It's hard to admit. I love watching Chelsea play after Antonio Conte became manager and started to use his 3-4-3. However, I've been wanting to experiment with the formation since I saw Paolo Sousa's Fiorentina last season use the same formation, albeit slightly different than Conte, but the success of Conte's Chelsea has inspired me to give it a serious go.
The general principles of the tactic is actually simple, and consists of elements that aren't new. However, you can see how both Conte and Sousa (and others) got inspired.
- High possession, as seen in Guardiola's "Tiki Taka". When we have the ball, we can also create chances and score (and we keep the opposition from scoring).
- Fluid playerformations, as seen in Cruyff's "Total Football". We want the players to move around, so the player in possession always will have at least two other players he can pass the ball to.
- Keep a compact shape in defense and attack, sort of like a stretched diamond, to make pressing and passing easier for the players, and more effective against the opposition. This also makes it easier for the wingers to be dominating.
- While attacking, send many players forward to create overload in the opposition third.
- Be able to exploit the fast breaks and counter attacks, with a quick distribution from centrebacks or goalkeeper.
As mentioned, we've seen this before so there's nothing new under the sun. Worth mentioning in the same breath is Simeone's 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid in Atlético, Thomas Tuchel's interpretation in Dortmund, and many others I probably forgot.
I started off with the romantic approach: 3 at the back - one being a ball-playing defender, 4 midfielders with creativity and force focused in the middle, and (defensive) wingers/wingbacks to provide width and chaos up the sideline aswell as being relatively focused on their defensive duties, two inside forwards making runs from the wing to the center, being dangerous and creating chances or scoring goals, and a deep lying forward to link up with both the midfield and the inside forwards.
The formation looked like this:
However, after several hours of testing, I was unable to force the IF's to stay more narrow than hugging the sideline, without forcing the whole team to stay narrow and play through the middle only. They would only make inside runs when they actually had the ball, not just while the team was attacking. That meant the wing would clutter up with 3 players (DC when defense was stretched, winger, and IF), one of them being very stationary and not creating anything unless they had the ball. Which meant the wingers and IF's were useless. I tried with the "look for overlap" TI, but that still rendered the IF useless.
Phase two: surrender
After the formentioned hours of testing, I came to realise that I had to force the IF's into the middle, thus not staying IF's anymore. The lethal touch, the creative chaos and potential goalscoring threat that we see in the coupling of Hazard/Pedro/Costa had to come from somewhere else. So I decided to pull them into the center in the AM position, and setting one of them as shadow striker and the other as advanced playmaker with licence to score.
That also meant that the DLF needed to be adjusted, or there would be a clutter of players in the middle, not really moving anywhere. So I initially switched to an advanced forward, however, I'm currently trying with a poacher. Either way, the idea is to have a striker that leads the line and also creates space and chances, primarily, for the shadow striker.
That gave me a formation looking like this - more like a 3-4-2-1 now? Or maybe, with the shadow striker, a 3-4-1-2 (essentially a 3-5-2)? Either way it looks like an odd formation.
What we all have to realise is that our beloved game is just that - a game. All our romantic ideas will probably not work as we'd like in a digital world. The matchengine is bound by rules created by its creators and we can only try to bend these rules in our favor, as much as we can. This is starting to sound very Matrix-like all of the sudden?
As most teams don't have WB's that can act as defensive wingers (DW), then I adjusted the formation a bit so it could fit WB's instead. I initially tested this with Juventus, where players like Patrice Evra and Dani Alves could act as DW's without any issues. But unless you have the budget to buy yourself a couple of DW's for each side (probably financed by selling some of those attacking wingers with 0 in tackling), and you don't have time and/or patience to retrain a couple of WB's, then you'll want this adjusted version.
But now that we got the IF's out of the way, I wanted to test if any adjusting was necessary, or the wingers would just work "out of the box". And it seems like they do. However, if you're blessed with forwards that can't head the ball into the net, you're probably also wondering why the "Low crosses" TI doesn't work. The idea is low crosses by the wingers from the byline, but maybe my wingers doesn't know how to, as they keep sending high balls. I will investigate further, though. Might be a bug. What also might be a bug is how few crosses actually connect. In this example, only 4 out of 18 crosses actually connected with a teammate and wasn't intercepted.
Next to confirm - or adjust - was whether the 'keeper and the BPD would distribute the ball properly to either the wingers, or up the middle for the creative force. Ideally, if we're not counter attacking, the ball should be distributed to the DLP, who should either send the ball forward or pivot the ball right/left. But when counter attacking, the 'keeper should distribute short (per default) - and quickly - to the BPD or DLP, and then he should aim for the wingers or the striker(s).
After watching 25 games or so, I found that only the 'keeper was having some issues with quick distribution per default. The other roles worked as intended, so kudos to SI. That means the 'keeper needed a PI to help him do his job quickly.
AP, Enganche, or Trequarista
I was initially in doubt about this role - the second former IF. The left one is already converted to a shadow striker, which works. At the same time I want the other central midfielder, in my case the BWM, to maybe act on through balls or perhaps provide them, when there's an overload of players during the attack.
As most teams don't have a natural Enganche or Trequarista, and since the AP in attack-mode can provide deep runs from the pocket, I settled for the AP. However, the Enganche might be a better solution, provided that you have a natural in your squad. In my initial test, I had Higuaín at the top, Dybala as shadow striker, and Pjanic as the AP. Turned out to be lethal with Higuaín and Dybala as the main goalscorers, but Pjanic also slotted in his fair share. This is seen by this fine movement where we can see the the wingers at work, and the overload of players:
No less than 6 players in the oppossition last third, and the move ended in a fine cross from Evra to Higuaín, as I've tried to draw. But if he hadn't slotted it in, then two other players were ready to score, and if it went all the way through, then the Dani Alves was ready to pick it up and have another go.
Back to basics
If we go back to the list I made in the beginning, we want to convert those list items to TI's with "Control" as mentality (remember to adjust this when you play larger/smaller teams):
- "Retain Possession", "Shorter Passing", and "Play Out Of Defense" to emulate the Tiki Taka part.
- "Flexible" shape, as it fits our needs. Going "fluid" or "very fluid" might give us some unwanted effects.
- The compact shape is already taken care of by our formation.
- "Much Higher Defensive Line", actually just says "Higher" - the step higher than "Slightly higher", as we want the team to push up for overloading.
- "Close Down Much More", as we need to keep both wingers, and the high defensive line not to be overrun by counter attacks or long balls.
I have applied the following PI's:
- GK: "Destribute Quickly" and "To Centrebacks".
- WBR: "Stay wide".
- AP: "Move into channels".
As you can see, it is possible to get the feeling of the 3-4-3 in Football Manager. However, you can't get the romantic version. I really hope the crossing issue is fixable, as this is essential to this formation. But if it's set up this way, or something similar, it does work. I've seen Cleon and Ed Wilson have working versions that looks like this albeit with slight role-modifications.
Thank you for reading this, I hope it was worth the read and to some form of help to others trying to get this to work.