How to beat a 4–3–3: The Thomas Tuchel way…
With Thomas Tuchel’s arrival at the Stamford Bridge, most of the tactics-enthusiasts have been excited to see what he would bring. Five Premier League games, one FA Cup and we have seen a free-flowing, forward-thinking, positive, vertically-inclined Chelsea who were structured 3–2–5 in possession and 5–2–3 out of possession.
However as ardent followers of Tuchel would know, these variants in structures or formations aren’t new to the German and he pretty much goes for any shape which allows his side to stick to his principles and play the football of his kind.
Speaking of which, there was one game of Tuchel which in particular left me thinking for days. The first time I watched this game, I was too carried away by how things were falling in place for Tuchel’s side and I failed to notice the small nuances and important details which led them to victory.
When I watched the game the second time and then the third time, I could see these details which were almost like intelligent cheese traps or fish baits, perfectly setup to lure the opponent in and BAM…go for the kill! It was no ordinary opponent as well, it was Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool who were playing the football of their lifetime with every team in Europe hating to face them.
It was indeed a special victory apart from the fact that Liverpool were at their best because there are certain shapes or structures in football which don’t have noticeable or innate weaknesses as such. The 4–3–3 is one such structure as it ticks almost all boxes both in possession and out of possession. Tactically it is one of the most challenging structures to break down, especially when a team’s 4–3–3 is a well-oiled machine.
The structure usually is a 4–1–4–1 without possession but if the team wants to press high and win the ball back in advanced areas of the pitch, then it mostly remains a 4–3–3 without the ball as well. This is what Klopp’s Liverpool preferred to do in the 2018–19 season, maintaining the 4–3–3 with and without the ball to be able to maintain a high-line, apply pressure in advanced areas and win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible. The reason why its difficult for teams to break down a 4–3–3 is because it covers all areas of the pitch:
a) There is width in first-line of pressure with three players covering the entire width of the pitch
b) There are three midfielders behind the first-line of pressure, meaning midfield overload is also not easy, especially with the DM always shielding the back-four
c) The wingers can fall back to help the full-back and additional support from the right/left central midfielder means the wide areas are also well-covered
d) With the sufficient support from the midfield in the front and wingers tracking-back, it is not easy to pull the back-four out of position as well and even on the rare occasion it happens, there are enough numbers for back-up and recovery
Beating a 4–3–3 the Tuchel Way…
PSG had been beaten 3–2 by Liverpool in the first fixture at Anfield and there were quite a few lessons that Tuchel had to learn. Credit where its due as not many coaches manage to learn from a loss, make the necessary changes and come out absolutely prepared for the next game against the same opponent. Not only did Tuchel learn his lessons but the execution was absolutely spot on by PSG. Personally, it is one of the best tactical masterclasses I have ever seen owing to the sheer courage of what PSG had set out to do, so let’s get into quickly!
A major part of this article is to talk about what PSG did on the ball to leave Liverpool chasing shadows for most part of the game. So, let us begin with the basic structure that PSG adapted in possession:
1) First-third & Build-up
It is difficult to give a name to this unorthodox structure as it can be called anything depending on how you see it. But as far as we understand the objective is concerned, there is no debate there. Some could call this a 5–1–4, some could call this a 3–3–4, some could even call this a 3–3–2–2. This is very typical of Tuchel and you would have noticed it if you have followed him over the years. No matter how unorthodox or complex the shape is, if it is going to help his team achieve the objective then that is it! This is something you would be able to notice even in his apprentice Julian Nagelsmann. The formation or shape would be a tool to help him achieve the objectives for that particular game against that particular opponent.
As you can see in the image above, PSG in-possession opted to go for a back-three with Silva-Marquinhos-Kimpembe, supported a sole central-midfielder in Verratti and two wing-backs in Kehrer-Bernat. The real twist here is with the four attackers in Mbappe-Cavani-Neymar-Di Maria. None of their positioning was that of a typical winger or a striker as all four occupied certain half-spaces leaving the centre totally empty.
Vertical & Horizontal Staggering
Here is a look at PSG’s positioning with the vertical lanes, I have divided the pitch into 7 vertical lanes for the naked eye in order to understand the staggering in an easier way. On each of the flanks, you would be able to observe how despite the side centre-back, wing-back, wide attacking-midfielder and striker being positioned close to each other, they all occupy different vertical lanes which leads to the creation of diagonal angles. These diagonal angles turned out to be key for PSG to progress the ball from one-third to another and create quick passing combinations using the numerical superiority in the wide areas. You would also be able to notice that in the centre-most zone except Marquinhos and Verratti, who are also mostly in their own half. In the attacking-half, the centre zone was mostly empty leaving the Liverpool centre-backs and central-midfield no one to mark directly.
Usually, there are five vertical lanes: 1 Central Zone, 2 Half-Spaces (Right & Left), 2 Wings (Right & Left) but for more diagonals which in turn will give more passing angles, a few coaches like Tuchel or Naglesmann further create separate vertical lanes in wide areas. In this case, you can see 4 players occupying 3 vertical lanes with Kimpembe, Bernat, Neymar & Mbappe on the left and similarly Silva, Kehrer, Di Maria & Cavani on the right.
Liverpool’s usual pressing with the attacking and midfield trios
We are all aware of Liverpool’s high-pressing works wonders for them to win the ball back in advanced areas of the pitch. The front-three makes sure it isn’t easy for the opposition centre-backs to progress the ball through the middle, by using cover-shadow and not allowing passes directly to the central-midfielders. This is further supported by Liverpool’s midfield trio who also maintain a narrow shape and push high up the pitch.
This is a snapshot from the earlier fixture between Liverpool & PSG which was at Anfield. PSG faced quite a lot of trouble playing out from the back and progressing the ball further up-field as Liverpool’s front-three along with the midfield-three suffocated space in the centre, forcing PSG to depend merely on the individual brilliance of Neymar and Mbappe. You can see in the image how Kimpembe (on the ball), has no feasible passing option with every player (except Silva) marked in touch-tight distance by a Liverpool player. Owing to this, PSG hardly were able to arrive into the final-third with the right structure and positioning.
Don’t Play through the press but around the press
This was definitely addressed in the return fixture with PSG’s unorthodox 3–3–4 structure in possession as they totally nullified Liverpool’s pressure. One way of escaping the pressure is by forcing it through the middle by gambling on the central-midfielders’ ability to fend off the press. But there is always a chance of being outnumbered and dispossessed as Liverpool’s front-three and mid-three’s pressing trap crushes the receivers in the middle to force errors and turnover of possession. So there was a completely different route that Tuchel took to surpass the press and reach the final-third in threatening positions.
This was the structure adopted by PSG in build-up and you can see how the three centre-backs split wide and stretch Liverpool’s first line of pressure with the wing-backs offering support to them. Liverpool’s front-three along with the mid-three form their usual pressing trap but PSG haven’t committed any player in the centre except Verratti. In other words, what is happening here is a 6v1 in the middle in favour of Liverpool while in the wide areas, there are enough numbers for PSG to go around the pressing trap.
Numerical Superiority in wide areas
By saying playing around the press, I simply mean creating numerical superiority in the wide areas and asking difficult questions to the players who are responsible for defending the wider areas. In case of Liverpool, these players were: Mane, Milner & Robertson on the left flank with Salah, Wijnaldum and Gomez on the right flank. If you look at the image above, PSG with 4 players on each of the wide areas, they were able to create 2v1s at every situation. At every height in the wider areas, you can see how a Liverpool player always has to answer a question: Should I go pressurize the ball-holder or should I go to his near passing option? Should I give him time or close him down? Should I go here or should I go there?
It is extremely difficult to be able to have the right answer to these questions for the entirety of the game. That is when defending or closing down spaces becomes difficult because there will always be a battle going on in the defending player’s own head: What should I do now? Unfortunately in football, there is no time for the player to think, answer those questions and then act, which is exactly where he begins to make mistakes.
To summarize PSG’s build-up play in the first-third, it was about patience, keeping the ball, used entire width of the pitch with centre-backs splitting wide to draw Liverpool’s front-three and mid-three into one side (mostly to the right). This in turn, opened up the other side (left) which was PSG’s cue to progressing the ball into the middle-third.
2) Build-Up Play to progress into the middle-third
As we had quite a detailed look at how PSG went about build-up in the first-third, let us have a look at how they progressed the ball into the middle-third and made themselves ready for attack. As far as ball-progression is concerned, there were two players who played a key role in helping PSG’s transition from their own-third into the middle: Neymar & Di Maria. Their unique positioning allowed PSG to find pockets of space in the middle-third as they successfully evaded the high-press from Liverpool’s midfield-trio.
As you can see in the image above, Neymar & Di Maria positioned themselves in a unique half-space. They were neither wingers nor attacking midfielders, the closest term we could think of is a ‘Mezzala’ but even for a Mezzala, they were quite widely placed. The main objective of this positioning was actually to be on the outside of Liverpool’s midfield-trio, in an attempt to pull them out of position by drawing pressure. If you look at the image above, it is clear how Neymar positioned himself outside of Milner while Di Maria positioned himself outside of Wijnaldum. While Milner & Wijnaldum swapped positions frequently, Neymar & Di Maria’s objective remained: Stay just outside of the midfield-trio and stretch them by becoming available for a pass from the PSG centre-backs.
Patience from the centre-backs to pick the right pass
As we saw earlier, PSG’s numerical superiority over Liverpool’s front-three, got Silva-Marquinhos-Kimpembe into positions with time and space on the ball to pick the right pass and progress the ball into the middle-third. While wing-backs Kehrer & Bernat were also free for most part of the game, they were never used to progress play into the next phase. As the widest players for PSG, they maintained width throughout and them receiving passes helped in titling/ attracting Liverpool’s defensive structure to one side and freeing up the other. This is when one of Silva-Marquinhos-Kimpembe would get space & time on the ball to pick the right passing option.
Here is a clipping from the first-half of the game when PSG’s centre-backs held possession for over a minute continuously before they decided to penetrate with a vertical pass. I have increased the speed of the video to save your time but you would be able to notice the pattern either way as towards the end of the clipping, it is Kimpembe who played the vertical pass to Neymar.
If you look at what happens seconds before that pass, you would notice that the ball was played to Kehrer, to which Liverpool reacted by shifting heavily towards the flank. After this, there was a quick switch of play via Kehrer to Silva to Marquinhos to Kimpembe, who had sufficient time to pick out Neymar.
One weapon which Neymar & Di Maria (especially Neymar) had to use more often than usual were runs from Liverpool midfield’s blindside, to drop into space and become available to receive the ball. This gave a particularly hard time to Wijnaldum/ Milner (mostly Wijnaldum as he spent more time at right central-midfield) given how good Neymar is at manipulating his movement.
The typical deceiving run of Neymar started with him moving away from the half-space and towards the wing to get Wijnaldum to believe he didn’t have to bother about space in front of him as he thought that the Brazilian was behind him and moving towards the wide areas. But after seconds of disguise, Neymar quickly accelerated from Wijnaldum’s blindside (from behind) to reach ahead into the space in front of him and received passes from the centre-backs.
Watch the above clipping carefully as Neymar waited for Kimpembe to set himself for the pass. Until that moment, Neymar stayed behind Wijnaldum and kept walking away from the centre to deceive Wijnaldum into thinking that he was heading towards the wide areas. But once Kimpembe set himself up for the pass, Neymar made the quick sprint into space from Wijnaldum’s blindside and received the pass. To make things worse for Liverpool, Neymar on receiving the pass also drew two players (both Henderson & Wijnaldum) onto him and released Verratti into space. This is the play that led to PSG’s opening goal as well.
This was no way a one-off situation but looked pretty much like a well-planned manoeuvre by PSG in order to utilize the space created on either side of Liverpool’s midfield.
The yellow-shaded region on the touchmap is the area we were just talking about. It is the area which was the blindside of Wijnaldum for most part of the game and also the area in which Neymar received passes from the centre-backs. You would be able to notice that out of 80-odd touches by Neymar, nearly 40 of them have come from that area.
Some key stats:
a) Neymar completed the game with:
b) Most number of touches by a PSG player
c) Most number of touches by a PSG player in the middle-third as well as in the attacking-third
d) Most number of dribble attempts by any player on the pitch (8)
e) Most progressive-yards carried by any player on the pitch (224)
f) Most carries into the final-third by any player on the pitch (13)
You would be able to notice how the right flank has more concentration in the first-third while the left-flank has even more concentration in the middle-third. This in itself, is an implication of how PSG favoured the right-flank in deeper areas to pull Liverpool towards their right and to quickly change sides and hit them on the left with Neymar’s movement.
As far as the attack directions were concerned, PSG utilized the wings 77% and central channel being 23% as compared to their season average in 2018–19, which was 70% wings and 30% central channel. This is understandable given how Neymar, Mbappe, Bernat; probably the mot important players in the middle-third, were all on the left.
3) Final-Third and Chance-Creation
In contrary to PSG’s approach in the initial phases of the pitch, in the final-third it was all about fewer touches, quicker passing and dynamic movement. None of us are alien to Liverpool’s press the moment an opponent tries to or has entered the final-third. This is especially true with regard to the midfield-three of Liverpool: Henderson, Wijnaldum & Milner. Hence as opposed to the patient keep-the-ball approach, it was about keeping-the-ball for as less time as possible and moving it quickly using passing combinations formed using the numerical superiority created in the wide areas.
As you can see in the image above, the most unique feature about Tuchel’s setup was how there were two strikers and yet none of the centre-backs had any player in front of them to deal with. As half-space attackers Neymar & Di Maria occupied spaces outside of Liverpool’s midfield trio, strikers Mbappe & Cavani occupied the space between the centre-back and full-back on their respective sides. The main reason behind occupying such a position was to pin back the entire back-four with just two players. Since Mbappe positioned himself between Lovren-Gomez, both the defenders had to stay in position and avoid stepping out to press as the danger of a run-in behind was always in their head.
The responsibility to receive the ball from the first or middle-third and quickly progress further into the danger zones was given to these five players in the middle. In most cases, none of these players were given the time to hold the ball and think. The only player who was able to hold the ball, carry it on his own to pockets of space, attract opponents to release another teammate was Neymar. While the others did a neat job of their own, none of them were really given time to create any harm.
Hence, it is possible that Tuchel wanted to have players who are extremely skilled on the ball to ensure that it is either moved vertically at pace or atleast won’t be dispossessed cheaply by Liverpool’s pressure. In that regard, none of Neymar-Mbappe-Di Maria-Verratti were technically deficient and proved to be the perfect selection for the given scenario.
There weren’t many long spells of possession that PSG could enjoy. However that was without a doubt, the smarter approach as three attackers attacking wide (Striker-Wingback-Half Space Attacker) with Verratti’s support from a more interior-central zone proved to be little too pacey for the Liverpool’s defence. The main reason for this was Liverpool’s midfield being by-passed easily by PSG, leading to situations wherein Liverpool’s defence were caught 4v4.
Notice how once Kimpembe found Neymar who dropped into space, every player who touched the ball ever since till the goal was scored took only 1 or 2 touches. The sequence of touches since Kimpembe’s pass till the goal:
Neymar — 2 Touches
Verratti — 2 Touches
Di Maria — 1 Touch
Verratti — 1 Touch
Mbappe — 1 Touch
Bernat — 2 Touches (Goalscorer)
PSG’s centre-backs along with the support of the wing-backs, held the ball for almost a minute continuously before creating this goal. However, the time they took to move the ball from midfield to goal, since Kimpembe’s pass was not more than 10 seconds. This is probably the easiest way to explain PSG’s contrasting approach in the first-third vs final-third.
Diagonal run-in of widest player: A Tuchel Special!
We discussed about everything that was happening in the central areas and half-spaces but we somehow didn’t focus on how the goal was scored when it was neither of Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani or Di Maria. The goal-scorer was Juan Bernat who was out wide at left wing-back till our eyes could notice but it is almost as if he disappears and then suddenly appears inside the box at an unbelievably perfect moment. Mbappe crossed, ball ricocheted, didn’t reach Cavani and Liverpool’s defence had gotten all the attackers covered. What they least expected at that moment was a PSG player totally free and unmarked, controlling the ball in front of the 6-yard box and calmly placing it past Allison as they entire back-four looked on.
Probably the most important element to understand here is how this was made possible. It is certainly not a plain instruction from Tuchel to the wing-backs that make diagonal runs from touchline into the box. It is a combined effort by multiple players who are indirectly contributing for this move to succeed.
As we saw earlier, Mbappe & Cavani’s positioning was unique, smart and pinned the Liverpool back-four from stepping out. By leaving the central space free and occupying the space between the centre-back and the full-back, each striker took out two of Liverpool’s back-four: Mbappe with Joe Gomez-Lovren, Cavani with Van Dijk-Robertson. This left Neymar and Di Maria to be taken care of by Liverpool’s midfielders Wijnaldum & Milner respectively. Now this ultimately meant that wing-backs Bernat & Kehrer had to be taken care of by Salah & Mane respectively. With Salah not tracking-back and Mbappe-Cavani occupying the right positions, Liverpool’s entire back-four was occupied. This in turn, allowed Bernat to make a free run into the box, followed by a calm finish.
Notice how Bernat starts from hugging the touchline and makes a diagonal run straight into the penalty area. You can also notice how Mbappe & Cavani also keep the entire back-four occupied with their movement in between Liverpool’s centre-back and full-back
The Diamond-Training Pitch
While there would be quite a lot of people aware of Tuchel’s diamond-shaped pitch in his training sessions, I still want to reiterate how these intricate details translate to meaningful results on the pitch. What you see in the image above, is an example of one of Tuchel’s training sessions from Borussia Dortmund. It is a simple 5v5 game with 1 neutral player in the middle to support the team in possession. The only twist here is that the four corners of the pitch have been cut-off to create the diamond-shaped pitch.
It is possible that there are people who may think, “What is the whole point of this when you have the entire pitch in a real game?”. It is actually for a different reason that these diamond pitches are used in training. Many players tend to develop a bad habit while progressing the ball into the attacking-third: The centre-back plays the ball wide to a full-back/ wing-back and then the wing-back plays the winger with a straight pass along the touchline.
If you couldn’t visualize from the words, here is a demonstration of that using PSG’s setup against Liverpool just for an example:
It is certainly not a crime going by mere rules but look at it from the point-of-view of a coach who wants his team to progress the ball to the final-third with the player on the ball having enough passing options for support in different angles. None of it would be possible when you play that vertical pass along the touchline to a wide-attacker. It is arguably the easiest pass to defend against for the opponent who doesn’t even have to put in a ton of effort. It is simply a matter of space as when the centre-back plays it to the full-back/wing-back, one side of the pitch is already out of access as he has a touchline behind him. Now when this is followed by a straight vertical pass along the touchline, the team in possession furthermore loses space with the ball-receiver having a man ready to close him down and other opponents closing down other passing options by hardly shuffling across a few yards.
P.S. — This pass is not to be confused with releasing a winger making a diagonal run-in behind the defence as such passes are made in the interior half-space / corridor
So by creating a pitch in the shape of a diamond, what Tuchel does is to force his full-backs or wing-backs to bring the ball back into the central areas while entering the final-third. This way, the ball-receiver has more space, better angles to receive, better shielding and more passing options as well. So in short, the players can go wide in the middle-third by playing to the wing-backs but the next step would be to bring the ball diagonally forwards or take it diagonally backwards and change side to tilt the opponent to the other side. Owing to this principle, Tuchel’s wing-backs are also habituated to making the diagonal runs-in from wide areas into the box, which is exactly what Bernat did before scoring PSG’s opener against Liverpool.
There is no one specific way to beat any team, shape, structure or formation as football is extremely dynamic with unique moments all throughout the game. But every team will for sure have its own gaps and weaknesses which the opponent can exploit if identified accurately. That is exactly what Tuchel managed to do with Klopp’s Liverpool as he spotted the gaps, applied his own principles, drew up a plan and executed it to perfection!