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Defending in a 3 4 3 Soccer Formation

by Stewart Flaherty

A 3-4-3 is a formation that allows a team to place defensive pressure high up the field and pen opposition teams in their own half. To execute a 3-4-3 system defensively a team must possess defenders who are not easily beaten off the dribble in the forward and midfield positions. When using a 3-4-3 system you have more numbers higher up the field, therefore it is better to adopt a higher pressure system rather than to sit back and allow a team to try and expose your 3 man back line.


A goalkeeper in a 3-4-3 must be very aware of what is going on in front of them. A back 3 is a narrow defensive scheme and attacks down the flank should be defended quickly. One of the 3 central defenders can often be sucked wide pressuring the ball, in this case a midfielder should drop into a cover spot. The goalkeeper should have the ability to communicate and make this adjustment.


A back three is a narrow defensive scheme that requires good speed and effective communication to execute, particularly when dealing with wide attacks. If the wide midfielder is not tracking a wide player a centre back should go out wide while a midfielder drops into a cover spot until the ball is cleared. Defenders in a back 3 must show discipline as being sucked high and out of position leaves 2 defenders to defend the width of the field, and the team is massively exposed. Diagram A below demonstrated defending a wide attack;

Diagram A

343 soccer formation

X2 was in a central 3 but has been sucked wide to pressure the ball, X4 and X3 have shifted to cover the attacking players. X11 must now recover and defend the weak side. If X3 is occupied a central midfielder is also able to recover and track O9. It is always best for the midfield cover to take place farthest from the ball, this allows more time to recover goal side.


The central midfielders in a 3-4-3 system have similar defensive roles to that of a 4-4-2. They are responsible for pressuring the ball and cutting out easy direct passes up to the forwards. The wide players can have more defensive responsibility when playing in front of a 3-4-3. For example if diagram A above was a back 4 then a left back would be in place to deal with O11, however in a 3 the wide midfielder must track this runner and effectively become a defender until the ball is cleared. If a team is constantly losing possession then the team shape can resemble a back 5 with both midfielders sucked into fullback positions. For this reason, it is crucial the midfielders win loose balls and tackle well when defending in a 3-4-3 system. Central midfielders would constantly be aware of what is happening behind them, as they may be required to fill a central defensive cover spot at times in this system. Midfield players who get beaten off the dribble but huge pressure on the 3 man back line when defending in a 3-4-3 system.


Forwards play a huge role in a defensive 3-4-3 system. The central forward should take responsibility for both central defenders. The left forward should take responsibility for the right back, and vice versa on the other side. The system allows the wide forwards to play very aggressively and try to intercept passes to the full backs. For example in diagram A below X10 is pressuring centre back O4, while X9 sits on the pass to O3, the system means X7 behind can cover the midfield, so X9 can be aggressive trying to intercept the pass or dispossess O3;

Diagram B

 3 4 3 soccer formation defending

In diagram B X10 should pressure the ball and try to force the ball towards O3, if a pass back to O5 is allowed then pressure is temporarily relieved.

Action PLan

  • Learn the roles and responsibility of each position.
  • Explain the system to every player.
  • Rehearse specific defensive and attacking situations in practice.
  • Encourage players to ask whenever they do not understand things.