Our last tactical review dates back to February, when we reviewed @cdeekyfm’s 4-5-1-0 tactic. Right now, we’re going to look at Rodrigo’s 3-4-3-0. Last year, he sent in a tactic as well, so we can consider this a semi-annual event. Anyway, I figured it was time to disect another tactic, so I fired up the laptop and got right to it. Are you curious yet? You really should be…
Table of Contents
Instead of some long and winded introduction by yours truly, I am just going to be a lazy slob and let Rodrigo introduce the tactic himself.
So, a few months ago I decided to go for a 3-4-3-ish strikerless tactic, after seeing you post something similar on your twitter account, and as a tribute to Bielsa’s (and subsequent managers’) Chile. I downloaded your own tactic later when you posted on the website, but I still like this short-passing one a bit more. Here’s what it looks like:The principles are these: to play possession-based attacking football, pressing high up the pitch and allowing the opposition no time on the ball. I want to be able to attack wide and defend narrow – to me, the only downside of defending very narrow in football is allowing wide players chances to cross – and that will be even more important here since I’ve got no full backs or wing backs, but then I chose three centre halves and a keeper whom I trust in the air. Both defensive midfielders roam a bit through the middle and offer a lot defensively, and the wide midfielders indeed have to cover a lot of ground, so stamina and work rate are crucial at any level. Up front is where I mix things up a bit depending on the game.70% of times I come out as in the picture above, but in games where I need to dominate midfield a bit more I will set my central attacking midfielder to support – and if I need to protect a lead during a game, I’ll pull him back to central midfield operating as a box-to-box player.As far as instructions go, again I’m worried about having width when on the ball, keeping possession, and pressing hard. This is what it looks like:I will always play on a Very Fluid mentality, and mostly on Attacking. Out of instructions, what I would change in specific games is this:– If playing against a team who defend well wide, with a fullback and a winger nullifying my wing play, I will look to “explore the middle”, instead of the flanks.– The weak point of this tactic is when facing very good wingers, as they will get behind your wide midfielder, and drag your closest centrehalf out of position, allowing space for runners, from midfield or even the strikers. In that case, I try to make sure my defensive midfielders are tracking runs and covering for the centrebacks. I might even change my defensive midfielder to a “halfback” if necessary during the game. After many seasons, I found out it’s better to leave that space for the wingers and mark the middle well than to try to beat good fullback-winger combinations with only a tired defensive winger. Play to your strengths, I guess.Needless to say, set pieces are crucial, and having someone with a “bullet long throw” is, to a ridiculous point, 15 goals more per season at least, whichever level you’re playing at. Defenders go bizarrely deep, allowing my players outside the box time on the ball to score or make assists.As far as having this tactic tried out, I can tell you I did that a bit. I’ve been playing this entire savegame on variations of this tactic, and I’m being pretty succesful (here I managed Arsenal from 2020-31 and Ajax from 2031-2035):In 2035 I left for Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa in order to try and win the 5 champions leagues thingy, and so far I can say the tactic works well on lower levels too, as long as your wide players and DMs have decent stamina. Oh, and put your best centrehalf in the middle. That guy will have to deal with a lot of aerial duels and long balls during a game against one centreforward, as the opposition will often look for the long ball to bypass your pressing. My record so far was 21 interceptions in a game by my captain a few seasons back, playing against a hoof-ball style team. And since it always falls to him, make sure that fella can play football too.
To get a proper impression of what makes this tactic tick, I played eight games. I made sure there was a nice variety in the level of opposition as well, so I would be able to provide fair feedback.
The results look pretty amazing, especially domestically. On the European stage, the 1-1 home draw against Sporting looks a bit iffy, whereas the 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge was achieved with 10 men for over an hour, which is a pretty big accomplishment in itsself.
These eight matches provided me with a lot of statistical information I wish to share with you. For all you statistic buffs:
Apart from the Chelsea, we were pretty much superior every game, even against opposition of similar strength, like Sporting, Milan and to a lesser extent Udinese. The Chelsea result can be considered somewhat of an anomaly due to a early red card as well. The team generally out-shoots and out-passes the opposition, keeping the ball well and strangling the opposition with quick passes, waiting for an opening to pounce on.
The basic shape
When we look at the basic shape, the team looks more balanced than one would expect. Initially, just by looking at the formation, you’d expect there to be a gaping gap where the central midfield ought to be. The average positioning throughout the match shows an entirely different story and tells you that, with the right player roles and tweaking, you are able to create a balanced tactic, despite the formation looking weird and unbalanced on paper.
As promised on the tin, a 3-4-3-formation, with three clearlyu-defined, slightly crescent-shaped lines of players. Nothing too odd about that really, when you look at it this way.
The supertriumvirate upfront
The most fearsome attack in world football last season was the one that fired Barcelona to its fourth Champions League title in a decade. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have scored for fun, interacting brilliantly and generally inspiring the team towards another successful season. The triumvirate Rodrigo has created consists of two shadow strikers moving mostly vertically, trying to get in behind the defensive line, whilst the third attacking midfielders generally roams laterally behind the two, driving into space to make himself available for flick-backs and providing a more withdrawn passing outlet for the central midfielders. In action, it looks a bit like this.
If we want to break it down a bit more, the movement of the three upfront is generally basically like this.
The withdrawn prong of the trident, Pjanic, picks up the ball and moves into space. In the mean-time the other two prongs of our trident, Iturbe and Ljajic, can look to position themselves to break past the defensive line, marked by the blue line in the picture above. It looks simple, but it really works like that most of the time.
Now besides this long and winded post describing how the mechanics function, let’s not forget the most important part of this triumvirate setup. It just works.
You can’t argue with these numbers. Thirteen goals and eight assists between the three players, in eight matches. This setup just works, period.
One of the elements of the tactic I really like is the layering of the attacks. The basic premisse of the tactic is that the outter attacking midfielders add the verticality from central positions, the defensive wingers provide the necessary width and the defensive midfielders tend to link up surprisingly often with the attacking midfielders or defensive wingers, whilst the most withdrawn attacking midfielder roams in the space vacated in the heart of the pitch, whilst the runners pivot around this wandering attacking midfielder, who looks to attract the passes into feet before laying it off to an oncoming player or slip the ball through between defensive channels to play someone in. That would look like this in a match setting.
The image shows the most withdrawn attacking midfielder, Pjanic, taking up a position with his back to goal. People are able to bounce the ball off him in this position, or he can dribble into space. Apart from the rather obvious one-two option with De Rossi driving forward into space, Pjanic has several other passing options available to him as well. This is basically where the various layers come into play.
First of all, there’s the quite obvious lateral layer. The defensive midfielder De Rossi passes the ball towards Pjanic. Both Shadow Strikers to the right and left are preparing a forward run. Usually, with the defensive line pushing forwards to prevent us from seizing control in midfield, there is a lot of space behind the defensive line and a flick-on into space is a very real threat to such defensive setting. In this case, the opposition is grouped more closely together, but the concept still applies, only between the two defensive lines.
Secondly, there’s the wide layer in the form of the defensive wingers marauding down the wings, offering wide passing options as well as stretching the defence, which has to sacrifice players to combat the threat of the wingers cutting inside or having a lot of time on the ball to whip a cross into the box.
Last of all, there is the central layer. With no real central midfield presence on paper, I was pleasantly surprised to see the two defensive midfielders linking up as often as they did, sometimes even penetrating into the box and providing an assist or shooting towards goal. Both the Regista and the Defensive Midfielder on Support have the freedom and space to venture forward, with no central midfielder occupying the space they are even required to do so and quite surprisingly, they do it well.
Just to appreciate how far forward these defensive midfielders tend to get, let’s just look at another match clip.
We can see the defensive midfielder ventures almost in the same territory as the Shadow Strikers in this instance. In some cases, they even penetrate into the box. In this case, the Regista, Strootman, surges forward to occupy territory where Ljajic would normally reside.
The Shadow Striker has been drawn wide to pick up on a loose ball, Strootman surges into the space, which leaves him with plenty of passing options. He eventually opts for a cross-pass through the heart of the defence, which finds Florenzi in space. The winger then cuts inside and sees Iturbe finish the move when Florenzi flicks the ball back.
The defensive component of the tactic is also extremely sturdy. Conceding a mere three goals from eight games is no easy feat, especially with away-games to Chelsea, Udinese and Milan thrown into the mix. The three-man defensive setup seems to hold its own in-game, as they shift across the pitch according to what side the ball is on. The right-sided defender would have to be comfortable coming to the right-back position, leaving two defenders in the area, leaving the central player covering the near post, and the left-sided player the far post, and vice-versa.
The main problem with a three-man defence is that it rarely works well against anything other than two strikers. Against one striker, you’re left with three versus one at the back, which basically means two of your players are not doing much defensively. In this tactic, it generally means that the central defender engages the forward, whereas the outter two provide screening cover, picking up on wingers cutting inside or midfielders linking up.
The second problem I see with a three-man defence is how vulnerable such a setup is to a quick cross over the top, switching the play to the other flank. The three defenders generally cannot shuffle over to the other side fast enough, so you need some sort of protection against teams that offer a wide threat. This is where the defensive wingers come in. They provide the very much needed wide cover.
Normal wingers tend to be excellent going forward, this three-man defence setup requires some sort of defensive presence on the flanks however, so it really is a compromise between the offensive prowess of a normal winger and the defensive stability of a more traditional wing-back. Overall, this setup seems to work quite well defensively, whilst the offensive triumvirate ensures some scored goals.
Lot of off-side decisions
I know it seems like a little thing to complain about, but things like these happened quite a lot when I used this tactic, generally four to five times every match in fact. I’m talking about the off-side decisions.
Offside in itsself is harmless, it could be down to a lot of factors and most of them could be player-related. However, considering the quality of the players at my disposal, I don’t think that’s very likely. Either way, the constant offside decisions are annoying. In fact, over the course of those eight games I played using this tactic, I even got five instances where such an off-side decision resulted in a disallowed goal. That’s even more annoying…
Now I do have a possible cause (and solution) for this… I did notice that most of the off-sides occurred from a pass by either Strootman or De Rossi, basically the two defensive midfielders. Maybe they just have to cover too much ground in order to give the right pass. I have also noticed that almost every assist by either defensive midfielder is a fairly long range pass as such.
As you can see, a long range pass by Strootman sees Iturbe race clear and score, but it really is a risky pass, borderline off-side. You can see this even better when we freeze the screen and examine the situation more closely.
Strootman only has two realistic passing options, he eventually decides to go for the risky Hollywood-pass and it does pay off, but it could explain the unusually high amount of off-sides every match. Perhaps we could instruct Strootman to get further forward, reducing the distance and the risk of such a pass? Or maybe the team tempo could go up a notch, making him play the ball faster?
Difficulties breaking down a centralised defence
We’ve mentioned the pillars of strikerless football before, in which we highlighted the importance of movement. Any team that manages to restrict the movement of a strikerless team stands a decent chance of beating or at least containing the strikerless formation. If a team packs the defensive area with a lot of bodies, the team will struggle. As it happens in the rather defence-minded Serie A, some opposing teams will crowd the center of the pitch with defenders and defensive midfielders, leaving no room for my central attacking midfielders to run into. This is how Parma lined up.
Parma are setting up to contain us and to be fair, they succeeded. We won 1-0, courtesy of a Manolas header from a corner, but we struggled to break through their lines. Gobbi and Cassani were able to contain our defensive wingers. After all, they are defensive wingers and they are not used to penetrating into the box or running near the box that much, sort of eliminating the wide threat offered by my team. Lodi and Lila acted as advanced sweepers, screening the area in front of the defence, allowing the three-man defence to sit fairly deep and narrow, effectively limiting the space we got.
We got into situation like this quite often, where the only real outlet was down the flanks. However, with our defensive wingers positioned far away, it generally took them too long to get in an advanced position, which allowed Parma time to re-group and re-organise, effectively packing the penalty area with bodies, making any cross into the box an exercise in futility, whereas most of the short, one-two-type passes in the area just in front of the penalty area were often snuffed out by the two defensive midfielders Parma fielded.
Struggling versus wide threats and lone striker combinations
So yeah, remember where I discussed the merits of a three-man defence and its weakness versus a lone striker? It turns out this tactic handles that rather well, unless the other team plays with wingers high up the pitch. In that case, situations like this one happen rather frequently.
We can see Hazard receiving the ball from Filipe Luis. The Brazilian was bringing the ball forward rather unopposed by the defensive winger, who instead was tracking back towards Hazard. The Belgian winger plays the ball into space, right between Manolas and Castán, the right defender and the central defender. Rémy, who is a rather fast and mobile striker, chases down the ball and gets hacked down by Castán. Let’s see the Chelsea line-up.
The deep positioning by Hazard and Cuadrado basically pins back our defensive wingers. The presence of Oscar in the central area also means Strootman and De Rossi can’t shuffle over as easily as one might hope. If the lone forward makes a lot of lateral runs, he can cause all sorts of trouble for the poor defenders.
Hazard basically pins back the defensive winger too much, allowing the opposing wing-back time on the ball to sort out the build-up. Since the three defenders are spread rather wide, a mobile and fast striker can run amok between the defenders. Chelsea battered us for most of the match, helped by the red card for Castán, who made a duplicate of the foul from the clip above, again trying to sort out a menacing run by Rémy between the lines.