The base formation for the USMNT under Berhalter has been the 433. That’s been unchanged. If you look around the world at some of the best teams, many seem to have the base of a 433. Man City, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern, Barcelona, Ajax. Why is this structure or formation so popular?
I have a theory.
Formations and systems are trendy. It wasn’t that long ago that the 4231 was all anyone had been playing. In the last year, we saw a heavy use of 3 in the back systems across the major teams. Tuchel went from heavily using the 433 at PSG to using a 343 variant at Chelsea to great effect. Man City and Barcelona were seen using the 343 a lot this year too. The base still seems to be the 433.
Strengths and weaknesses
One thing most anyone who has coached soccer or studied soccer for any amount of time will agree on, is that there is no magical formation. Every system has weaknesses and most players and coaches learn those early on.
A few examples:
The advantages and disadvantages of a particular system can fill whole books and videos. There are lots of nuances, variations and adaptations as well. The point is- every system or formation has weaknesses and strengths.
If a team has one way of playing and one set of starting 11, then they become very easy to scheme against. A better talented team may still win. A team can even “punch up” if their particular personnel strengths play to another team’s particular weaknesses and that coach is poor at tactical schemes. But a team playing one starting 11 with the same starting 11, will always be at a disadvantage against a team that has multiple tools in the tool box and an understanding on how to attack your weaknesses.
Every coach knows the basic answers to a formation’s weaknesses. Therefore the best system is one that is highly adaptable. The 433 is one of the most adaptable systems you can play. With simple role changes, the system can look like a completely different system. (I am purposefully oversimplifying for the examples.)
If your opponent is troubling your 6 or if you’re having trouble with numbers in the midfield you can simply drop an 8 deeper.
The 433 has the most different versions. With one base system, tactically adept managers can get a lot of tactical flexibility. This is how managers like Pep and Tuchel can create so many different problems and solutions out of one team. They try to keep the changes simple and base the same. The run patterns, principles, and solutions to problems can all be the same and the requests of the players can change from game to game.
Fans often can’t see the trees because of the forest. A coach can tweak individual roles and keep the base the same. The forest shape looks different but it was changed with one tree.
This tactical flexibility has led to a new form of Total Football. Total Football originally was all about interchanging players to different roles on the field. It requires players with the ability to play different positions in game. With the tools of diverse players and a system with flexible tactics, tactically adept managers can create new dimensions of problems to solve and solutions.
Modern soccer tactics have evolved beyond a single structure or formation. A team will use often use at least 4 structures these days. First, is their base. For the US this is the 433.
The second is one in possession that they want to use to break teams down. For the US this is most often the 2323.
The third is what they want to use in a transition and against a mid block.
The last is what they want to use in a low block. This seems to be a 4231 or 4141.
Out of one “formation,” common patterns of play, set solutions to teams attack/ defense patterns, a team can get an incredible amount of tactical variability. It’s why many managers struggle or scoff at the idea of what “formation” they play. They play many in different situations and different match ups. A key to winning close games in modern US soccer tactics is tactical flexibility.
Roles and Role Profiles
The next logical question is- if the US want to be that tactically flexible then why focus on player profiles at all? Why not just put the best 11 out there in the best system you can and play?
My theory is that the 433 creates the most diverse player profiles. If the goal of a system is to be tactically flexible then you need players that can cover a large range for roles. A tactical minded coach would want every possible tool in the tool bag.
This can be true for multiple roles from the 9 to even the GK. The most talked about recently for the US has been the 6. If I was writing a player profile and rating players on their ability to play the 6, it would look something like this:
From a recruitment and development standpoint, you want players that are 5 stars in every category. In the ideal world, you would then have at least 3 players deep at that role. One man is down, then another is up.
No team has that in reality- not even the best teams. The question I get the most about the 6, is why are they forcing a playmaking 6? If they don’t have one, simply don’t play one. I truly think this is a simple misunderstanding of the 6 and how modern teams are constructed. The overall system of play is built with predefine answers to problems created by the opposition. Good teams want all of those tools in the tool bag to win any particular match up.
If you’re in the structure below the most, then playmaking ability becomes very important all over the field to break down a pack defense. Against Honduras late, they had them backed into a low block and needed Brooks to play extremely high up to make a play over the top to McKennie that leads to the winning goal.
Even earlier in the game, the US seemed to work to keep Honduras out of the low block by making plays deeper with their CB’s. Without Brooks playing fantastically and without Honduras failing to man mark him- the US may not win that game. Wanting a playmaking 6 in that scenario made a lot of sense. If you go back and watch how badly he missed lots of opportunities, it highlights the need for that attribute on the team rather than the reverse.
Even in a low block set up, transition play often starts with the 6 from deep. They either provide an outlet to start the attack or a quick counter pass to start the attack. Adams, who is somewhat of a specialist for RB Leipzig in this, is probably at his best in starting the counter- as a playmaking 6. That is a key attribute of the role. One reason the US struggled to counter, build or do much offensively against Mexico is Acosta is a better disruptor and wasn’t much of an asset in the attack. It’s a key part of the role profile and having that player profile adds tactical flexibility.
Let’s look at Nashville SC as a counter example. Their base formation has been a 4231. Dax is something of a modern 6 but Godoy is more of a 6/8 hybrid. He’s more comfortable tackling than driving forward with the ball, making line breaking passes, or linking play. He often plays as a 6/8 in front of Dax, but because their base formation is 4231, their player profiles hedged defensively. One could say its’ worked with the level of success they’ve had for an expansion side but that base has limited their tactical flexibility.
You can move Godoy to an 8 and play more of a 433, but the team will still be a more defensive team than offensive. It’s how they were constructed. The player profiles provide the template for the tools the team wants in the tool bag. Those tools can determine how a team plays as much or more than formation.
The #9 as a comparison
Would you say the same thing of the 9? If we don’t have a striker, just don’t play one? No- you specialize per match up.
We saw this a great deal with Chelsea (and Man City) and the #9 last year. What any team would want in a #9 player profile would be things like hold up ability, intelligent runs, poaching/finishing ability, aerial ability, speed to get in behind and playmaking ability to drop into the midfield to move the CB’s and create opportunities for others. Neither Chelsea nor Man City had a #9 who fit all of those attributes this year. So they used the players they had as specialist for particular match ups.
This is simply what good teams do. Giroud, Havertz, and Werner give you different attributes all by playing the same role, the same way but with different strengths. Havertz will do better coming back and creating. He’ll pull Cbs up and out more. Giroud will win headers, provide a target to combine with and Werner will stretch them vertically. They will do this though all playing the same patterns. The system needs to run the same so that the players quickly use the right solution to the right problem provided by the opposition.
You don’t tell Werner to stop trying to win aerial balls. You don’t tell Giroud to never drop into the midfield. You don’t change the team’s patterns of play based on who is available or preferred that game. You just pick the right players with correct attributes for a particular match up. When coaches get this right it makes these specialists look world class. When they get it wrong, you get fans thinking the players and coach are trash. This was seen a lot with Giroud last year and Jorginho and Kante through the years. Ask Kante to be the deeper playmaker and he seems a flawed player. Let him be a disrupter (either as a 6 or 8) and he looks world class. Same for Jorginho. Set him up to be a deeper play maker and positional defense expert, and he looks world class. Ask him to be a disrupter or destroyer and he looks horrible.
What managers who compete with the best teams and best managers in the world want, is that tactical diversity at the highest level. They then need to define what those attributes are so teams can recruit and acquire them.
Poorer teams or national teams with less options to buy talent do a similar process but have to rely even more on specialists to fill roles. They are even less likely to get players who are the best at every attribute of a role. They rely more on specialists. Some teams are graced with Rodri who can do everything a role demands. Or teams like France who are simply more talented than everyone else. Many teams are not and what they do is select the right specialist for the particular match up.
The structure (formation) of a team can change from game to game and even within a game. The player profiles are the base players that a coach/manager wants to build around. With club teams, it’s who they recruit, transfer for, and develop. For national teams it’s really the same except transfer. It’s the base roles that they want to recruit (dual nationals), discover through scouting their profile, and develop by getting them recognized for bigger teams.
By having player profiles, a club can build a squad with the most tactical options. The weaker the team’s talent pool, the more reliant a team will be on specialists. The deeper the talent pool, the more tools a manager has in his tool bag to create problems for the opposition.
The US have unique problems as they have a huge drop off from most of their starting players to their depth. It creates more emphasis on getting those specialist right and much greater criticism when those specialist fail at their role.
The US are not forcing anything
The trick in the modern game is not having one tactical setup that you roll out every match. It’s how tactically diverse can your team be? They have to predict which structures will be used the most in a given game. Will we be in the low block the most? Will we be in the high press the most? Will we be breaking down the low block the most? How can we force the other team to be in the set up that we most want? Then- what player attributes do I have in my tool box to keep us in that formation and win the game? How do I ensure that I have the right variety of tools to match 90% of the problems we’ll see?
The US is not forcing a playmaking 6. They have a player profile for every position and then are attempting to choose the right tool for the right matchup. Yueill over Acosta to break down Honduras and make plays from deep (which he did poorly). Siebatcheu for Sargent to win balls in the air. Acosta for Yueill to add disruption and rangy press.
I think we can all expect this to continue and not stop as the player pool increases in talent. Right now Adams is levels better at most every attribute of the player profile at the 6, but even if we can get 23 players who are all world class- current modern tactics likely dictate a player will be chosen per match up rather than a simple depth chart. While fans love to create depth charts at every position, the reality of those depth charts are likely a lot more complicated.
Why the 433 and 433 profiles?
The 433 and its profiles fill out the tool bag and sets up a diverse operating template for the modern soccer chess match.