing or Rafinha, scorer of the second goal, and playing with a solid defensive block which thwarted the Villrarreal attacks. A change of shape, to a diamond with a double pivot, wasn’t enough to make a difference for Villarreal.

In the match I went to, we saw a different system than we are used to in the Premier League. Napoli played with a 3-4-3 against the 4-4-2 of Manchester City (see picture 1).
In theory and on paper, both teams were matched up but the mobility of Nasri and Silva was a headache for the Italians in the first few minutes. The forward wide movements of City’s full backs gave them superiority in attack and were a threat. (see picture 2).

However, what was a strength for City in attack was a weakness for them in defence when Napoli regained the ball because they could counter attack with the 3 forwards they had left up. Any loss of possession could be dangerous and it was exactly that which gave away the Italian goal (see picture 3).

I think City could have won the game in the first half but little by little Napoli got more comfortable and left the question hanging in the air ‘Can you play 3-4-3 in the Premier League?’

25 Comments Send us your opinions
15/09/11 at 14:49:13 #1
Thank you for all your analysis, I have been coaching youth soccer (football) in the US for a few years and I get a big benefit from reading your blog.

If you don't mind the suggestion, may I ask that in a further column you elaborate on the subject of "playing between the lines"? I always find it particularly difficult to explain to my players the concept of two lines of players defending simultaneously, of making the field more compact and of having an impact offensive player capable of playing between the lines.

Thank you again for all your insight.

I like the question. It is very difficult to understand the role of a player between the lines. It is more common in "Europe" or South America, but try simple exercises first and use the video to explain them your idea.
15/09/11 at 14:54:36 #2
brilliant assessment of the game but in your honest opinion do you think 3-4-3 works in the premier league?? I dont think so, maybe in a one off game but not week in week out, the teams that play fast counter attack ( manure utd) and teams with wingers like bale & lennon will rip you apart 


Your are right, but if you practise you can find solutions and the other team will have also problems. The key is to work on the pitch, to practise the system and obviously, to have the players to do it.
15/09/11 at 18:51:10 #3
I would call Napoli's formation more a 3-4-1-2 than a 3-4-3 - Hamsik frequently comes deep into midfield when Napoli are without possession, much like Gerrard does for Liverpool. As Inter have shown so far this season the 3-4-3's main problem is twofold; balls bypassing the midfield can be devastating if the wingbacks are pushed up the pitch; secondly the wingbacks having to sit deep most of the time means that there is no natural link between midfield and attack - a 3-4-1-2 (as used by Napoli and by Kenny Daglish on multiple occasions last season) does not have this problem. Barcelona effectively play a 3-4-3 when they are in possession showing that this formation can have success, but it would require an immense amount of discipline to implement properly
15/09/11 at 20:48:37 #4
It is true, the second half they were very dangerous in the counter-attack.

I think that at home they will be expose in defence if they play with the same system.
15/09/11 at 22:30:44 #5
I actually quite like 3-4-3 in certain circumstances. For example, against a fairly straight 4-4-2 it works well because the 2 wide players in the 3 up front can press the opposition full backs high up the pitch. The wing backs can also push the opposing wingers back and you have one spare man at the back with the 3 centre backs.

There are two main problems with it. As Rafa pointed out in the diagram, if the full back in the 4-4-2 team moves forward and links up with the winger then it's quite hard to deal with and the wide forward for the 3-4-3 team either leaves the full back free to go forward or gets pushed deep.

The other main problem is facing a team playing 5 'midfielders' Say in a 4-2-3-1, The central attacking mid can easily find space in between the midfield and defence. In a 4-1-4-1, the defensive midfielder will find space deeper. A 3-4-3 often struggles to deal with players 'between the lines' and that's what makes it difficult. It also requires a lot of understanding
15/09/11 at 22:46:12 #6
I think it is easier for a top team to implement it than a limited team. Similarly, to what Dan said, I think it requires a great amount of focus and concentration from the entire team, to not get exposed.

In your example, if lets say Man City's Kolarov overlaps and face someone like Pennant, then I think Man City will get a lot of joy attacking the left flank, since Pennant is unlikely to track back, thus, causing the opposition to be outnumbered on that flank. But if Kolarov faces Dirk Kuyt, then it might be a different story, as Kolarov now have to match Kuyt's workrate, and that is a very difficult thing to do.

So i guess, the point I am making, which I am not doing it very well, is that, yes, 3-4-3 formation can work, but only if the 3 forwards have a very high workrate, and if the team as a whole can keep their concentration throughout the match to ensure that they do get outnumbered on the flanks when the fullbacks overlapped. 


Have you think about, if the 3-4-3 team has plenty of possession like Barcelona, what the other team will do?
Can you play with a diamond in the middle?
15/09/11 at 23:56:02 #7
"I think City could have won the game in the first half but little by little Napoli got more comfortable and left the question hanging in the air ‘Can you play 3-4-3 in the Premier League?’"

AC Milan won a game in the first half but we all know how that ended :)

In the premier league a 343 is not easy to implement because the type of players required are not readily available.

You need 3 ball playing CB's like Agger, wheres many CB's are Carra. You would need a LM and RM with the ethic, mentality and stamina of Dirk Kuyt but with more pace to quickly support the CB's and forwards.

To play a diamond midfield you need a holding player (Lucas) who can channel any attack in to a dead area or close off options. There is noone else in the PL who reads the dangers that well.

You need three forwards who can interchange at the right moments as we have seen Kuyt & Suarez do so often.

A static 343 would have problems, but if fluid with the right players - it's a nightmare for the opposition.
16/09/11 at 01:07:07 #8
Folliwing criticisms of the way Gasperini has been using the 3-4-3 I opted to watch Inter Milan's game against Trabonzspor the other day which fits nicely into this topic. The question here being 'Can you play 3-4-3 in the Premier League?' obviously all depends on the players at your disposal and who your opponents are. Inter Milan, in my opinion do not have the players to play a 3-4-3, for example, Nagatomo was playing on the left of the back three but was acting as a full back and thus Inter looked very vulnerable at the back with often just two men behind the ball. They came up against a Trabonzspor team who were well organised and were prepared to drop deep, get men behind the ball and then play on the counter. I believe that if Inter were playing Stoke yesterday they would have lost. Trabz were happy to build up slowly but Stoke's aggressive transitions would have meant Etherington and Pennant's pace and creativity would have been highly effective down Inter's vulnerable flanks.
16/09/11 at 13:44:25 #9
If you are playing with 3 at the back, I guess it would be more sensible to play with 3 CBs and have a defensive midfielder in front of the back 3. In such a formation, there isn't as much need to have wing backs bombing forward because the numbers are there in midfield and attack already.

The vital cog in the system would be the DM. There are players like Mascerano and De Jong who would do a good job in cleaning up with last ditch tackles if the opposition break away on a counter exposing your defence but I think more importantly, you would need a DM who is able to keep the ball, read the game well and make the necessary passes a la Lucas (thank you for bringing him to us!).

Lucas did a good job in showing his worth to the side against Arsenal last season at the Emirates where he was consistently doubling up to help our young full backs when necessary and this sort of play would be required in a 3-4-3.

Not many teams would be able to get away with it.


I like your analysis. Thank you.
16/09/11 at 17:40:31 #10
I think the 3-4-3 formation is something that might be next big thing after we've moved to 4-2-3-1 in recent years.

Essentially if a team is playing with 2 centre halves and a deep lieing midfielder when in possession of the ball it call appear that they have 3 at the back. Barca often do this and pust their wingers/fullbacks/wide fielders far forward and push their centre halves wide to expand the options for keeping possession.

With all of the talk of false nines and false tens the formation suddenly becomes extremely fluid - and then it comes down to finding the players who can fit into the system (and do multiple jobs when required).
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