It's time for another Tactics thread!
At the end of 2018 Leicester had a very tricky run of games featuring Tottenham Hotspur at home, Man City at home twice in both the cup and the league and Chelsea away. However, despite these difficult looking games, Leicester picked up 6 points and took Man City to penalties in the cup game. How did they do this? Well a lot of it was down to improved performances from key players but without any shadow of a doubt a major reason was Claude Puel's switch in system from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3. In this post, I'm going to break down what the 4-3-3 is, how we play it and how it's performing.
Before I start though, it's worth having a quick glance at the previous thread which looked into the 4-2-3-1 system that Puel favours. This is because despite our success with the "new" system, in every game Puel has switched back to the 4-2-3-1 at some point.
But without any further ado, I give to you the 433!
The 433 has been around for a very long time... so long in fact that it's difficult to say who invented it. However, it's a system that when played with the right personnel is exceptionally effective and is often deployed by "bigger" teams who have lots of resources and are expected to go out and win games every week. The current Premier League leaders Liverpool deploy this system, and it was also famously used by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea when he first joined the Premier League. Manchester United (think of the team with Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez up front) and Arsenal among many others have also used the system in the past. Barcelona also very famously used this system when Guardiola was in charge, but I am going to leave them out of the discussion because they are a rather unique case.
What’s the idea behind it?
In possession, the 4-3-3 allows at least 7 players to attack, as the wide forwards squeeze the defence, the full-backs come up behind them and two of the central midfielders push forward with one sitting back to help the centre backs. When played correctly, this is one of the most attacking formations possible.
A good 4-3-3 has the benefit of "strangling" the play the other team has. This comes from combining two elements, a three man central midfield which typically dominates possession via passing triangles and three strikers who can press high up the pitch. who win the ball back quickly to start a counter transition.
Opponents find it hard to get the ball and hard to keep it. Midfielders can´t get a hold of the ball and are pressured quickly when they do as the midfield area is congested. Additionally defenders are faced with three men pressing them and there are no easy balls to the wings when the full-backs push up.
A fully-functioning offensive 4-3-3 is like the tide against a sandcastle - it might take a while, but it's gonna break through the defences eventually.
Now you might be thinking "but hang on in all of the games we've played this system, we've had very little possession" and you would be right! And we will cover why that is a little bit later on.
Key to this formation are the wide forwards, that flank the lone central striker. These players are all-round attacking players with pace and shooting ability, who use their speed on the wings before cutting in towards goal. Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane are outstanding examples. Leicester start games with Marc Albrighton and James Maddison in these positions, though James Maddison is a special case we will cover a bit later. Other players who crop up in these positions include Demari Gray, Rachid Ghezzal and even Ricardo.
The lone striker himself has a very challenging role. They need to drop deep to drag defenders away and leave space for the wide forwards, as well as link play between the two forward facing midfielders of the midfield 3. Though it helps if this player is physically strong to be able to hold up the ball and threaten from aerial crosses, it's not a necessity. Lionel Messi is very diminutive but plays as the furthest forward player for Barcelona and in the Premier League, Liverpool's Roberto Firminho is six foot exactly. Tall, but not exactly towering over other players. In this system, this position is of course played by Jamie Vardy, though on occasion Kelechi Ihenacho and even Demari Gray play in this role.
We then have a midfield three of whom two usually play a little further forward on offence, but all of whom sit back and defend together when defending. Ideally the striker is aided by at least two of the central midfielders. Those central midfielders form a tight triangle in the middle of the pitch and often fall into the roles of ‘creator-destroyer-passer', to attack, defend and maintain possession. Some midfielders combine all of those elements but a well-balanced midfield is key to the formation. THe two players that get forward of the three in Puel's system are Wilfred Ndidi and Hamza Choudhury.
One of the three midfielders has a more defensive role of the three. They usually sit back and play just in front of the two centre backs to form a shield if the team loses possession. This player also drops back when the team has the ball in their defensive third to help the team pass their way out of trouble and to make a triangle option for the centre backs to pass to. Now you might expect from the graphic above and with his physical nature that Ndidi would play this position, but you would be wrong! It's actually performed by Nampalys Mendy or Vicente Iborra. These players need to be assured passers of the ball and with the slight of foot to be able to deal with pressure from opposition forwards who will pressure them and is an essential role in the team.
Finally with a compact central midfield, the full-backs are fully expected to join the attack and move into the huge amounts of space ahead of them due to the high positioning of the wide forwards. These players need to be super fit because they need to get up and down the flanks all day long. Fortunately we are blessed in having two superb full-backs in Ben Chilwell and Ricardo.
4-3-3: The Leicester City Way
Now as mentioned before, our system is quite a bit different to a regular 4-3-3. That's because instead of using it as a "on the front foot" tactic, we've applied a typical Leicester City slant to it and instead use it to counter attack. Or at least we appear to start this way and then try to be more front footed after the game matures such as the recent performance against Chelsea.
In our system, rather than high pressing in the opposition box, we actually sit off them until they get into our half. This is because against the teams we have been playing against they have used styles which involve heavy possession and also use full backs that bomb on. We are trying the classic Leicester "rope-a-dope" tactic as we want the opposition to leave huge gaps in behind their full backs so that our front three and our own full backs can run into this space when the ball is turned over.
^Here against Man City we see that we have let Man City have possession without pressure on the halfway line. Vardy is actually occupying Gundogan and not Laporte, and neither Delph or Danillo are under heavy pressure from Albrighton or Maddison. However, look at how compact our midfield three are, Ndidi, Mendy and Choudhury are almost in a straight line and there is less than 10 yards between each player. This is an attempt to congest the midifeld space so that the opposition has to pass it out wide. However, one note of caution in this passage of play is that Kevin De Bruyne has drifted between the lines and is behind Mendy. Man City would go onto score in this passage of play through some excellent midfield passing.
^ Against Chelsea we see a defensive block when Chelsea are on the attack. Notice again how close our midfield three are and that Mendy is the furthest back of the three. A slight mistake here is that Ricardo is getting attracted to the ball leaving Hazard space behind him and Wes has stepped up trying to play an offside trap but is one step ahead of Maguire. In this passage of play, Hazard received the ball and forces Kasper into a smart save.
^ Another example of our defensive block and once again look at the midfield three. Again all within 10 yards of one another and compressing play. Chelsea are again trying to feed Hazard here, but he is offside but the faintest of margins.
^ This is from the first game in which we tried these tactics. In this game Iborra was the sitting midfielder whereas Ndidi and Mendy were more forward minded. However, in this game we barely laid a glove on Spurs as they ran rampant and ended up comfortably winning the game 2-0. The big switch from this game was putting in Hamza Choudhury over Iborra and moving Mendy to the sitting role. Puel probably wanted a player with a better engine to cover more ground as his lesson he learned from this defeat.
^ Here we are on the attack, or more specifically the counter. Ndidi has stolen the ball from Man City and sets up a fast break. This time observe that Mendy is slightly behind Ndidi and Hamza as the "sitter" whilst Chilwell is on the deck after a physical battle versus Danillo who is also floored. I love this freeze frame of James Maddison as it typifies the man. Unlike a regular 4-3-3, Maddison drifts centrally into almost a classic number 10 role whereas Albrighton plays wider. Here he has already found space, is showing for the ball and demanding it from Ndidi. I highly recommend watching this passage of play for some vintage Maddison who after receiving the ball, lets it drift across him to get us on the front foot and plays the key pass that leads to the goal.
However, also notice that whilst this was a case of "getting it right," Puel switched back to 4-2-3-1 after 30 minutes. This is because though Maddison was posing an offensive threat, by drifting inside he was allowing Man City far too much room on their right hand side and Sterling was threatening consistently. In some ways we are lucky that Kyle Walker was not playing as the two together might have been a better combination. Thus Puel changed it so Maddison could remain a threat in the middle, but by going 4-2-3-1 forced Man City into playing it centrally and using less wide play. Man City definitely got more of the ball centrally in the second half as a result, but the tactical change worked out well as Man City didn't really create a clear cut opening whilst Leicester created several.
^ A little later in the same move and we see some excellent forward three play. In fact perhaps the best play we have seen from all three all season! Vardy has been superb here, he has dragged FOUR players with him leaving Albrighton one on one with Delph, who he tricks with a checked run. Maddison has been superb here too, after playing in Vardy he has followed up, meaning that Vardy could lay it off to him if needed. But it's Vardy who gets 10/10 for this move for not only has drifted into space but has the superb game sense and "picture" to play a beautiful cross into Albrighton who heads home brilliantly for 1-1.
Here is the full goal (whilst it lasts):
^ Now we are looking at a replay of the attacking move that led to Vardy's goal against Chelsea. Here we again see the Midfield 3 who guess what... are about 10 yards from one another with Mendy the "sitter." But here on the break it's the superb Ricardo driving at 3 players with Maddison drifting centrally into space to act as the key creative fulcrum. And of course Vardy is being Vardy and sniffing out the space to apply a finish.
Here is the full goal (whilst it lasts):
Thoughts and Conclusions
You'd have to say the switch to a 4-3-3 has proved to be a tactical masterstroke. Whilst it was largely ineffective against Tottenham, it has been electric in the other matches thanks to the timely introduction of Hamza Choudhury. His engine and speed means that the midfield three can provide high energy when the ball gets into our third and cause the opposition problems. Whilst Hamza was eventually substituted versus Man City it was only because we changed to a 4-2-3-1 and Puel wanted a player who could drive at Fabian Delph to stop him coming forwards. And even then, Hamza did a good job as a makeshift right winger! So you'd have to say that versus possession heavy teams who play a 4-3-3 or variation that this is a very useful tactic to use. I personally expect to see it used away to Everton and think they may struggle to deal with our midfield three.
However, it's notable that we played a largely defensive version of this tactic and to question if it will work against a team that sits back like Cardiff or Burnley. In theory even if those teams sit back we should still be able to cause them problems as both Ndidi and Hamza have been getting forwards in recent games and both have almost scored. Liverpool play the same system and score a lot of goals. Of course, they have a world class front three in Mane, Salah and Firminho and it's in those positions where we may fall short.
Overall though it's been great to see these new tactics in use. Not only have they led to some truly fantastic results, they have also given us a "Plan B" we can use and also led to yet another academy player coming through and making an impact. I also think that Puel deserves a lot of credit for not only making this change when no one was begging for a 4-3-3 but also in all of the games to change it back when needed. Each time it has successfully changed the dynamic of the game and in beating the last two Premier League champions, really given us all a wonderful festive period .
Hopefully it marks our turning of the corner and leading onto a European charge next year!