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So the 4-3-3 works afterall; What do ya know about that?

Apr 12, 2012, 8:10 AM EDT


Trashing the 4-3-3 was positively de rigueur last year along some media outposts, “in” like the iPad 3.

The 4-3-3 just won’t work in MLS!  It was painted like a tuxedo and tails; it’s a good look, but you have to be in the right place to pull it off – and Major League Soccer just wasn’t the right place.

Or so the theory went.

Personally, I never bought it. Because the primary base of doubt was always Toronto FC.

I think we can all agree that Toronto has been anywhere from “average” to “bad” to “spectacularly inept” in a vast number of different formations over the years. The 4-3-3? Yeah, the bunch from BMO can stink in that one, too.

And yet, the formation itself was somehow a goat – never mind that Sporting Kansas City was rowing along nicely in a 4-3-3.

Then came Jurgen Klinsmann and his desire to merge the U.S. national team into a more aggressive period. A 4-3-3 formation could be part of it, he said.

Then Caleb Porter added to the tactical-talking skirmish by rolling 4-3-3 with his under-23s. So when the U.S. bid crashed on the CONCACAF rocks, the 4-3-3 detractors yelled “Aha! What did we tell you?”

Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City is setting league records. Others have embraced the 4-3-3, or its slightly more conservative cousin, the 4-2-3-1. (Same thing, really, but the central triangle is inverted, with two holding midfielders and one creator playing ahead of them.)

Vancouver and Colorado are rocking a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Jay Heaps hoped to lean in that direction but had to shelve the plans (at least temporarily) when his best passer, Benny Feilhaber, went on the injury shelf.

Bottom line: the best formation is usually one that works for the personnel on hand, an arrangement that best suits the individual strengths of the highest number of players.

But as long as we’re talking about the 4-3-3, let’s hear from a guy who knows what’s what on the Dutch-rooted scheme. That’s John O’Brien, the Californian who left as a teenager to go learn the Ajax way in the Netherlands.

He talked to Soccer America veteran scribe Ridge Mahoney about the kind of players who fit into the 4-3-3. It’s an interesting read, not just for the tactical talk, but for catching up on the man whose career was chopped down way too soon by injury.

  1. thetomi - Apr 12, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    Steve, it’s like I ask you give. Thanks for the link, I’ll go ahead form an informed opinion. Please more of this.

  2. manutebol - Apr 12, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    4-3-3 failed in a lot more places than TFC. But yes, SKC have proved that it can work in MLS.

    I’m not convinced colorado will be successful with it this year.

  3. dreadpirate82 - Apr 12, 2012 at 11:02 AM

    A big reason this site has been so refreshing is that Steve and Richard always seem to find the heart of every issue. Case in point from above:

    Bottom line: the best formation is usually one that works for the personnel on hand, an arrangement that best suits the individual strengths of the highest number of players.

  4. Liviu Bird - Apr 12, 2012 at 11:06 AM

    I would say that Sporting Kansas City plays a 4-2-3-1 also, but the point is basically moot. You are absolutely correct in asserting that the right system for each team is one that is grounded in the players, not the coaches. I’ve played in everything from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 to 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1, and the bottom line is that the best teams find a way to win with the players at hand, and that includes deciding their formation. Just as SKC does so well in 4-2-3-1, Real Salt Lake does excellently in a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield.

    As they say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

  5. donjuego - Apr 12, 2012 at 2:08 PM

    I realize there is a ton of subjective opinion in these matters. Having said that, here is mine:

    I’ve not seen one MLS team yet play a 4-3-3. That would require having three players stay high after the other team attacks past them and wait for the ball to be won back by others. No one does that. Not TFC, not the SporKC, not the Rapids.

    In MLS saying you run a 4-3-3 really means “a 4-5-1 but I want you to consider me attack minded, progressive and cool.”

    To say you have 3 forwards, but give 2 of them defensive responsibilies to track and stay inside the ball is meaningless. You can call em forwards but their midfielders. Forwards are not two-way players.

    • Steve Davis - Apr 12, 2012 at 5:21 PM

      Hmmm. I agree with some points, but Sporting KC? C’mon. They DO press in high spots. They absolutely have two forwards playing up high (Kamara and Sapong) and one “winger” out wide (Bobby Convey). I would argue that its not a “true” 4-3-3 only in that they use just the one true winger.

      • crossmlk - Apr 15, 2012 at 4:18 AM

        donjuego – Well since every Sporting player is expected to play defense I guess that means that we’re really playing a 2-8-0 (since the two backline wingers get forward every bit as much as the mids). But seriously the heart of the Dutch system is high pressure from all 10 outfield players and that starts at the top of the formation.

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