While it may not make for entertaining football, there is a reason that teams adopt a low defensive block and an extreme defensive approach in order to counter the talent discrepancy between them and the game’s richer sides: The system works—or at least it works better than any other alternative currently on offer.
When teams sit deep, it eliminates passing lanes into more threatening attacking positions. It also forces the opposition to throw more men forward in hopes of breaking through the packed defense and finding a goal. And when more men are thrown forward, this opens up the attacking team up to the counter—which is how teams like Atletico are able to consistently beat Real Madrid and Barcelona.
That said, one alternative strategy that teams could use to try and break through is to shift toward a 3-4-3 formation in the attack. So far Liverpool has been the only team to really play such a system consistently, but given the success they’ve had with it don’t be surprised if other clubs start to pick up on this and turn to 3-4-3 as a way of attacking a packed defense.
The 3-4-3 Against the Low Block
The 3-4-3 is closely related to the older 4-3-3 approach favored by Ajax and Barcelona amongst others. To turn 4-3-3 into 3-4-3 you simply drop the deepest midfielder into the back three and push the two fullbacks up into more wingback-type positions.
3-4-3 works going forward because it allows you to throw seven men forward, four of whom are working in wide areas. In most modern tactics teams play a much narrower style that doesn’t take full advantage of the wings. The 4-2-3-1 often uses two inverted wingers, both of whom will look to cut in and play the ball with the stronger foot. The 4-3-3 has inside forwards on either side of the striker. Even the 4-4-2 often ends up being more 4-2-2-2 with the two wingers behaving more like the wide attackers in 4-2-3-1 than traditional orthodox wingers. The narrow low block works because it puts defenders where the opponent has put their attacking players. In a 4-2-3-1 it’s not unusual to have five attacking players all working in a central position as the three advanced attackers stay central, the striker stays in the middle, and one of the two midfielders comes forward.
3-4-3 challenges the narrow defense by getting four players in wide areas, which allows for different sorts of passing moves and runs that the narrow low block defense is not necessarily designed to stop. In it, the two wing backs are pushed far enough ahead that they behave almost more like orthodox wingers looking to storm down the flanks and cross the ball into the box. Then the two wide forwards on either side of the striker drift slightly wider and attack the channels—the space between the fullbacks and the center backs. This creates overloads on the edge where the opposing wide midfielders and fullbacks have to figure out who is marking which attacker and need to stay with them. It also creates possibilities for the central three attackers, the two midfielders and the center forward, because the defense is being shifted around by the attacking movement in wide areas. To see this in action, consider this sequence from the 84th minute in last weekend’s Barcelona-Malaga match:
Malaga had been sitting very deep and narrow all match long and the Catalans had proven completely incapable of opening them up on a consistent basis. But then Luis Enrique made a couple late game changes to shift the team into a 3-4-3 that looked like this:
With that change, Barcelona started to have a bit more success against the Malaga defense. The best chance came in the 84th minute through a good run and pass from Neymar to set up Pedro storming down the right flank.
Here’s the set up moments before the chance:
As you can see, Malaga is very deep and very narrow. And for most of the game this worked because the Barcelona attack was just as narrow–look at the positions that Messi, Suarez, and Rakitic are all taking up in those central areas. Malaga is playing narrow because Barcelona allowed them to do so. But now look at Pedro out on the right wing. If they can get the ball to him, he has acres of space ahead of him. And that’s precisely what happens. Neymar cuts inside with the ball, finds Pedro, and the Spanish winger nearly gets an equalizer for Barcelona:
The 3-4-3 in General Use
This basic approach works just as well against more conventional defensive set ups as well. If the team presses well and keeps the ball in the attacking third, the 3-4-3 can overwhelm any four man back line because you win the numbers game as the two wing backs partner up with the three attackers to outnumber the four defenders.
This worked particularly well for Liverpool in their 3-2 win against Tottenham earlier this month at Anfield. Jordon Ibe and Lazar Markovic repeatedly attacked the Tottenham left side as Spurs defenders Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen didn’t know how to handle Ibe and Markovic without leaving Daniel Sturridge or Mario Balotelli in too much space in the box. This is, in fact, how Liverpool found their eventual winner as Ibe and Adam Lallana, who had replaced Markovic, combined down the right wing to pull Spurs defense out of position. This created space in the box for Balotelli to move into where he then scored an easy tap-in goal for the Reds, his first in the league since joining the club last summer.
Ask any Liverpool fan and they’ll tell you that it’s not all thrilling attacking football and goalfests when you play a 3-4-3. There probably isn’t any other system more vulnerable to exploitation on the counter since the attacking shape of the team can often end up being a 3-2-5 with far too many players committed forward and only three (generally less mobile) center backs deep to cope with fast-moving counters.