John O'Brien: '4-3-3 requires lots of good, technical skill'

[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.”

17 comments about "John O'Brien: '4-3-3 requires lots of good, technical skill'".
  1. Jack vrankovic, April 11, 2012 at 9 a.m.

    I like 4-3-3, but a lot of National Teams with far more technical ability than the USMNT can't successfully pull it off. The USMNT is not Ajax,Barcelona or Bayern Munich.

  2. beautiful game, April 11, 2012 at 9 a.m.

    This formation has legs when tean possession dominates while efficacy on both sides of the ballis a must. Reading the game properly and adjusting is crucial, and that amici sportivi is lacking in most cases.

  3. Bill Dumler, April 11, 2012 at 9:11 a.m.

    My son's U14 team plays the 4-3-3 and/or the 4-4-2 Brazilian diamond. Their success is because of their technical skill and patience which they are constantly improving. It is obvious when I watch the U.S. Men, Women and many MLS teams, their #1 weakness is technical skill particularly first, quality touches.

    The U.S. development has focused to much on player size rather than on player technical skill. Today, a team of small players from Spain dominate the game with technical skill.

    The articles' statement by Pareja summarizes why Barcelona is so powerful - “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.”

  4. Roy Pfeil, April 11, 2012 at 9:18 a.m.

    I like the 4-3-3. But I will also add that every system can work if you have the right players and if the players buy into what you are trying to do. The coach at Messiah College (D-3 college) plays the 4-3-3 very well. To say that the 4-3-3 is the answer is wrong. A system must fit the players. To fit the players into a system is harder to do. I did not see enough of Caleb Porters team to see if he even had the players that he needed. I would like to hear his thoughts on training, preparation and match analysis.

  5. John Miller, April 11, 2012 at 9:39 a.m.

    Porter is a good coach and was "advised" to use this system from the top. I doubt he would use it in qualifying if that were not the case.
    It is very naive to try to implement a system of play before we implement a SYSTEM FOR DEVELOPING PLAYERS. I thought Reyna was hired to implement a system for developing players. I have not seen anything like this so far.

  6. Walt Pericciuoli, April 11, 2012 at 10:15 a.m.

    John you are right, a system of play before a a system of players, is putting the horse before the cart.All efforts must be put into developing world class skill from the U9 level on up. Without skillful players,no system will work. With it,all systems will work.

  7. John Miller, April 11, 2012 at 10:25 a.m.

    Sounds like you have been around the game, Walt. Systems of play are often overrated. We DO NOT have a plan for player development. JK was given complete control of our development from top to bottom and I don't see a developmental system in place from him or the Technical Director.

  8. R2 Dad, April 11, 2012 at 10:41 a.m.

    John and Walt, there seem to be guidelines that were developed by CR, but there is a big difference between encouraging skillful play and actually selecting players who demonstrate those skills. Are we expecting a Developmental System implemented in addition to what we currently have, or are we expecting the existing processes are going to be ripped out by the roots? In either case, the way forward has yet to be communicated.

  9. Efrahim Fernandez, April 11, 2012 at 10:50 a.m.

    There is a system of player devolopment out there. It is The US Soccer Curriculum instituted by Reyna. Problem it is up to each clubs DOC to implement it.It discusses appropriate skill development according to age.It asks teams to play either a 443 or 4231. Why, it is an attacking style that exposes high demands on each player on and off the ball physically,technically and mentally.Un like the 442 which is balanced and leaves some players unexposed very often in 1v1 situations. Unfortunately,442 is the system of choice in many youth teams. More about results then development.You more easily hide deficiencies in your players and team. Ex. back four just defend.In 433(4231)your outside backs see alot of the ball and central defenders better be outstanding or your exposed. It is very difficult for any one no matter how gifted technically to play in a system at the highest level if they are waiting until the elite levels(u15/16) to be exposed to it.The Dutch for years have based their small sided and full sided play on 433.Everything is done in preparation for the adult player.It will take years of patience which unfortunately in the NOW generation may not work.

  10. Daniel Clifton, April 11, 2012 at 11:13 a.m.

    I have really enjoyed reading this article and the comments attached. The technical skills have to be developed at a young age. Claudio Reyna cannot force youth coaches to use his system. The problem at the youth level is the push (mainly from parents, but also others) to win at that level (and to hell with development). The only way to change that mindset is through education. The questions is how many parents are open to such education. There is always going to be a certain percentage of parents who put winning above every other consideration. As much as possible we need to get away from the pay to play brand of youth soccer at the competitive levels. But how do you do that economically? We are missing out on alot of talented kids who grow up in families who can't afford the pay to play competitive soccer. How in the world are we ever going to be a truly competitive soccer nation when we depend only on our suburbs to develop players?

  11. Ernest Irelan, April 11, 2012 at 11:49 a.m.

    Mr Clifton, you have said what I have "preached" all along. The only way I can see to get away from the "rich kids" being developed an not necessarily tbe best talented youngsters is that a requirement of ALL MLS teams have an academy for youth players, they furnish all expenses an house them, either with host parents or a dorm facility. They scout their youth in all areas of the country an develope them. My son traveled to Brazil a few years ago with his IOWA ODP 94 boys team, they stayed with the academy boys at the CRUZEIRO INTERNATIONAL exchange program where they had 3 different class of teams in their program. The boys were recruited at a young age of 13, attended school in the AM, instructed in soccer in the PM an played games on weekends.
    We all know the player's abilities that come out of Brazil.
    What I have seen in the US is that some teams have some sort of program for youth, but, it is only for the nearby youth who are living at home..thus, not necessarily the best players to develope. I have read all the comments about the 4-4-3 an agree that the players MUST fit the formation, it is an attack formation that does requrie players to be capable with it. The 4-4-2 formation is more defending type an a "safer" traditional English style formation. However, it can be easily tweaked in the mid as Brazil has done successfully. In fact, one year, my son's ODP team was coached by a Brazilian coach, we won the region 2 championship easily defeating longtime powerhouse ILL. 4-0 in the final. I only coached rec. at an older age with a younger player/coach who liked the 4-3-3, but, after attending coach classes an forums, I wanted to do a 4-4-2, we played a team with using both formations 2 weeks apart. We barely won 1-0 with the 4-3-3, 2 weeks later, we played with the 4-4-2, won 5-0..obviosly, we did not have the players with talent or knowledge of how to use the 4-3-3 that my co-coach has grown up with. I love to watch Barca play, they are so patient an talented, it is obvioius, they have a high tech. abiltiy...something that I believe to be taught at the earliest age, like starting at 5yrs..simple plyometric program around 7 to start the developement of legs an ligament strength an flexability, using their own body wgt...the worst thing to do is start too early with wgts an workout machines...there is a tape or dvd out there we used early one, son would perfect one move, then, go to another, put them together, called, "all the right moves" an I like it well for young players to get started yes, I am a retired ole took a lot of $ for me to put son in competitive clubs an over 7 years in the ODP program...however, it did pay off, an he will be playing div I college this is his passion, his goal early on in life, 3rd grade, believe that??? (-:

  12. john haley, April 11, 2012 at 12:54 p.m.

    Very good comments and discussion. However, I have coached comp. for over 15 years, been DOC of a couple of clubs, and what I see is kids who play soccer as a 2nd and 3rd sport in the US. Couple that with a lack of desire and work ethic, and you have a difficult scenario to train kids in. We need a cultural change in our country. Go to Brazil, there are games played every night for fun, and all ages are playing. Some of the best players in the world, did not go to an academy or get trained with lines and cones.

  13. John Miller, April 11, 2012 at 1:22 p.m.

    The last 4 comments are all very well taken. Our youth curriculum is very basic and has no carry over. Our technical director should be using his influence as a ex star player to teach, encourage and motivate coaches/parents on how to develop players. Can you imagine the excitement and influence that a seminar given by Claudio Reyna would deliver. Instead, we put him on the bench with the Olympic team. How'd that work out for us?

  14. Jamie Nicewander, April 11, 2012 at 1:36 p.m.

    The article is about how the 'wrong' formation was used. I don't know if that is true. On any of the goals that were scored can we say that the back four held their shape and covered responsibly any different then if they had been in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3? Were the back four out numbered at any time? or did simply careless handling of the ball and bad decisions by the individual players...regardless of the formation.... result in the goals being scored? I think as coaches we over think the game sometimes. It is 11 vs 11 on the pitch and the young men picked have a responsibility to beat the opposing young men. Maybe over relying on so much 'structure' has crippled our players thinking of a free flowing game,,or the sometimes beautiful 'organized chaos' as Barcelona plays.

  15. LaMont Moss, April 11, 2012 at 3:04 p.m.

    I think there is truth in all the contributions above. Yet, none of them are completely write or wrong. We(Americans)usually have lapses in concentration for reasons that are multifactorial. We lack the creativity, once again, for reasons that are multifactorial. I think the structure is esoteric if the players don't understand their responsibilities, lack concentration, are not creative,.......etc.

  16. Reuben Valles, April 13, 2012 at 1:45 a.m.

    This is a fabulous discussion. One of the best i have ever followed about our system. I believe we are on the cusp of getting "it". "It" being many many coaches starting to understand what all of you above have been stating. All of you are correct in many ways. Hopefully, the process will start being considered to be the important aspect of the development of our youth. Then parents will start to have choices as to which coaches and teams to have their children play for. I have a 5 year old and this dissussion is invaluble. Just excellent stuff and very helpful as i start to guide my son (and not just in soccer but this can apply to many sports and the arts). Its really not winning and losing, but the process and making sure we correctly develop the skill level to be used competitively at a later time. Lets build stronger and more sturdy foundations

  17. Scott Magill, August 24, 2012 at 3:09 p.m.

    My U-11 team played their first scrimmage with 11 v.11 on a full sized pitch(in NJ for god knows what reason, we move to full sided at U-11. I received my E license earlier in the year and I am following the US soccer curriculum guidelines to use the 4-3-3. The team we played is from a much wealthier club and had more skilled players (several of of my players had never played soccer before.) They ran a 4-4-2 against us and won quite easily by simply dominating the midfield. However as coach, I can still see the advantages and opportunities for creativity the 4-3-3 allows the players. It also showed my players why I have been stressing the importance of a good first touch and the need for everyone to defend. The tricky part as a coach is to have the patience to stay with it and to look at the bigger picture.

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