A soccer club that employs a 4-3-3 formation is by far one of the most attractive teams to watch in the soccer world. The formation does not simply contain the opposition - such as the more traditional diamond 4-4-2 does - but it actually makes the team push forward and attempt to win the match. The fast movements of both the ball and players is most similar to action film if using theater analogies to describe soccer formations.
While the 4-3-3 can be used to devastating effect in the all-out counter - otherwise known as the direct nine approach where you simply get the ball to the feet of the number nine (center forward) for them to put away - the 4-3-3 can be used in a more possession-oriented style as well.
In a 4-3-3 - or even a 4-2-3-1 - formation, a successful offensive is contingent upon a central striker and two wingers. Wherein, the three forwards split across the field to spread the attack with the wingers acting similar to the wide midfielders in a 4-4-2. By spreading the attack the club attempts to create more and better scoring opportunities, thus making for attractive soccer.
A tactic that is suited to the possession-oriented 4-3-3 style that Real Salt Lake employs is called the attacking Y. In this tactical Y approach, two players vertically stack in the middle of the pitch. The partnership is formed between these players who can use each other to relieve pressure from the opposition. These players must have skills with both accurate long-balls and pin-point, cutting short passes. The vertically stacked players enable build-up play through central play instead of along the flanks.
In the diamond 4-4-2, RSL would repeatedly overload a side and create havoc for the defending team. With the Y scheme the build-up play is more central and can thus be used to unleash the speedy wingers.
As the ball is played between the vertically stack players, the wingers make cutting runs down the flanks. It is the role of these players to use their pace and technical skills to get at the opposition full-backs. They exploit the opposing defense by cutting through the back line. As opposed to the optional slow, ticky-tock interplay between the build-up play, passes to and from the wingers require quick passing exchanges in order to create scoring changes.
In essence, the attacking Y tactic will see possession-oriented interplay between the centrally located players as the wingers make cutting runs into the attacking half. Picking up the ball deep in midfield, either of the vertically stacked players are able to play the ball to either wing, thus increasing the attacking team's ability to not only retain possession but also create more offensive outlets. This formation, therefore, resembles a Y with a central spine and two passing options.
Here you can see an example of this:
On occasion this season, a midfielder has been able to pick up the ball deep in the midfield and play it to a more advanced, centrally located player. This player has then either held up the ball or completed nifty dribbles to alleviate pressure. Before passing it either back to the deeper central player or directly playing it to the wingers. In either case, the build-up play through the center of the pitch often allows the wingers to exploit a stretched defense.
One of the best examples of this kind of play occurred in the season opener against Portland. In the 81st minute, Portland took a corner kick to only have it fall to Luis Gil who dropped back to play a deeper role in the RSL midfield. Gil, after preforming a neat dribble, checked into space taking Portland midfielder George Fochive out of position and opening a passing lane to Javier Morales in the advanced midfield role - stacking the midfield vertically. As the maestro advanced into a central position for an easy passing outlet for Gil, the play opens up with the wingers getting a chance to bust forward on either side of the pitch.
By this point, the wingers are already sprinting into the attacking third on either side of Morales. The young, speedy Garcia took his chance especially well, beating Portland's Darlington Nagbe on a recovery run and, recognizing this, Morales played the ball to him. Garcia would then cut into the 18 yard-box and fire a shot.
At his young age, Garcia exploited the Y tactic brilliantly knowing exactly when and where to make the run in order for Morales to find him. By the time the defense realizes the Garcia has the ball at his feet, there is nothing but green acres ahead of him - exactly the place we should find a winger in a 4-3-3.
Another perfectly executed example of this method occurred in the San Jose Earthquakes match. In the 82nd minute - ironically close to the time of the Portland example - Garcia won possession from Leandro Barrera in the midfield. Passing the ball to Devon Sandoval in the center circle, Garcia would begin his run up the right touchline as Gil did the same on the left. Sandoval, under pressure, would hold up the ball until a clear passing lane to a centrally located Beckerman was made available.
On receiving the ball, Beckerman then passes the ball over-head and with precision to the onrushing Gil. Gil then cut inside with some nifty touches and got an uncontested shot from the top of the box. Despite going just wide, San Jose goalkeeper David Bingham had the near post corner covered. Nevertheless, Gil demonstrated that he also understood and could operate the attacking Y tactic effortlessly.
Sometimes understanding how to use a formation to exploit the opposition is the difference between one point and three - or sometimes none. When adapting to a new formation, it is often best to field players that understand the system the best. Still, fans have yet to see the Claret-and-Cobalt go an entire 90 minutes with the two most successful and effective players operating in the 4-3-3.
With Garcia constantly getting the start for the injured Joao Plata, Gil has not had consistently occupied the other wing position. This is a particularly important fact since, in both of the previous examples, Gil occupied a winger position for the Claret-and-Cobalt.
When both Garica and Gil find themselves near the opposite touchlines, magical things start to happen. The play opens up and the 4-3-3 is executed to perfection. These two players not only understand the fundamentals of the way RSL plays, but also how to exploit the opposition using the 4-3-3.
In any case, the coaching staff will have to examine the overall performances of the players to decide who gets a starting role on the wings. Whatever they decide, performances at both Portland and San Jose speak for themselves as both Garica and Gil have shown that when they are on the field opposite of one another, RSL's offensive is more productive and dangerous. If Garica and Gil get their respective starts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday (6:30 p.m. MST; KMYU), it could be the spark in getting the 4-3-3 up to its potential.
With the majority of the Claret-and-Cobalt's scoring chances coming off of set-pieces, employing Garcia and Gil as wingers could fix the ailing RSL offense. Their understanding of how to properly utilize the central Y tactic in offensive creation will be vital for RSL's extended use of the 4-3-3. The formation may be different, but with continued practice, the Claret-and-Cobalt will remain exactly what the MLS has come to expect from the club in Salt Lake - a perennial MLS Cup contender.
As always, we would like to know what you think. How important do you think the attacking Y tactic is for the success of RSL? Do you think that Garica and Gil are the proper pieces to use in the 4-3-3? Will the Claret-and-Cobalt find success in the 4-3-3? How will RSL line up against SKC on Saturday? Share your opinions in the comments section below.