Talking Tactics: What 4-3-3 needs to really compete

Talking Tactics: Toronto's Aron Winter

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Toronto newcomer Javier Martina enjoyed a brilliant Saturday afternoon, scoring twice to lead the men from BMO Field to their first win under new Dutch boss Aron Winter.

But make no mistake, TFC remain a work in progress. Long-range success for the Reds depends on adding some more quality. And here’s the rub: Any possible newcomers can’t be just men of skill; they must have the correct skills to play in Winter’s dynamic 4-3-3.

[inline_node:312860]You could probably say the same thing about any system. But there’s less wiggle room in the highly technical 4-3-3. It requires players who are comfortable in possession and accurate with every pass. Mostly, it requires technique. Here’s the kinds of players Winter (and his 4-3-3) requires:

Ideally, you have a goalkeeper with excellent feet. Think Edwin van der Sar, Manchester United’s exceptional goalkeeper. Not only is he a fine shot-stopper, he’s practically an old-school sweeper in terms of tidy distribution. Stefan Frei, TFC’s No. 1, is merely adequate with his feet—but he’s a fine young ‘keeper and the Reds should be in no hurry to replace him.

Both fullbacks get the ball a lot in a 4-3-3, as center backs—and Frei—will ask them to initiate attacks whenever possible. So the results weren’t pretty two weeks ago when a reliable center back, Adrian Cann, was asked to man the left. Coincidentally or not, Cann was back at home in the middle in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Portland, where “stop” rather than “distribute” remains the higher priority.

Dan Gargan was stationed along the right for TFC. He’s a worthy defender, but perhaps not the perfect 4-3-3 fit. He wasn’t very clean coming out of the back Saturday, so too many possessions died before they could truly get started. Again, it’s about passing.

It’s not just the ball striking per se when we talk about passing. When we say “comfortable on the ball,” it’s also about the ability to create time and space (especially since some of the passes into forwards tend to be medium- and long-range efforts that require a little more operating room).

Outside backs need the ability to move forward, too. Since all three midfielders in a 4-3-3 are more centrally stationed, the width and additional support for the wingers comes from fullbacks. Thus, offensive ability is critical for fullbacks.

[inline_node:326786]A 4-3-3 midfield doesn’t require creators so much as (again) passers. Julian de Guzman will work beautifully once he heals.

That centrally oriented trio is there to clog the middle on defense and then link the lines on the attack. So where do the passes need to go? In the words of coaches the world around: Get it wide!

Once players learn the system, the central linkmen will trust that wingers will be where they should be. So it’s less about creativity than accuracy. No one has to figure out where to pass; they just have to make the right pass as dictated by the system and the situation.

Another reason the system requires precision passing: With three forwards, there are more players higher up the field than in a 4-4-2. So when an attack fizzles, there isn’t sufficient midfield cover—a recipe for counterattack disaster.

In a 4-3-3, wingers are the primary means of “transport” in the attacking half, so they need speed, dribbling ability and crossing ability. This is where it all gets a little tricky for the manager. One of TFC’s best players, slashing attacker Dwayne De Rosario, doesn’t fit neatly into any of the slots. He’s not really a central midfielder nor a true striker nor a true winger.

The DeRo problem is not one if Winter prefers so-called “modern” wingers. Traditionally, wingers have been tasked with dribbling, crossing, taking on defenders, etc. The modern winger is frequently “inverted,” which means they have a better ability to cut up defenses by cutting inside. DeRo certainly can cut up defenses.

Finally, here’s the biggest irony about Winter’s tactical plan: The 4-3-3 needs a targetman, the right kind of targetman.

The irony exists because Toronto fans were subjected to years of targetman long ball—“knock it up to the big lad” and whatnot. But the 4-3-3’s targetman isn’t necessarily a big lad. He’s just a guy with good technique who can hold the ball and bring others into the play. Alan Gordon is serviceable, but is he strong enough with his back to goal? But maybe even more than having the ability to put the biscuit in the basket, the modern targetman needs to be able to make the batter.

Steve Davis's Talking Tactics appears every Tuesday on MLSsoccer.com.