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An ode to the resurgence of the 4-3-3

In a world of inverted wingbacks in 5-3-2 formations, and catenaccio double pivots in 4-2-3-1’s, there’s a lot to be said for the pure, simple, fluidity of one of the more classic formations — the 4–3–3.

Far more sophisticated than the traditional 4-4-2 favourite, but with none of the airs and graces of the more modern rebranded formations, 4–3–3 is the formation for those who like their football played effectively and played beautifully.

Famously popularised by Johann Cruyff’s Ajax and Dutch national teams of the 70s, the 4–3–3 was actually first developed by the ultra-successful Uruguayan national team of the 1950s. The prevailing formation at this time was the, now quite bizarre-sounding, 2–3–5. What Uruguay did during the 1950 and 1954 World Cups — where they finished Champions and 4th respectively — was to bring the two wingers of the front 5 back into the defence at various times either during matches or from the start of games effectively making a 4-3-3.

This flexibility of having attacking fullbacks who provide both extra defensive cover and an attacking threat is one of the key features of the 4–3–3 formation. Having been obliterated by Uruguay’s 4–3–3 in 1950, Brazil began to take notice of this new style, having previously stayed steadfast in their commitment to 4–2–4.

By 1962, the national sides of Brazil, along with Argentina and Italy, had adopted 4–3–3 with varying degrees of success. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that club football caught the 4–3–3 bug.

Ajax, featuring a sublime Johann Cruyff at his peak, triumphed in three European Cup finals using the system and Dutch football was born in large part thanks to the fluidity that 4–3–3 allowed. Various teams across Europe and the wider world began using the 4–3–3 moving into the 80s, some whose identities were intractably linked to the system.

Foggia Calcio was a small Italian side from the South Eastern Apulia region. For most of its history, the club yo-yoed between the second and third tiers of Italian football. Then, in 1989, a little-known Czech coach by the name of Zdenek Zeman took over, and what followed has been described as the ‘miracle of Foggia’. Within two years, Zeman had taken Foggia from Serie C1 to Serie A, and for three consecutive seasons, this tiny club overachieved astoundingly — almost qualifying for the UEFA Cup in each of those seasons.

All the while, from Serie C1 into Serie A and to the brink of European qualification, Zeman insisted Foggia play a 4–3–3 formation that allowed for brave, attacking, expansive football that took many of the Serie A giants by surprise. And that, in many ways, is one of the key strengths of 4–3–3 compared with other systems — the flexibility provided by having attacking fullbacks and defensive midfielders means that teams can play open, exhilarating football.

A man not often linked with that sort of football is Jose Mourinho, yet it was he who in many ways pioneered 4–3–3 in England. In his first stint in the Premier League with Chelsea, Mourinho employed a 4–3–3 almost exclusively, often using inverted wingers like Robben or Duff (something we consider quite standard now, but which was revolutionary at the time) and practically inventing an entirely new position for the English leagues — best known by the name of the man who defined it — the Makelele.

We might scoff at Mourinho’s dull, unenthusiastic tactics now, but that version of Mourinho — and the football his teams played, particularly at Chelsea and Porto — was a phenomenon. It’s easy to forget just how attractive the football was of these Mourinho teams, as it sometimes gets lost in the history of their pragmatic success.

But Porto’s unparalleled run to Champions League triumph and Chelsea’s domestic dominance was matched by the aesthetically profound nature of the football they played — attacking, full-throttle and quick — Chelsea scored a more-than-decent 72 goals in Mourinho’s first season.

Yet the defensive strengths of 4–3–3 can’t be denied either. With Makelele at Chelsea and Maniche at Porto, Mourinho was able to create sides that gave almost nothing away. In 2004–05, Chelsea only conceded 15 goals on their way to the title — a magnificent shut-out rate, conceding less than a goal every two games.

Of course, 4–3–3, like any formation, is not the sole reason for a team’s success. There have been just as many bad teams playing 4–3–3 as good ones. But as far as a formation can influence the mentality of a manager and his players, there’s something about the romanticism of a 4–3–3, of its associated history with Cruyff and Barcelona and Ajax, and more recently Guardiola and Mourinho, that makes 4–3–3 quite possibly the sexiest way to win (or lose).

Contemporary proponents of the 4–3–3 were until recently few and far between. Brendan Rogers was often seen to play the system at Swansea and Liverpool, but beyond that, few managers in the last decade in the Premier League were willing to adopt the formation. 4–2–3–1 had become the dominant system of choice for most top teams in the last ten years or so, and then, of course, Antonio Conte’s 5 at the back revolution brought about another refocus for a couple of years.

But there are signs, finally, that 4–3–3 is making something of a return to the Premier League fold. Mauricio Pochettino has experimented with something akin to a 4–3–3 on occasion this season — the likes of Lucas Moura and Lamela fulfilling the inverted or non-inverted winger roles and Eric Dier as the Makelele (possibly the only time in history that comparison has been made).

As for Guardiola, always a fan of the 4–3–3 having used it to great effect at Barcelona; he has also dipped into the system this year with a front three of Sterling, Aguero and Sane, augmented by a midfield three of David Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, and the slightly more withdrawn Fernandinho. Though this is not necessarily his first choice setup at City, particular with the likes of Bernado Silva, Riyad Mahrez and the soon-to-return Kevin De Bruyne arguably better suited to other styles, his ability to choose the 4-3-3 formation allows Manchester City to be so effective and unidentified in their approach to Premier League games.

Mourinho himself has been prone to using 4–3–3 since arriving at Old Trafford, though if recent results are anything to go by, he might consign it to the realms of his past. In the recent Newcastle game, United started in a 4–3–3, with Rashford and Martial either side of Lukaku up top, and a midfield triumvirate of McTominay, Matic and Pogba.

Having conceded two goals in the first 20 minutes, Mourinho abandoned the system. Bringing on Mata for Bailly and pushing McTominay into defence nominally kept the 4–3–3 alive, but in practice, a player of Mata’s ilk is not suited to the 4–3–3. More of an attacking midfielder, Mata is best deployed just behind the frontline.

With the introduction of Fellaini and then Sanchez in the second half, the 4–3–3 was all but abandoned, yet Manchester United suddenly began to look decent again, and of course, ended up coming back to win 3–2. The final formation could be described as something akin to a 3–5–2, though it may be better referred to as the “chucking everything at it” approach.

One final recent proponent of the 4–3–3 is perhaps the one who has had the biggest impact so far this season. At Napoli, Maurizio Sarri often used a variant of 4–3–3, with Dries Mertens employed as a false-9 to huge success (56 goals in all comps in the last two seasons is a testament to this). Since arriving at Chelsea, Sarri has replicated this Neopolitan 4–3–3 and reaped the rewards. Unlike under his predecessor Conte, the 4–3–3 formation allows for one of the key side’s player’s to flourish.

Eden Hazard is being deployed as an out-and-out inverted left-winger for the first time since Mourinho’s 2014-15 title-winning season (not coincidentally, the last time the Belgian was at his consistent best— winning the Player of the Season award alongside his team honours). Under Conte, Hazard was having to defensively cover for the marauding wing back behind him, negating much of his impact. However under Sarri, in a 4–3–3, Hazard is being played to his strengths. Seven goals in eight Premier League games is proof that the 4–3–3 is the ideal formation to allow the Belgian to shine. 

And so it seems 4–3–3 is once again having its moment. Like anything in football, trends will come and go, at times 4–3–3 will be popular, and at others, it will be almost ignored. So let us bask in the current Premier League 4–3–3 resurgence and enjoy the fruits it brings — an Eden Hazard at his absolute peak may just be but one of them.

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Premier League Table

# Team MP W D L P
1 Arsenal 0 0 0 0 0
2 Aston Villa 0 0 0 0 0
3 Brighton & Hov… 0 0 0 0 0
4 Burnley 0 0 0 0 0
5 Chelsea 0 0 0 0 0
6 Crystal Palace 0 0 0 0 0
7 Everton 0 0 0 0 0
8 Fulham 0 0 0 0 0
9 Leeds United 0 0 0 0 0
10 Leicester City 0 0 0 0 0
11 Liverpool 0 0 0 0 0
12 Manchester City 0 0 0 0 0
13 Manchester United 0 0 0 0 0
14 Newcastle United 0 0 0 0 0
15 Sheffield United 0 0 0 0 0
16 Southampton 0 0 0 0 0
17 Tottenham Hotspur 0 0 0 0 0
18 West Bromwich Albion 0 0 0 0 0
19 West Ham United 0 0 0 0 0
20 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0 0 0 0 0

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