By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jun 28, 2021) US Soccer Players – Fans sometimes think they know more than their National Team coach. It’s happened many times in the past, and it continues to take place at the pandemic-delayed European Championship. Case in point, the Netherlands. As the Dutch made their way through group C, the fans continued to be unhappy with coach Frank de Boer.
The former Atlanta United coach insisted on going with a 3-5-2 system that could shift to five across the back when defending while the fans clamored for an attack-minded 4-3-3. It’s an ongoing national debate in a country where most think they are the National Team coach. On the eve of the tournament, someone even flew a small plane over the Dutch training camp with a simple message: “Frank. Just 4-3-3!” The Netherlands run in the tournament ended with a 2-0 loss to the Czech Republic on Sunday. To no one’s surprise, they took the field in a 3-5-2.
Since the days of Johan Cruyff and the Total Football of the 1970s, the 4-3-3 has been an integral part of Dutch soccer. While de Boer set it aside, the 4-3-3 has increasingly become the go-to tactical formation for many teams at Euro 2020 and the Copa America.
Italy has been the most successful using the formation. They’re now in the midst of a 31-game unbeaten streak after they dumped Austria out of the Euros this past Saturday in overtime to reach the quarterfinals. Under coach Roberto Mancini, the Italians have abandoned their defensive tactics that has characterized much of their identity since the 1960s in exchange for a flashier attacking style.
The result has been delightful to watch. The free-flowing passes, the fullbacks moving the ball up the wings, and the three strikers trying to create scoring chances from an array of spots in and around the box have certainly catapulted Mancini’s side as among the favorites for the title.
While maintaining possession, the Italians often involve as many as seven players in the other team’s half, all of them squeezing the opposing defense until someone creates a play that can lead to a goal. It’s a similar system Pep Guardiola used in his days as Barcelona coach over a decade ago when the Catalan giants were the best club team in the world.
The beauty of this 4-3-3 is that it allows National Teams to play a lot like a club side. National Teams typically lack this chemistry because players spend little time together. Instead, Mancini has been able to use the formation to create this cohesion and get results as well. Mancini has also incorporated a playing style used by many Serie A teams, most notably Atalanta, Sassuolo, and Napoli.
“Our players are used to playing like this because we’ve been trying to push this type of play since the first day and little by little we’ve gotten there,” Mancini told reporters last week. “Plus, there are other squads that do it so they don’t have any problems carrying it out when they come in here.”
Spain has also used the 4-3-3 at these Euros, although with less success than the Italians. They may have the tradition and an astute coach in Luis Enrique, but this remains a young squad that’s looking to wean themselves off the tiki taka. Portugal, on the other hand, also uses the 4-3-3, but this team is also hard to assess given how much of it revolves around the one-man show that is Cristiano Ronaldo. Like Italy, the system has resulted in lots of goals and some spectacular plays. Like the Netherlands, Portugal exited over the weekend in the knockout round to Belgium.
The 4-2-3-1 remains the most popular formation, a trend that has dominated the game over the past few years. England manager Gareth Southgate prefers this lineup and it has worked for him with Harry Kane in the center forward position. Few others at the Euros have utilized it, a sign that could spill over to the club game once this tournament comes to an end.
At the Copa America, meanwhile, Argentina has played using the 4-3-3 with the attack spearheaded by Lionel Messi. Under coach Lionel Scaloni, the team has done all it can with this formation not to fall into the trap that Portugal often falls in: relying on their superstar. In Argentina’s case, it’s over-reliance on Messi. Fellow strikers Lautaro Martinez and Nicolas Gonzalez have had solid outings, something that could result in Argentina winning the Copa America for the first time since 1993. Argentina will close out the group stage on Monday against Bolivia but have already advanced to the knockout round.
Brazil has also gone with a 4-3-3 at the Copa America with Neymar the lynchpin of their attack. Brazil coach Tite hope the talent at his disposal and their ability to move the ball in a manner that generates attack through possession on the wings and down the middle will be just too overwhelming for opponents. It was just that last Wednesday when they scored two unanswered goals, the winning one in stoppage time with Casemiro, to defeat Columbia 2-1. Brazil has also advanced to the knockout round.
It could very well be that both the winners of the Euros and Copa America will have been teams that use the 4-3-3. If that were to happen, we could be witnessing a tactical revolution at National Team level that could come to dominate the club game over the next few years. Its failure, however, would be a major setback for those who like the 4-3-3, some so much that they’re willing to hire a small plane to sing its praises.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- The growing importance of expected goals
- MLS players in EURO 2020 and the Copa America
- Review: What we learned from the USMNT in the Nations League
- Preview: Concacaf Nations League final four
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