[USA CONFIDENTIAL] When the U.S. under-23s failed in their Concacaf Olympic qualifying attempt, critics lambasted coach Caleb Porter's use of a
4-3-3 formation and/or the players he chose to play it. Barcelona has refined its use to an art form, yet its demands on players are especially crucial for its success. Ridge Mahoney checked in with former U.S. and Ajax Amsterdam star John O'Brien and MLS coaches for their views on the demands and benefits of the 4-3-3 formation.
When the U.S under-23 team surrendered a critical goal in stoppage time that knocked it out of contention for a place in the Olympic Games soccer competition, one of the few American players schooled in the 4-3-3 system it was playing was on hand to observe.
Former U.S. international midfielder John O’Brien watched the group finale against El Salvador in Nashville. He’d been working with the coaching staff at UNC Asheville and was curious to see some of the U.S. young talent as he gets ready for his next career; he has a degree in psychology and is taking his B coaching license course this week in Southern California.
He wasn’t the only one to notice that while the Americans were potent and incisive going forward, they were naive and vulnerable when they lost possession. The origins of the breakdowns aside, the U.S. players weren’t prepared for the unique demands of the system they were playing. It requires players to think defensively even when they have the ball.
“That’s the problem with the 4-3-3,” says O’Brien, who played 32 times for the United States and spent more than a decade in Dutch soccer. “You’re pretty exposed and so if you don’t keep the ball, you’re definitely very open for counters. Part of the 4-3-3 is getting used to knowing that when you’re possessing the ball, you’re ready in case the guy turns it over.
“That has to be ingrained a little bit more, what to do in transition. You’re on offense but you’re still thinking defensively. Once you lose it, in that formation you need to be able to press the ball right away and be tight to guys, because you’re so open.”
O’Brien, a native of Southern California, left home at age 17 to join Ajax, the club that refined and popularized the 4-3-3 system in the early 1970s. Injuries limited him to just 85 matches for the club and he also had brief stays with Utrecht and ADO Den Haag. He played a variety of positions, including left back and left midfield, though he’s best known to American fans for the central, holding role he usually played for the national team.
Many MLS teams have at times used 4-3-3 in the league’s history but it’s never been a preferred formation. Currently, Sporting Kansas City has utilized it to emerge as one of the league’s top teams, Toronto FC has used it extensively since Dutch coach Aron Winter took over at the start of the 2011 season, and new head coach Oscar Pareja has introduced it in Colorado. It has been extolled by U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and was implemented by U.S. U-23 head coach Caleb Porter for the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers.
The formation bore much criticism when the U.S. fell short, yet O’Brien feels the players selected to play the system weren’t thoroughly familiar with it.
“You know in a 4-3-3 you’ll have a lot of players in front of the ball, and I noticed that they lost the ball easy and didn’t have guys in the right spaces,” said O’Brien of a 3-3 tie in which El Salvador scored its equalizer deep into stoppage time. “When they scored the equalizer, for a team that needs a result at that moment, we were very exposed. There weren’t many people behind the ball.”
Kansas City is the league’s top defensive team with just one goal conceded in five matches, so the 4-3-3 does not automatically translate into leaking goals. Coach Peter Vermes implemented the system, which really seemed to take root last season when Brazilian Julio Cesar moved from the back line into a midfield holding role. His play has meshed nicely that with Roger Espinoza, who handles a lot of the two-way work, and attacking catalyst Graham Zusi, who himself covers a lot of ground probing for openings. Together, they shield the back four and provide good supply lines to the three forwards.
Though the roles and responsibilities and alignment of the three midfielders change, at least one player must be ready to buttress the middle. SKC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, while not a veteran of many matches in the 4-3-3, played the holding role for more than a decade in MLS and occasionally with the national team.
“In that position, not only do you have to have the physical capabilities to cover the ground that’s required,” says Zavagnin. “Some formations require you to have a bigger engine and certainly if you’re playing with one holding midfielder you have to have the physical capability to play that position.
“The other piece is you have a tactical understanding of what’s not only required of yourself in that position but all the other players around you, particularly in front of you and to the side. In general terms there’s an education process that has to take place. The 4-3-3 is a system we’re relatively unfamiliar with in this country, so it’s still difficult for the player to understand everything about playing in that area of the field in a 4-3-3.”
O’Brien cites that element as well; once Ajax found success with the system, it searched for players to play in it. Many Dutch teams copied Ajax to the extent they played it much of the time, and adopted variants such as shifting to a 3-4-3 to better match teams in midfield that were playing 4-4-2. During a game a centerback comfortable on the ball would push into midfield to help keep possession or launch an attack.
When he introduced the Rapids to his version of a 4-3-3, Pareja immediately ratcheted up the technical demands on his players. The club signed Colombian Jaime Castrillon and Martin Rivero to get more skill in the lineup, but the sidelining of veteran Pablo Mastroeni because of post-concussion problems has at times altered the formation. The emphasis on possession has not changed.
“[Pareja] doesn’t feel like in this system anyone can hide out there,” says Rapids midfielder Jeff Larentowicz. “That’s a really good thing because everybody should be able to play with the ball. It’s whether you believe you can do it and using it at the right time. Oscar is showing now that everyone has to get on it and want to be on it.”
Pareja also preaches another element of the 4-3-3 as cited by O’Brien; pressuring the ball once it is lost. In this sense the 4-3-3 is like every other formation in that mastery of it stems from the players’ mindset.
“One thing I’m asking them is I need midfielders who are committed with the game all the time, players who are comfortable with the ball and want the ball when we are in possession, but players who are eager to get the ball back when we don’t have it,” says Pareja. “That kind of mentality I want from all of them.”
Says O’Brien of the U.S. under-23 experiment: “The 4-3-3 is a possession formation. You’re going to need a lot of good, technical skill to play it, and it’s something were still working on, I think.”