Despite the fact that Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 has become almost engrained into AC Milan during his four-year tenure, there has been a lot of talk about formations this summer.
Milan have in truth been quite chameleonic under Pioli thus far. He began by deploying a 4-4-2 which then moved to a 4-3-2-1 and eventually then the system which has become his most recognisable and was the basis of the Scudetto win.
However, it has often been noted that the interpretation of the 4-2-3-1 has changed too. Sometimes a pure playmaker like Brahim Diaz was used behind the striker, while other times a midfielder such as Franck Kessie or Ismael Bennacer would play there.
That was in order to give more balance to the side and ultimately form a three-man midfield while out of possession, something seen last season – along with the three-man defence – to try add solidity in order to combat teams who pack out the middle.
In Monday’s training session – the first of the summer at Milanello – images from Sky showed Milan taking to the field in a 4-3-3 formation amid suggestions we will see a more permanent switch in 2023-24.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek strongly hinted that it would be his preference, while the targets that Milan are linked with (Tijjani Reijnders and Yunus Musah above all) are natural box-to-box typed.
What exactly are the differences between the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1? How did the former become so engrained in football, and how could it benefit Milan? Our analysis aims to answer those questions.
Football formations used to be wild. In response to Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup win, Brazil came back with their own tactical innovation: the 4-2-4.
In 1958 – the year Brazil won the World Cup with Pele – it was observed that Zagallo, a player in the forward line would drop into
midfield and thus they would play with a quasi 4-3-3.
In 1966, England under Sir Alf Ramsey played a 4-3-3 however this time with Nobby stiles playing as a permanent defensive midfielder in a 4-1-2-3 shape.
However the greatest exponent of the 4-3-3 was undoubtedly Rinus Michels and his disciple Johan Cryuff. Their brand of total football was possible with only 4-3-3.
Now, the system is widely used around the footballing world with the most high profile current example being Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side, who just won the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup.
On the ball
Each coach will have their own interpretation of their 4-3-3 but here is a general idea of what players’ responsibilities while in possession are.
Wingers should isolate the opposing full-backs and get in one-on-one situations with them. They should create situation where they have to work around them to cross from the wide areas or cut inside and shoot/combine.
The lone centre-forward should be mobile and have lots of movement to pin the opposition’s ball-sided centre-back and should be able to drop into midfield to create overloads.
The attack-minded midfielders – otherwise known as box-to-box players or mezzalas in Italy – are often positioned in the inside channels (half-spaces).
They provide an option between the winger and the centre-forward as an option to receive the cross or to connect the centre-back/full-back to the wingers.
The job of the centre-backs in a 4-3-3 is to connect the the backline to the midfield. The centre-backs will split allowing the defensive to sit as a third centre-back allowing full-backs to push forward and the inverted wingers to push wide, making the full-backs the wide players.
Off the ball
As important as it is that players are given specific roles when team has the ball, it is also vital that have responsibilities in the non-possession phase too.
Wingers should come inside and try to create a narrow shape to force the opposition to try and play the ball wide in a high press. The lone centre-forward can try to cut off the option to switch.
Wingers can also line themselves with the two box-to-box midfielders and form a shape which looks more like a 4-1-4-1.
Wingers can also stay wide and press inwards to suck the full-backs into passing infield and therefore playing into the pressing trap set up by the midfield.
The three midfielders try to keep the central area compact. It is possible that they shift to a double pivot and have a single attacking midfielder like in the 4-2-3-1.
In case of keeping the original configuration of one defensive midfielder and two mezzalas, the box-to-box players can defend the half spaces behind the wingers or support the centre-forward in pressing.
The back four try and remain compact as possible. If the team have a narrow set up, the opposition may try to use the space between the winger and the full-back. In this case the full-backs may push forward to support the press or close that space.
Now that we are familiar with how the 4-3-3 works, it is important to highlight the advantages of this formation and why Pioli might be looking favourably upon it.
The basic strength of this formation is the third player in the midfield. This helps to create a numerical superiority against various formations.
Coaches who want to dominate possession often choose this formation because it helps to build out from the back, pass through the lines and helps to create more chances.
The key to this is that the 4-3-3 helps in creating more triangles between players giving more options to the players on the ball. Triangles are the most natural ways of by passing the press of most sides.
Even though the 4-3-3 has three men in the middle, the two wingers and two full-backs help to stretch play and create overloads in the wide areas.
In terms of the defensive advantages, the three-man man midfield means there is superiority in the central areas of the pitch. The defensive midfielder (or regista) helps to defend the space between the lines unlike a double pivot.
In the case of a high press, having three forward players would mean pressing with more numbers up front and not being as worried about leaving space at the back instead of a normal two,
Due to the fact the front three is made up of two wingers and one striker, it can mean that the striker is easily isolated by the opposition. It would require the centre-forward to be hard working and extremely patient.
The three-man midfield advantage can be broken with a 4-4-2 diamond, especially a narrow one, as it can numerically overload the opposing trio. Carlo Ancelotti’s famous Christmas tree formation could also serve that purpose.
In addition, the defensive midfielder has to work hard to prevent a 2v1 situation in the event that the opposition sucks the team to one side and then switches to the full-back.
Defenders: The centre-backs need to have good ability on the ball. When playing a high line they need to have the ability to read the play so as to intercept opposition counters-attacks.
They need to have good acceleration and speed to cover for their full-backs, if the coach allows them to go forward to assist the attack. Full-backs as expected are expected to have the athletic ability to support wingers and create 2v1 opportunities if possible.
Defensively they are expected to have good 1v1 ability, even 2v1 ability incase opposition switches play and the opposition winger and full-back create an overload.
Midfielders: The midfield is the crux of the formation and therefore the composition needed is quite specific.
The defensive midfielder needs to be mobile and has to direct the play. This means that he needs to be supportive and have the technique to distribute play. He needs to be quick and athletic to cover a lot of ground and have great tactical sense to cover between the lines.
The box-to-box players must have the touch and technique to handle the ball between the lines. They should have awareness of where the spaces are and how to exploit it. In case the coach likes to use counter-attacks then they must possess speed.
If the coach likes a more patient build-up method then the mezzalas must have good ball control when in possession.
Forwards: The wingers need to have the obvious and basic skill of being good in 1v1 situations and possessing good decision-making ability.
They must know when to stay wide and when to cut inside. One of the wingers in the team must have good crossing ability too.
The centre-forward is one of the most important points of attack and therefore he must have a high work rate and good hold-up ability. If the opposition stay deep then we must be able to make runs off the shoulder of the defender to stretch play.
The 4-3-3 is one of the most popular formations in the modern era of football where the concept of space and spatial awareness have been given arguably more credence than ever before.
For Milan, it looks as though it could be the ideal way to get the most out of their midfield because the players they currently have (Rade Krunic, Tommaso Pobega and now Ruben Loftus-Cheek) are all natural box-to-box players.
However, there are question marks too. A No.6 would be needed to give balance to the trio and Nicolas Dominguez is the only one who has really been linked.
Then there is the front three and how that might look. Rafael Leao is nailed on for the left wing spot, but a starting centre-forward and right winger are expected to arrive and they would have to suit this system and the responsibilities listed above.
Coaches like Guardiola, Klopp, Arteta and even Sarri all use the 4-3-3 formations and its variants, so Pioli would be joining good company if he made the change. More indications will no doubt come from Milanello and from the preseason games in the USA.