3133: Heaven for ball playing defenders and quick midfielders with positional sense

The 3133 is a logical next step for teams who play with a back three, ball playing centre backs and a number six who is responsible for building up the game. Compared to a 352 system, it gives more stability in the middle, with better structures for attacking and counterpressing.

The overload in midfield creates more combinations, and instead of waiting in position, the attacking players can step into duels with the defenders on the run, from an unmarked starting position.

If interpreted correctly…

  • with good distances between the players
  • movements made in the right moments, with right speed and right direction
  • combined with purposeful ball circulation,
    this system allows for fluid attacking combinations, with low risk of counterattacks.

Starting from all these triangles, the opponent’s team shape can be manipulated to allow for a controlled progression up the field.

3133 v 343 triangles.png

I will show some examples of patterns whereby increasing the distances between the opponent’s back five, and in key moments turning towards the goal in an area where the opponent doesn’t have access to the ball, the best type of pass can be played.


The best pass there is

 A slicer pass. The attacking player is facing the opponent’s goal, without pressure, and another player is making the run behind the defence, already with an advantage over the defender marking him. All there is to do is to play an accurate ball on the ground, in front of the running player with the right weight on the pass. 

Why slicer? Imagine a sharp knife effortlessly slicing up a large piece of meat. That is how the ball just whooshes between the opponent, slicing up the whole team.

Slicer passes have a very low risk of being intercepted, or the opponent starting a counterattack from them. They allow for the attacker to receive them on the run, having already an advantage to the goal, or beating the defender with his first touch.

Why is there a possibility to play many slicer passes in a 3133?

  1. The back three can move the ball around without pressure. 
  2. The 343 can easily become a 523, in which case the access to the deeper halfspaces becomes very poor. These areas are close enough to the space behind the defence, and the middle that one good pass can create a goal scoring chance.

Midfield overload and the need for ball playing defenders

3133 sideback steps out.pngIf the opponent defends with a combination between zonal and man marking – ex. 2 defensive midfielders shift from side to side, one sideback steps out to the extra midfielder – then the ability of the centre backs with the ball becomes key.


The better and swifter they move the ball, the bigger the advantages will be in later stages of the buildup. By exploiting even small advantages, they can manipulate the opponent’s shape. One of such small advantages can be a midfielder who is about to be pressed with a slight delay. Just enough delay to make the defending team move to the ball, therefore leave space elsewhere.

343 sideback marking duties.pngCapitalising on the anticipatory mistakes of defenders can be another one of these small advantages. It is normal for defenders to anticipate where the next pass is coming based on the reference points in the game. For example if the central defender is attacked from a certain angle, his counterpart can adjust his positioning more accurately, as certain passes can’t happen. Well, if he is a more skilled player, the pool of possible next actions is larger. So it might happen, that the defender overadjusts his positioning, as he weights certain actions less likely than they are if the ball is with this particular player. An advantage is created, where there used to be none.

The far side holding midfielder will be caught between two different t possibilities. Either keep his distance with the other holding midfielder and close the passing lane to the striker, or stay wider, more man to man with the far side 8 and leave that central zone open for the striker to move back. This would be a diagonal pass. 

The role of the six – opening passing lanes without the ball

The number six has a crucial role in creating passing options for the centre back in the middle.

The opponent can either go man to man on the three defenders, in which case the defenders open as far as possible, and they can find forward passing lanes, or the six creates a 4 v 3. Easy game.

If the three strikers play zonally, just covering the passing lane to the six, then the sidebacks will be more dominant in building up the game. The three defenders have to position themselves asymmetrically. They circulate the ball to one side, pulling the three attackers there, before quickly playing a sideways pass to the far side, where the sideback is as far as possible from them to maximise the space to step into.

There is a frequently used mixed system, where the strikers play mostly zonal, but if the distance between the three of them gets too big, the central one is manmarking the number six. Essentially to always take the six out of building the attacks. Still, the positioning of the six will be crucial.

WB run.pngThe middle of the three defenders will have the option to dribble forward. At a certain point the striker has to step out to him. So the initial position of the six will determine the angle from which the striker attacks the ball playing centreback. It is possible that the striker can’t cover any forward passes with his pressing angle. The holding midfielder on the ball side has to choose between marking either of two players. If the sideback steps out in the halfspace, the wingback has the chance to play 1 v 1, run behind and receive a ball from a diagonal angle, with no pressure on the player who makes the pass. Bingo!

Searching for speedy 8s with excellent positional sense

Creating more space for the sideback.pngIt is certainly possible that the side players of the defending team’s first line will provide additional cover to the space on either side of the two holding midfielders, by covering the pass from the central defender. In this case the sideback has more space to receive and play forward.

The role of the 8 is a really curious one in this system. Of the back three of the opponent the sideback is likely to get wider and close the halfspace, leaving the other side holding midfielder to step back with the 10. On the other hand if the sideback decides to stay narrow and inside, the space between him and the wingback will get too large, and the 8 can make a direct run into the space behind, or play dismarking 1 v 1 on the defensive midfielder. 

If the wingback of the opponent steps out early, it is possible for the 8 to run into the space behind the sideback.8 attacks the space behind.png

The above examples show the need for two distinctively different qualities in the 8s. The sense to manipulate the opponent’s defensive shape with your positioning. And the speed and game insight to run into open spaces between the defenders in the right moment.


Rotation 1.png The wingback starts the run, diagonally to the goal of the opponent. The 8 wide and back. The 10 pulls towards the half space. If he is not tracked, the sideback might take a step towards him, making him less able to defend the long ball. You can make this rotation when the central defender looks up. Then he can play a diagonal pass to the wingback running straight to the goal.

This rotation can also work if they start doing it a pass later, the moment the sideback is about to receive the ball. then the pass is a slicer pass, and the wingback has to adjust his run.

A midfielder moves wide

Back 3 shifts over.pngIf the side player of the three attackers goes very close – man to man on the three defenders – so much so that they leave the half space completely open – then a possibility arises for one of the midfielders to step back, and attract pressure from the wingback.

Due to the possible poor access of the wingback to this player dropping back, it is likely that they will be able to turn open with the ball. This is the moment for the wingback to be as high as possible, while still giving a passing lane to the midfielder who dropped out.

The midfielder who moved back and turned with the ball has multiple pass options forward based on how well the opponent’s back five shifts. The first instinct should be to play the ball behind. If the sideback comes out too much, the midfielder running behind must receive the ball. If the centre back goes sideways to take this player, the striker might be a better option.

What happens if the opponent’s midfielder can track the runner 1 v 1? The wingback will be the next player to pass to, and then due to the lack of access to him in a deep position he can dribble diagonally to the goal. 

If the central midfielder follows the 8 outside, then the striker can move back into that space, and the midfielder can make the run behind. It basically becomes a case of dismarking with reverse movements.

What is the right moment for the 8 to drop? It is the best if the 8 starts this movement just when the central defender starts moving the ball to the other side. While the opponents are shifting, he can move freely in the opposite direction of their movement.

There you go. A few things to consider, and build up patterns in a 3133 against a 343. As a big fan of playing with as many players with skillsets of 8s and 10s as possible, this formation gives me more stable and balanced possibilities for controlling possession than a traditional 352.




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