13 August 2016: The Beginning
James McCarthy put in a good RWB shift in the absence of Seamus Coleman.
Premier League season kicks off. In the opening gameweek, nine out of 20 contestants – including Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd and Tottenham – use the most typical, 4-2-3-1 formation. Five – including Liverpool – prefer the 4-3-3 shape. Leicester, Middlesbrough and Burnley stay faithful to a classical, defensive-minded 4-4-2 while Southampton and Watford battle it out against each other, clashing 4-3-1-2 Saints’ system with a 3-5-2 Hornets’ setup. The only trace of 3-4-3 shows up at Goodison Park, where Everton are hosting Tottenham. Faced with the absences of Seamus Coleman and Romelu Lukaku, Ronald Koeman goes for a strikerless formation. It involves Mason Holgate and Ramiro Funes Mori safeguarding the goal while Leighton Baines and James McCarthy are tried in the wing-back roles:
Everton’s wide areas against Spurs. Quite impressive.
Considering the lack of their two key players and the strength of this Tottenham side, Toffees do well, earning a 1-1 draw after an early opener by Ross Barkley. Forced to keep the tabs of Kyle Walker and Danny Rose, Baines and McCarthy put a solid, defensive shift there, winning five tackles, making four interceptions and four clearances between them. After this success, their boss repeats the experiment a week later at Hawthrons against West Bromwich. This time, though, the circumstances force him to abandon the plan early and replace injured McCarthy with Lukaku, which prompts a 4-2-3-1 switch. Everton come back from a 0-1 deficit to score an away win; soon enough, they go on a good streak while using a different shape and the 3-4-3 gets ditched, not coming back to Liverpool ever again.
1 October 2016: The Jackpot
Marcos Alonso – Conte’s great discovery, straight from the Serie A.
Having just lost two big games to Liverpool and Arsenal, Chelsea are undergoing a radical change in their playstyle. The old José Mourinho’s favourites, Branislav Ivanović, Cesc Fàbregas and Oscar are all going off Antonio Conte’s radar; at the same time, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso enter the fray. At KCOM Stadium, against Hull, the Spanish new signing and the Nigerian permanent loanee win five tackles, make three interceptions and five clearances in an effort that plugs all defensive holes recently pounded in the CFC side by the likes of Jordan Henderson, Alexis Sánchez or Theo Walcott. It’s a totally new sort of quality and The Tigers are unable to break it, as they only manage two shots on target for 90 minutes and reach the Saturday evening empty-handed, after a 0-2 defeat:
At Hull, Victor Moses has been far more eager to attack than his LWB counterpart.
Conte’s new ideas work out well for several reasons. The inclusion of two new wide players with a wide variety of defensive responsibilities unlocks Eden Hazard’s potential to not only win dribbles and set up chances but also to shine as a false-nine type of player. It gains extra importance in the second half of the season, when Diego Costa’s goalscoring streak dries out and the Belgian has to make up for it. Pretty much the same logic applies to Pedro, who permanently replaces Willian at the other side of the pitch. The Spanish winger, labelled a flop the previous year, has easily the best season of his entire career, missing the double-double EPL performance by just one goal and one assist – all while creating 40 chances in 35 games, which is more than he’s ever managed in a single campaign for Barça.
Switching to three at the back is also an unexpected blessing to Chelsea defenders. Unlike the traditional systems that consider the quality of two-men, centre-back partnerships as an essential anchor of success, Conte’s solution allows David Luiz to regularly drop deeper and sweep whatever goes past either Cahill or Azpilicueta. For a player, who’s notoriously suspect in terms of staying within the tactical constrains – it’s a very plausible change. Protected at all times by two teammates, Luiz organizes the passing game from the back at will and the run his team enjoys at the end of 2016 (thirteen consecutive wins with seven clean sheets in a row) proves how crafty his manager has been at playing to his strengths.
In the weeks before Christmas, Chelsea are winning the 3-4-3 jackpot – and then, everyone else took notice.
15 October 2016: The Comedy
Lukaku opens the score at Etihad. How on Earth Everton managed to draw that game?
Two weeks after the unveiling the new strategy by Conte, the relentless innovator called Pep Guardiola gets interested enough to try it himself. After a painful 0-2 defeat at White Hart Lane, he completely revamps his starting XI, benching Pablo Zabaleta, Aleksandar Kolarov, Fernando and Jesús Navas. With John Stones, Gael Clichy, İlkay Gündoğan and Leroy Sané replacing them, the Spanish boss goes for all-out attack approach, hoping to greet Everton and Southampton with an unprecedented dominance on the ball. In their own backyard, City players pile up so much pressure in the final third and close down the opponent so quickly that their games are close to turning into relentless hammerings we’ve once seen during Pep’s days at Barcelona and Bayern.
Unfortunately: it doesn’t work. In those two games, Citizens have all the tools and all time in the world to put multiple goals past Maarten Stekelenburg and Fraser Forster – but they can’t. It really turns into a slapstick comedy when the Dutch goalkeeper from Everton saves not one, but two penalties and the very first Toffees’ counterattack results with Lukaku’s goal. Against Southampton, it isn’t much better: Stones gifts Saints the opening goal by leaving the ball on Nathan Redmond’s plate; later, only Nolito’s contribution from the bench saves City from a defeat. By the end of October, Pep is back to square one with four defenders and Zabaleta in a right-back slot; from then on, he’d rather force Fernandinho to play in that position than experiment with 3-4-3.
Why it all fails? Clearly, it’s a case of overpressing one’s advantage and not being able to repel the resulting counterattacks. In just two matches, City are incredibly wasteful in front of the enemy goal, attempting 33 shots out of which eleven hit the target. To score just two goals from that is a disgrace for a side with Sergio Agüero, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva leading the line. On the other hand: in order to defend counters, a possession-oriented team needs midfielders with excellent interception skills, defenders who can dispose of the danger in cold blood and a goalkeeper well-versed at handling one-on-one situations. Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué and Víctor Valdés were that kind of players; Xabi Alonso, Philipp Lahm and Manuel Neuer were that kind of players too. Gündoğan? Stones? Claudio Bravo? Not so much.
6 November 2016: The Spread
Best in the country: Spurs have only conceded 26 goals in 38 league games.
While Citizens are experimenting out of curiosity, others do the same out of the necessity. After six games without a win and a flurry of injuries, West Ham use 3-4-3 to defeat Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, earning the first Premier League clean sheet in two months and following it up with a victory over Sunderland. A month later, Watford follow and they immediately recover from a devastating, 1-6 defeat at Anfield by beating Leicester 2-1. In both cases, the formation switches are short-lived; Slaven Bilić and Walter Mazzarri are only finding temporary solutions to the problems that go far beyond the tactical field. Nevertheless: the example is set – so when an injury blow hits Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld, Mauricio Pochettino already knows which way to go:
Tottenham’s average positions against Arsenal. Central control at it’s best.
Spurs field their new shape for the first time against Arsenal at Emirates. It’s a tense, fierce derby marked by an opening own goal and a traditional Harry Kane’s equalizer. Against the weakened defensive line, which plays in an entirely new setup for the first time, Gunners only manage to get two shots on target in 90 minutes. Their lone goal comes from a hit-and-hope set-piece that wouldn’t harm anyone if if it wasn’t for Kevin Wimmer’s panicky intervention. The new plan works. Pochettino postpones it’s further execution for another month, before he uses it again – this time, to collapse Chelsea’s ridiculous run and revive the title hopes in a 2-0 home win over The Blues. That game also finally crystallizes Tottenham’s shape, with Christian Eriksen drifting out wide to the right wing and Dele Alli effectively playing as a second striker:
Isn’t that surprisingly easy? With his past experience as an emergency left-back for Belgium, Jan Vertonghen has no problem with his new, half-central, half-flank role. Neither does Eric Dier, who assumes the job done brilliantly by Azpilicueta at Chelsea. It’s the Portugal-bound Englishman, who’s Spurs’ ‘odd’ centre-back, responsible for a range of ball-playing tasks in the midfield too. Two years ago, he’d disappoint in an ordinary centre-half role; a year ago, he looked decent as a defensive midfielder. This time, with Victor Wanyama forming a brick midfield wall in front of him, Dier assumes a far more fluid role. Not without success – despite some of his qualities being sacrificed for a greater good, he helps his club to 25 victories in 36 league matches he appears in, having the third-best pass accuracy (87%) out of all XI Poch’s regular starters.
17 April 2017: The Relief
Rob Holding and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have both flourished under the new system.
The league is coming to an end. Stoke have just recently become the seventh team to apply the 3-4-3 – without much success. Yet – it doesn’t stop others from trying. Arsenal, freshly humiliated by Crystal Palace in a 0-3 rout, losing in 7 out of their 12 matches in all competitions, finally convince themselves to make a change. Against Middlesbrough, at Rivacre Park, Arsène Wenger goes with Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding in front of Petr Čech. At the same time, Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain turn into wing-backs. It’s a painful, erratic transition as Gunners struggle for the entire first 45 minutes and later need some special, second-half effort to steal three points from simply terrible Boro team. Nevertheless, Wenger’s experiment continues: in the next games, injuries, poor form and the congestion of fixtures force repeating changes in a starting XI, but the shape remains the same.
At the end of the day, it’s a huge sigh of relief for AFC to stumble upon 3-4-3. They win five out of six final games of the season; they also find a completely new, fitting position for Oxlade-Chamberlain and figure out how to utilize Héctor Bellerín’s abilities without exposing the team to the ramifications of his defensive flaws. The third, extra bonus is the rise of Rob Holding. The lad, who’s been widely considered as an irrelevant signing in August, has little trouble dealing with reputable players like Riyad Mahrez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Marko Arnautović. At the other end of the pitch, it’s Ox, who assists twice in a smooth dismantling of Manchester United; Bellerín counters that by setting up two goals at Stoke. If only the league lasted a little bit longer, who knows? Those improvements might’ve been enough for the top 4.
Still: the story of 3-4-3 in the Premier League is far from over yet. Next chapter will likely be arriving in about nine weeks…