As coaches, we can use different formations to provide our players with a variety of experiences and learning opportunities. The 4-3-3 formation is one of the most common. But why is it so popular? In this Q&A, we discuss why certain formations are used more often than others, look at how they can aid our players’ development, and assess the benefits of the 4-3-3 formation.

In This Article

“Formations have historically gone in trends,” says PDP Coaching Advisor James Coutts, explaining the origins of the 4-3-3 formation. “For example, when I was growing up in England, the 4-4-2 formation was popular. Then teams, particularly from elsewhere in Europe, started putting another player in midfield and were able to easily pass around the teams with two central midfielders — and then more teams started to change their shape.”

Should We Teach Kids to Play in Different Systems?

According to PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright, the coach’s job is to arm players with the means to develop — and this means exposing them to different systems: “It (success in the game) requires a technical toolbox, it requires the right mentality and physical elements, so players need to be able to succeed regardless of formation.”

“Too often, I encounter players who struggle to play in different systems.” adds Coutts. “It’s also a concern to see players who are told from a very young age ‘you’re this position’. A lot of coaches put players in the positions that will be the most effective at that exact time, but how often have wingers become fullbacks, or strikers become centerbacks? It happens all the time.

“Getting the technical, mental, and tactical understanding of the game is more important. If you equip players with that then they’ll hopefully be able to play varying positions within any kind of shape.”

Is it Better to Specialize In One Formation?

“Arguably, the only time everyone’s really in formation is at kick-off,” says Wright. “The game is so fluid and dynamic, and what the opposition does means we have to adapt. Fundamentally, it’s a game of space; if you’re clever enough to find space, you’ll have more time to make decisions and execute.

“Sometimes coaches want to control what happens on the pitch, but we must be wary of joystick coaching. Instead, we should support players in understanding that the game is about playing through, around, and over. How do we get them to get into positions to do that, and to be able to deal with the ball well enough to do that under pressure? I think that’s our responsibility as coaches.

“The game has some tactical elements, and formations come into that, but if we’re not preparing players to play in a variety of shapes and roles they can get pigeonholed into certain positions, and we’re potentially failing them.”

“There’s no exact right answer,” adds Coutts. “As coaches, go and explore, and don’t be rigid in saying ‘I only play this way’. Explore, embrace trial and error, and have some fun with this.”

What Are the Benefits of the 4-3-3 Formation?

“There are positives to the 4-3-3 formation, just as there are positives to any shape,” says Wright. “First, there are a few different options regarding how you can set up that midfield three. And it’s good for working on the relationships between players — whether that’s wingers and fullbacks or between the central midfielders.”

One notable advantage of the 4-3-3 formation is the versatility it affords the three midfield roles. “The players’ strengths are really important in terms of how that midfield three shapes up,” says Wright. “If you have two particularly good defensive midfielders, you might play a 2 and a 1. Conversely, you might play with two 10s, or you could have your 8 to the side and have one 6 sitting. There are lots of different ways to twist up that triangle in the central areas.

“I also love wingers rolling inside and fullbacks going beyond. You can use this shape to exploit width and create 2v1s on the flanks while your number 6 sits in there, meaning you effectively move to a 3-5-2. I think that’s the beauty of the shape, and why it’s proved to be so popular: its flexibility.”

How Can I Tailor My System to the Needs of My Players?

According to Wright, “If we are going to play a shape, it’s important that we put our players in positions where, within that shape, they can benefit and grow.”

“It comes down to the players’ abilities within those shapes,” explains Coutts. “For example, you may have a midfield three comprising players who are good off the ball, who press and harry. If you’ve got players with that makeup and you win the ball in those high areas, you’re in a great position in transition. Alternatively, if you have more technical players, you might look to build and really think about how you can find lines and drag opposition players in different directions to break lines.

“That’s something to consider when setting up these shapes: do the players’ characteristics suit the way you want to play the game? Having the players at the center of things is really key when you’re choosing your formations.”

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