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Non-Fungible Tactics - Part 1: Why is the 4-3-3 formation so popular and what defensive pieces are Toronto FC missing?

An evaluation of Toronto FC’s current squad and whether the team has the right pieces to play Bob Bradley’s preferred 4-3-3 system.

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

For some, learning soccer formations and coaching philosophies is an obsession. But, why do soccer fans care so much about these two things? Understanding soccer formations and coaching philosophies help people understand what managers are trying to do on the field. Knowledge of both can better inform the ideal players for a manager’s preferred system of play and can help evaluate whether the current players are a good fit.

The 4-3-3 formation is now one of the most popular soccer formations used by top clubs around the world. Despite first being used by the Brazil National Team in 1962, the formation did not really come into prominence until used by the Dutch in the 1970s. Pep Guardiola’s use of the 4-3-3 in 2008-09 with Barcelona (and eventual dominance with them) popularized the formation in the modern game.

The 4-3-3 is Bob Bradley’s preferred formation and he is trying to implement that system at TFC. In Part 1 of this article series, I will try to explain what the 4-3-3 is, why teams choose to play this formation and assess whether TFC’s current defensive players are a good fit for the formation. In Part 2 of this article series, I will evaluate whether TFC’s midfield, wingers and strikers are good fits for the 4-3-3.

This article series is not meant to be a debate on whether Bob Bradley is the right coach for TFC or whether he should be pragmatically changing the formation to suit the players he does have. Instead, the series serves to evaluate what positions TFC needs to improve at this off-season if they continue with Bob Bradley and his preferred 4-3-3 system.

What is the 4-3-3 formation and why do teams use it?

It’s important to recognize that formations are not the be-all and end-all. Formations are fluid by nature and can change depending on the flow of the game or whether your team is in or out of possession. Instead, a formation’s shape can give clues on how a team is set up to play from a principled standpoint.

Steve Farrugia l Field Insider

For those of you new to the 4-3-3 formation, this formation is organized into three parts. The four defenders are the first part (two center backs and two fullbacks), the three midfielders are the second part (typically one defensive midfielder with two central midfielders ahead), and the three attackers represent the remaining part (one striker at the top with two wingers to each side).

Why do teams use the 4-3-3 formation?

  1. Strong wingers/wide forwards - The shape of the 4-3-3 naturally funnels the midfielders towards the wide attacking players (see inverted triangle in the midfield from the earlier formation image and how close the midfielders are to the wingers). Generally, coaches with strong wingers/wide forwards will want to funnel play to those wide areas and the 4-3-3 formation is a perfect starting point.
  2. Emphasis on possession - The inverted triangle shape in the midfield of a 4-3-3 formation naturally places more of its players in or near the attacking third compared to many other commonly used formations (4-4-2, 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1 etc.). The goal of the 4-3-3 formation is to overwhelm opponents with numerical superiority in attack and typically favours controlling the majority of matches through possession.
  3. Pressing in the attacking third - As seen in #2 above, the 4-3-3 formation naturally places more players near the attacking third. This means that the formation by default is set up defensively to also prevent the opposition from progressing the ball out from their own end. A well drilled team pressing in a 4-3-3 formation can suffocate opponents wave after wave if the midfielders support each other and the attackers well.
  4. Triangles and fluid positional changes - The 4-3-3 formation creates natural triangles between players. When positioned correctly, these triangles help to give players multiple options to progress play. The formation is most successful when players fully understand what zones of the field to move into when a teammate makes a run to stretch the opposing defence. Fluid, interchanging positional play helps to both provide unpredictability to the attack and to ensure defensive gaps are covered.

Assessing whether TFC’s current players are a good fit for the 4-3-3 formation

All stats referenced below are courtesy of fbref and statsbomb.

Goalkeepers (GK)

In the 4-3-3 formation, there is an emphasis on possession and on building out attacks from the back. Thus, it is very important for your GK to be strong in ball distribution. Your GK should ideally be able to accurately play any type of pass (short/medium/long, ground/aerial etc.).

Short ground passes can be used to draw opponents in, while medium and long ground passes can help to quickly break through an opponent’s defensive structure. Medium or long aerial passes can help to bypass an opponent’s first line of pressing. More importantly, if your goalkeeper is comfortable with the ball at their feet and adept at passing, they can essentially act as an extra weapon to progress play.

Joshua Kim l Waking The Red

Alex Bono has been TFC’s first choice goalkeeper for most of this season. Ball distribution is certainly not a strong suit evident from his 28.6% pass completion percentage that ranks in the third percentile for the MLS. TFC’s second choice goalkeeper this season has been Quentin Westberg. While Westberg’s ball distribution is better than Bono’s, his 38.5% pass completion percentage is still below MLS league average, ranking in the 46th percentile.

Verdict: TFC needs to find at least one new goalkeeper this off-season who excels at passing to optimize the 4-3-3 system.

Centerbacks (CB)

Given the 4-3-3’s emphasis on progressing the ball out from the back, the CBs also need to be very good passers in this formation. Not only do the CBs need to be good passers, they must also be able to defend well in space. Since this formation naturally positions 5 players in or near the attacking third, the defence can naturally be exposed if the opposing team bypasses the initial press.

The defensive players then must be comfortable covering larger open spaces on the field. They must be mobile and comfortable playing close to opposing attacking players. They must excel at preventing those attacking players from turning up field with the ball to give time to their attacking teammates to retreat back and support the defensive players.

Joshua Kim l Waking The Red

TFC currently have four CBs on their first team squad: Doneil Henry, Shane O’Neill, Lukas MacNaughton and Chris Mavinga. Both Henry and O’Neill are right footed CBs not that comfortable passing or with the ball at their feet in general (evident from their progressive passing and dribbling data). While O’Neill’s passing accuracy % numbers appear good on paper, many of his passes are often behind his teammates (losing valuable seconds to progress quickly up field). Both are also not overly fast or agile, meaning that neither are ideal fits defensively for a 4-3-3 system.

MacNaughton is playing his first season in the MLS at 27 years of age. As a relative late bloomer, there is a clearer path to potential improvement to fit a 4-3-3 system as a right footed CB than either Henry or O’Neill. MacNaughton passes well under pressure (77th percentile) and is good on switches of play (77th percentile). His short (42nd percentile) and long passing accuracy (44th percentile) and progressive passing (45th percentile) will need to improve for him to be an ideal fit. He is mobile enough to defend in space.

Mavinga is TFC’s only left footed CB. Despite some errors and not looking his best this season, he has still had moments of great defensive play (especially once the squad significantly improved in July). At 31 years of age and with an option to extend his contract for 2023, he should offer TFC value in the 4-3-3 system. He has very good short (84th percentile), medium (69th percentile) and decent long (55th percentile) passing accuracy numbers, passes well under pressure (64th percentile), and is decent on progressive carries (55th percentile). He is also fast enough to defend in space and many of his defensive metrics are in the 80th percentile or above.

Henry is a free agent at the end of this season, while MacNaughton and O’Neill are both signed through at least the 2023 seasons.

Verdict: TFC needs to find at least one new starting caliber right footed CB this off-season who excels at passing and who is mobile for the 4-3-3 system to be effective. TFC should pick up Mavinga’s option for 2023 and find a new back up left footed CB if possible. Criscito is a candidate to move to the LCB role should Mavinga’s option not be picked up.

Fullbacks (FB)

The FBs in a 4-3-3 need to be very athletic, strong on both offence and defence, and have a good understanding of where to run to or what positional zone gaps to fill if a teammate has made a run.

In attack, an understanding of when to make overlapping and underlapping runs and what passes to make with the winger and CM closest to their side of the field is crucial. In defence, keeping a coordinated back four with the CBs is important, as well as the understanding of one FB staying back if the other has progressed forward to join the attack.

TFC currently has four natural fullbacks on its roster: Domenico Criscito, Richie Laryea, Luca Petrasso and Kadin Chung, along with two converted wingers who have played fullback this season: Kosi Thompson and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty.

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

In Criscito and Laryea, TFC have two ideal fullbacks for the 4-3-3 system. It should come as no surprise that the team’s performances in that system improved significantly once both players joined the team. In particular, Laryea ranks in the 90th percentile or better in all passing accuracy types, passes under pressure, progressive carries, goal creating actions, while also rating quite well on defensive metrics. Laryea is also exceptionally athletic and has the endurance to run up and down the pitch for a full 90 mins.

Even though Criscito’s numbers are not as good as Laryea’s in the aforementioned categories, he’s still above the 70th percentile in most of those, while also being much better than Laryea at progressive passes (97th percentile), switches of play (83rd percentile), progressive carries (72nd percentile), and has better overall defensive metrics.

What you begin to see is two FBs that are not only individually well suited to the 4-3-3 system, but also two FBs who complement each other well and offer different threats from opposite sides of the field.

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

Criscito is signed through the 2023 season, but his contract expires after then. If he is willing to continue playing into age 37, TFC should absolutely extend him and consider moving him into a LCB role. This position is one he is familiar with from his playing days at Genoa and Zenit Saint Petersburg.

On the other hand, Laryea’s loan is only until June 30th, 2023. If Laryea continues to perform as he has and excels at the upcoming 2022 World Cup, it’s possible that other European clubs may be interested in buying him permanently. However, if he has a desire to stay with TFC, the club should do everything in its power to agree a deal with Nottingham Forest to make his loan move permanent. If Laryea leaves next summer, TFC will absolutely need to prioritize bringing in a new RB to replace him.

Chung and Petrasso are both young prospects who were playing their first seasons in MLS. Each made some mistakes but also glimpses of promise in their minutes this year. Hopefully both can improve and learn the nuances of the position from Laryea and Criscito respectively to continue to serve as depth options in the future. However, neither one should be fill-in starters for a MLS contending team in the event of a Laryea or Criscito injury/absence.

Verdict: TFC can likely get by to start the 2023 MLS season with Criscito, Laryea, Petrasso and Chung as their FBs. There are many other positions for TFC to prioritize ahead of depth FB options until at least the 2023 summer transfer window. Ideally, TFC should do everything possible to make Laryea’s loan move a permanent transfer.

In the next part of this article series, I will evaluate the fit of the midfield, wingers and strikers in the 4-3-3 system, in addition to some final concluding thoughts.

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