While scouting a high school girls soccer game the other day I noticed that one of the teams was playing in a 4-3-3 system. As the match went on I noticed that they really were not playing the system correctly. The point of playing in a 4-3-3 is having a man-up situation in the middle of the field (3 center mids vs 2). Instead of the midfielders connecting, everything was lumped overtop, it made no sense. This morning a friend of mine who coaches high school boys soccer asked my thoughts on playing a 4-3-3 at the high school level. My initial reaction was anything is possible but I think that it would be very difficult. To “correctly” play a 4-3-3 requires the right players and extreme organization/understanding of the game.
My biggest concern is the amount of time it takes to properly organize and educate your players on how to play the system correctly. In high school, you are given one, maybe two weeks of preseason to prepare for your season. In the first couple of days (maybe even a week) you are doing fitness tests, skills tests and lots of open play to determine who is going to be on Varsity and who is going to be on JV. There is no way you are going to have enough time to change the shape of your team in that short amount of time. In high school (most of the time) you are given a mix of players coming from different club teams/travel teams, who don’t normally play together. For whatever reason, playing in a 4-4-2 is the traditional system that most of the players understand how to play and that’s why it’s the formation that most high school coaches run.
Additionally, you must have the right players in order to play the system. Given that in a traditional 4-3-3, the three midfielders will be playing centrally (one holding/two attacking) you will be playing with no outside midfielders. You don’t necessarily have to have play with defined holding/attacking mids, but your midfielders need to have an understanding that if two are going on the attack, one needs to hold. The three central mids will be the link that holds the team together, they must be able to connect and get on the ball as often as possible. They need a good understanding of each other and need to be able to communicate (verbally and non-verbally).
Continued, with three central midfielders, you have no outside mids. It is absolutely essential that your two outside forwards are able to track-back and defend on the opposing teams outside midfielders from time-to-time. If not, you are going to be extremely vulnerable to be attacked on the flanks where there will be a ton of space. There needs to be good communication with the outside backs and outside forwards. The outside backs will be defending the outside mids, so they will need to be able to close the gap between themselves and the opposing teams outside mids.
Your defenders should be in a flat-back four (not to be confused with an offsides trap) and be able to shift from one side to the other depending on what side of the field the ball is on. Which ever side of the field the ball is on, the defender on the opposite side should be shifting centrally into the central back position as the opposite side back marks the opposing teams outside mid. The shifting of your defenders will be the difference maker in your team being successful. You will need smart, athletic players for this system to work.
As you can see, just from my short description on some of the components of playing a 4-3-3, it takes a really “soccer smart” team in order to be able to run a 4-3-3 system. It takes an extreme organization and lots of communication. It’s not an impossible task to run a 4-3-3 system at the high school level, but it is a difficult. What I would suggest if you are interested in playing a 4-3-3 is to start implementing it to your younger players and have them come through the system with an understanding of what to expect. Therefore, during your season when you should be working on technical skills, you don’t have to go over teaching the system, it should be already understood.