Today I am going to be looking at the 4-3-3, particularly on the defensive side of things. However, before I jump into that, I’d like to go over some common defensive setups, or "blocks", as they are often called, as they are going to be important later on.
High Block: High pressure, high line
The benefits of high pressure defense are clear. This defense can create turnovers in dangerous areas and prevent teams from building out of the back. However, in order to maximize the effectiveness of high pressure, it should be used in conjunction with a high line. These two tactics work well together because of the synergy between the two. The use of a high line compresses the field, reducing the space that the team in possession can use to build attacks or keep possession, as the diagram below shows in a slightly exaggerated way.
With less space to work with, it is harder for teams to string passes together and play out of the high pressure. With this high line, there is now plenty of space behind the defense. However, in theory, the high pressure defense should prevent teams from capitalizing on this space. Through balls and passes over the top need precision and timing to be effective. The high-pressure defense is designed to deny opponents the time and space to get this timing and accuracy down. The high block is risky, but when done well it can be extremely effective. When it is well executed, often observers will not even notice the high line, as it is not being exploited.
To reduce risk, teams will often play with high pressure but a deep line. The problem with this, however, is that it reduces the effectiveness of the pressing and opens up space between the lines for playmakers to exploit. Playing a high line without high pressure, is simply asinine, as the Sounders displayed last year against Vancouver.
Medium and Low Block
The medium block is the standard defensive setup for most teams in MLS. In this structure, the defensive team sits deeper, usually within their own half. They allow the opposition backline to possess the ball, but apply pressure when the ball is played forward into midfield. In the medium block, the backline sits deeper, but still allows some space in behind. The idea behind this approach is to concede space in all areas of the pitch in order to avoid conceding too much space in one particular area. Because the team is sitting deeper, they are able to apply defensive pressure on the midfielders and attackers without conceding too much space in behind.
The low block is more commonly known as the bunker defense. This is extremely straightforward and does not need much explanation, but is essentially a defense that sits very deep in order to stay compact. The low block tries to eradicate the space behind the backline to prevent through-balls, and stays compact to stop play through the middle and between the lines.
The 4-3-3 Ideal Block
For the 4-3-3 -- at least with the way the Sounders have been using it -- the ideal defensive set-up would be a high defensive block. This would keep the wide forwards in good attacking positions high up the pitch, and the high pressure would solve a lot of the defensive problems that the Sounders have encountered. For the most part, the Sounders used the 4-3-3 with a medium block, and have looked vulnerable on defense. Teams have been able to create two-on-one situations on the flanks or threaten the Sounders in other areas when they go to cover the wide zones. Many of the defensive problems have originated from the medium block, and in particular, the lack of pressure on the opposition backline. Because of this, the opposing fullbacks were able to move forward, receive passes, and create dangerous attacks. With a high block, the high pressure would make it more difficult for these players to receive the ball further up the pitch, and this would pin the fullbacks back, as they would be needed to play out of the pressure.
Using the 4-3-3 in a medium block leaves the Sounders' wide players in a tough situation defensively. They can track the fullbacks, but this can often leave the Sounders in more of a 4-5-1 and isolate Obafemi Martins up top. Conversely, they can stay high in support of Oba, but this leaves the Sounders vulnerable defensively. Though this can lead to good opportunities on the counter, it is a risky strategy.
The Sounders’ Ideal Block
Unfortunately -- though a high block might be ideal for the Sounders’ 4-3-3 -- it is not the ideal defensive arrangement for the Sounders themselves. This team is much better suited to using a medium block. First off, the Sounders’ centerbacks are far more comfortable playing a deeper line. Because Chad Marshall and Djimi Traore lack foot speed, they are much better equipped when playing deeper, where they can keep the play in front of them.
Additionally, there are doubts about the Sounders’ pressing ability, and the recent game against Portland contributes to these qualms. Though Seattle did not fully commit to a high block, they pressed much farther up the field than they have in the other games so far this year. This defense was not particularly effective. Clint Dempsey was notably a weak point in the pressing. As a result, the Timbers were often able to play out of the press and were often able to exploit space between the lines and create two-on-one opportunities on the flanks.
Enter the 4-2-3-1?
The Sounders might benefit by using the 4-2-3-1, as this formation is more compatible with the medium block that suits them. Seattle can keep its three-man midfield during the build-up phase, with Clint Dempsey dropping in on the opposing holding midfielder. However, if the opposition successfully builds an attack and the fullbacks get forward, the wide players can track back and let the No. 10 stay up in support of Obafemi. Though it is possibly more of a function of game state than formation, the Sounders appeared to be more solid defensively after switching to a 4-2-3-1 last weekend against the Timbers.
Overall, the 4-3-3 is not a bad formation for the Sounders. Conceding space in wide areas and getting a counterattacking advantage is not a bad trade-off, and the Sounders are certainly capable of winning this way. However, it is a riskier strategy, and games will tend to be more open. Though the 4-3-3 might be good, it is not the best. This team has the chance to be dominant, and that starts with a solid defensive base. The 4-3-3 struggles to provide this, because it is best used with a high block while the medium block is optimal for the Sounders. Seattle could improve by utilizing a formation that complements their ideal defensive setup.