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Understanding Rodgers’ 4-3-3: The Final Third

“If you’re in the penalty area and don’t know what to do with the ball, put it in the net and we’ll discuss the options later.”

— Bob Paisley

All that has been explained in this series, defensive play, transition play, attacking play, quick touches, short passes, movement, work rate and all those other complexities, boil down to one main aim- to win football games. An ideal method of winning these games is by scoring goals. Here is where the final third of the team comes into play. The primary duty of this zone is to pick that ball up and ensure it goes into the back of the net at least once every game.

Unfortunately football is not as easy as that, but it is not quite difficult as people may make it seem. This article will try to analyse the general play of the attacking front three of the team.

Based on Rodgers’ employment of the 4-3-3 at Swansea and Liverpool, there are two main ways of looking at the front three. The main differentiation between the two methods are the play of the central player in the 4-3-3.

  • Central Striker with Wingers
  • False 9 with Wide Forwards

Central Striker with Wingers

The central striker is a player who needs to be a prolific goalscorer. His main duty is to score goals. He would need to have composure in front of goal and a general awareness of where the net is. It should be noted here that this central striker is different from a ‘centre forward’. The latter refers to a typical target man who relies on his aerial ability to complement much of his game. A central striker in this 4-3-3 on the other hand is one who knows how to run onto the ball, has a decent bit of pace and is good with the ball at his feet. His general passing fits in with the rest of the unit as well. He has enough strength to hold off defenders and peel off them when a ball comes through. He should be able to take on a defender one-on-one. With his primary role in the side being scoring goals, he would be required to play with both feet while having a decent use of his head as well.

This player does have defensive duties as well but this is largely in the opponents half. Rarely will he come across from the half way line. It would be harsh to say that he would just hang onto the shoulders of the last defender but he would essentially be in an attacking zone to be able to influence a quick attack.

With the central striker being the pivotal figurehead of the attack, much of the teams play is focused on getting this player into the game with the aim of getting on the scoresheet. He is given the duty of handling the scoring bit. Although a narrow view shouldn’t be taken that only he will score goals. The goals will come from midfield and defence as well but the central striker is the primary goalscorer. With this in view the set-up of the wide men is alternated as well.

The wider players can be considered as wingers in this regards, putting balls into the box with the central striker being the target. The workload of these wingers is far more greater with a central striker in the team. They would at times drop deeper to assist the midfield and enhance their defensive play. They can often be seen playing in the midfield and due to this one can consider these players to be wide midfielders as well but their primary duty is on the flanks. The wingers would essentially need to have good pace, be comfort on the ball and have the potential to take on a defender while having decent crossing ability.

This sort of set up usually requires wingers to be deployed on their strong side (i.e. left footers on the left side and right footers on the right). This set up also ensures more width in the team, spreading the play and making the playing surface bigger, which is especially a nuisance for the opposition defence. So basically the central striker will be the furthest up the pitch and the wingers can more aptly be considered as a part of the midfield due to their defensive mindset. With wingers primarily occupying the flanks, it restricts the further movement of the full backs up the pitch. But you can be assured that there will always be a man in the box. Consequently the midfielder will be more progressive, advancing into an attacking zone often. This is important as there will be frequent runs into the box to provide more options for the wingers. However, the central striker will often find himself isolated when no service is being provided. This could consequently effect his concentration and dampen his play. It can also be seen that in this set up, despite midfielders getting in and around the box, often the central striker will be the only player in the box. This set up is in tune with the constant adaptation in modern football to play with a single striker.

Central Striker Isolation

This play is what Rodgers’ had primarily employed during his time at Swansea with Danny Graham as the central striker, Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer as the wingers on either side.

False 9 with Wide Forwards.

A false 9 can be an effective tactic when employed right. It has been successfully played by Barcelona, and at times, Spain as well.

A false 9 role involves a striker preferring to not stay in the final third. His constant movement to drop deep allows him to free himself from the shackles of a marking defender. The false 9 operates from a more deeper role, assuming the area meant for the attacking midfielder/second striker. Scoring would be an objective, but this player will have a creativity duty that would be needed in an advanced playmaker. His ability to read the game is crucial as he will strive to bring his teammates (particularly the wide forwards) into the game. He’d take quick touches, play clever passes and through balls into the box. Compiled with this he would need to be smart and skillful on the ball. He should have the intelligence to take defenders out of the game.

The opposition are now in a bit of a dilemma, the defender must decide whether to follow the striker with his marking consequently compromising his position in the defence and freeing up space for the wide forwards to exploit. Marking a false 9 is extremely difficult, the best option would be to employ a defensive midfielder with the duty but this would weaken the creativity in midfield. The other option would be to employ a zonal marking system in the final third.

The false 9 will be seen coming short to receive the ball from the midfielders, while this is happening the wide forwards are making runs into the box. These players rarely run along the flanks, preferring to cut inside. Defenders are often tempted to break out of their shell and advance to mark the false 9, consequently leaving gaps in the defence for the wide forwards to exploit. This could be crucial in creating scoring opportunities as now you have 3 attackers in the final third looking to score goals. The full backs would be employed with marking the wide forward, but again, their movement makes this no easy task. Wide forwards, when compared to wingers, will constantly cut inside, narrowing the entire team. These wide forwards are not played with the intention of sticking to the flanks but rather to get into the box and assume the role of strikers. They would also be employed as advanced playmakers, compensating for the lack of creativity from the advanced midfield area as a result of the deep play of the midfielders.

Midfield Pushed Back

A false 9 will push midfielders further back, making them play deeper but not affect their creativity in any form. They would just operate from a more restrained position. With the wide forwards moving further inside and into the box, full backs will also alternate their play and often can be considered as wingers. This set up narrows the general formation but leaves the full backs completely free to exploit the flanks. The opposition defence will attempt to deal with the attacking third and not give much attention to the full backs.

So this set up basically adds creativity to midfield, adds numbers into the box from wide areas and also allows full backs to get into the box.

Movement and Transition

There is constant movement on the football pitch from the attacking three on the football pitch. Making a nuisance of themselves to the opposition and making it problematic for them to mark these players. The three players also attempt to act as the first line of defence, constantly pressing, constantly closing down the opposition in an attempt to force an error and concede possession. The main aim of this is to diminish the strain on the midfielders and defenders assisting them with the defensive play. In a defensive sense the wide men will also try to assist the full backs in defence and helping them move forward and play as wingers.

The wide men are often seen alternating play on either flanks based on the performance. They can comfortably shift from a Central Striker play to a False 9 play. The wide men playing as wingers on their stronger side with a central striker, can shift and alternate with the opposite midfielders to better cut inside and make runs into the box.

With regards to movement, it is sometimes seen that when the ball is on either flank with a view to a cross, the opposite wide man will make a run into the box and give the player on the ball effectively two to aim at.

In a transition sense the play of the attacking third is vital. When playing in a defensive phase, and condensed against an attack, their play is important when the team regains possession, their movement further up field and forward runs allows the entire team to convert into an attacking phase. The entire team moves up as a unit. In the other sense, when the attacking three try to drop a bit deep to form a defensive phase, the entire team drops deeper into this “defensive mechanism” to protect their goal.

This is obviously a very basic view of the movement and transition. This would require an entire article of its own and will be looked at in the future.

Why Borini isn’t being played in a central role.

Many of the Liverpool fans were led to believe that Fabio Borini was signed with the intention of playing a more central role (i.e Central Striker). But based on the application by Rodgers’ this season, he is being deployed in wide areas with Suarez playing a False 9 role. It does make sense to employ Borini more centrally, but Rodgers’ knows better than we do.

A possible reason for this set-up is because if Borini is employed as a Central Striker, then we would have one player in the box and a need for constant service. This can come from the creative midfield present in the team, but they would need assistance from the wide areas as well. Wingers with the ability to bring the best out of a striker, with the ability to take on defenders, have a good burst of acceleration and an ability to put a good cross into the box. These wingers are something that Liverpool do not possess at the moment. Another possible reason could be that Rodgers’ is still training Borini and indeed the rest of the team to play this set-up, giving time for them to adapt.

Suarez has been played centrally by Kenny Dalglish during his time at Liverpool and Fabio Borini was often played wide in a front three with Francesco Totti as a False 9 at Roma last season. For much of the season Borini found himself wide, playing a similar system would prove to be comfortable for Suarez and Borini until they can play a different set-up.

Liverpool Application

In terms of a False 9 with Wide Forwards set up, as is being employed at the moment, Suarez looks the only tactically adept player to play the role successfully. Suso could be another fair shout for this role. The Wide Forwards position can be taken up by Borini and Sterling (which has been the primary choice so far). Downing can also be employed here playing on his weaker side thus cutting inside. Oussama Assaidi remains a fairly unknown quantity to Liverpool fans but he too has been played in a Wide Forward/Advanced Playmakers role at Heerenveen although he has the ability to be deployed as a winger. Dani Pacheco is another player who would fit in well into a role which would require cutting inside.

If Rodgers’ chooses to employ a Central Striker with Wingers set-up he does have a few options. Borini would be the obvious choice for the central role with Adam Morgan, David Ngoo and possibly Samed Yesil as cover. Suarez could do a good job of playing on the wings, something he has done at Ajax in the past. Downing is meant to be played on his strong left side as a winger but his performances are questionable, rarely has he got past a player. Assaidi as mentioned is fairly familiar with this role. Another option, still at the club, is Joe Cole who has stated he would prefer a more central role but this would be difficult to come by for him. So an option as a winger would be best suited for him.

The loan of Andy Carroll and failure to sign a replacement has obviously made us short in attack but a good manager and a good team will be able to handle it. The biggest positive of this failure is the chances that have opened up for the younger players. Opportunities to youngsters is something all fans have hoped for and it certainly is the way forward. But the problems that are at the club cannot be hidden, finishing was a concern for the side last season, and that same tone has carried on. Unless we are able to improve our composure in front of goal and increase the goals-to-chances ratio, no tactical play would be adequate to ensure success.

Part 1, The Centre Backs: http://ootbfootball.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/understanding-rodgers-4-3-3-centre-backs/

Part 2, The Full Backs: http://ootbfootball.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/understanding-rodgers-4-3-3-full-backs/

Part 3, The Midfield Trio: http://ootbfootball.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/understanding-rodgers-4-3-3-midfield-trio/

All illustrations from this11.com

Featured image courtesy of propoganda-photo.com

This article first appeared on lfcts.com

Sami Faizullah

Sami Faizullah

Co-founder and Chief Editor here. Obsessed with tactics. Keen follower of young players. Creator of #TalentRadar.
Sami Faizullah

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