Is Modern Football Taking Lessons From The 1970's Era?
By Rulani Mokwena
When Pep Guardiola conquered Spain and Europe with his Barcelona side a few years ago, he knew he needed to find a different way of taking his team to another level. The principles were never to be compromised, retain possession, Pass into space, not the player’s feet. Move the ball, move your teammate, move the opposition. The evolution of Barcaʼs formation from 1-4-3-3 to 1-3-4-3 (with sniffs of MWs and WMs in between) was key in the Catalan side’s development as a football utopia, ensuring they progressed to an apex of performance without stagnating.
Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter played a similar card this past weekend when he sprung a tactical innovative move that gave his team a different dimension with a very fluid, yet extremely conservative formation for the important encounter. He chose to surprise us with what seemed to be a hybrid of a 1-3-4-2-1 and 1-3-4-3, for the first time during the qualifiers and it proved to be a masterstroke. This dignified his motive to improve, as well as publicly stating his readiness to play conservatively to get at least a point away from home, which is what Bafana Bafana needed to ensure qualification.
Although unlike Pep, his implementation system, was not born out of a progression of success. The system was really a reflection of the coach’s tactical nous and it was clearly a way to take components of previous tactics employed during the qualifiers and sewn them together.
Fortunately for both the coach and the country, the 1-3-4-2-1 worked, and an incredible performance from the team secured us a spot for this year’s AFCON. But where can this formation go for Bafana in the future? Is it a permanent formation, a template that Baxter can stick to and get back to rebuilding the national team; or was it a short-term approach from the coach in trying to secure qualification?
The system does seem to be the ‘trendiest formation in football right now due to the success achieved by Pep, Pochettino and Conte. Many teams have followed this trend due to the many positives a 3-4-3 can provide on the pitch. It allows the front three, the two number 10ʼs behind the number 9 lots of creative freedom and it helps them wreak havoc. To execute this system, you need two technically proficient central midfielders with good passing range to supply the ball to the front three and prevent them from being isolated.
The central centre back is usually a ball playing defender with superb technical ability and someone who can hit long diagonal passes towards the projected wingbacks (David Luiz for Chelsea and Tyson Hlatshwayo for Bafana)?
The system is also arguably the best formation to set up your team in a counter-attacking scheme in modern football. The wing backs provide the team with aggressive width and depth and the three forwards interchange to confuse the opposition and aim to get the ball in between the lines and this was clear with Mothiba and Zwane in the past weekend.
The diagram above shows how the players are linked in the 1-3-4-3 and how the formation creates passing triangles where the player who has the ball has at least three options to pass the ball too. As mentioned before, the 1-3-4-3 aims to exploit the space in between the midfield and the defence where the two number 10s can roam where they can be difficult to be picked up. The midfielders would be too preoccupied with the two defensive midfielders and the centre backs will be picking up the striker. Therefore the 1-3-4-3 can be so effective against teams that play a variation of a four at the back formation.
Alternatively, the opposition fullbacks could try and mark the inside forwards which would then leave lots of space for the wing backs to run into. This can be very effective especially on the counter-attack. The team can create an overload down the wing and hit the opposition quickly, something Bafana did extremely well down the left with Maela on Sunday.
Defensively, the 1-3-4-3 is very effective in stopping a team playing in a 1-4-4-2. The oppositions two strikers would be picked up by the two centre backs and because there would be numerical superiority in the first line, the sweeper would be left to step into the midfield if any of the two midfielders go wide and assist the full back with the 2v1 overload. The two inside forwards can deal with the opposition central midfielders.
Dealing with the 1-4-2-3-1 would be similar instead though the sweeper would have to come out towards the number 10 while the full back covers and the left-sided centre back tuck inside; this requires the midfielder to cover for the wing back.
The 1-3-4-3 is very compact in defence and can easily become a 1-5-3-2 in the defensive scheme and allows for a lot more efficiency in transitions due to the extra man in the rest-attack. Like Chelsea under Conte, Bafana and many teams who employ this system prefer to drop deep and aiming to use the pace up front to hit teams on the counter quickly. The weaknesses of the formation are that it can leave you extremely vulnerable defensively if the team does not work as one unit. Most of the defensive problems this formation faces are due to the number 10s not tracking back. Most creative players lack work ethic which can leave teams exposed to overloads in the centre of the pitch, which is why managers tend to use hardworking number 10s who tracks back (Pedro or Zwane) and another in the trequartista role who has little or no defensive duties (Hazard or Tau).
The biggest tactical questions are how you solve the problem when you are outnumbered by the opposition due to the two attacking midfielders not tracking back. In this situation, the three defenders are rendered useless because they are only marking one or two players. This leads to confusion as the defenders don’t know whether to mark the extra midfielder or control space. The formation is also susceptible to wing overloads like the other three at the back formations. You could even argue that it is easier to create overloads against this system as there are only two defensive midfielders and they are already occupied with the opposition. The inside forwards would not track the opposing full-back which can then cause overloads on the wing. The only way to counter this is to keep the ball and push the wing-backs high up the pitch which will pin the full backs in their half and prevent them from getting forwards. Three at the back formations can be effective or destructive as dissected above; it all depends on how you use the system and the players you have. You need to have the right personnel and the players must be well drilled in their roles for three at the back formations to work, otherwise, this formation’s weaknesses can be exploited easily.
I suppose we will just have to wait to see if Baxter decides to use the formation during AFCON later this year.
Rulani Mokwena is the Assistant coach of Orlando Pirates FC