3-3-1-3 formation pioneer - Marcelo Bielsa

Introduction

The 3-3-1-3 formation is one that is primarily utilised when a team either has possession of the ball or is in the attacking phase of play. Although, there are instances where teams employ the 3-3-1-3 for the entirety of the game, such as Louis van Gaal’s Champions Cup winners Ajax (1994-95). 

In this piece, we will primarily focus on Marcelo Bielsa’s implementation of 3-3-1-3 due to his long-enduring love affair with the system. It will nonetheless examine other managers such as Pep Guardiola and the aforementioned Louis van Gaal. 

History

The 3-3-1-3 formation was arguably first used during the Netherlands’ ‘total football’ era under Rinus Michels. Defensively, the team held a 4-3-3 formation while switching to 3-3-1-3 or 3-4-3 when in possession, with either of the centre midfielders being capable of filling the creative no.10 role. 

Cruyff used the same system during his time as Ajax manager in the 1980’s but it wasn’t until Louis van Gaal took control of Ajax (1991-1997) that the diamond was instilled in midfield with a permanent no.10 freely occupying the space between the oppositions midfield and defence. Van Gaal’s side went on to lift both the Champions Cup and the Eredivisie in the 1994-1995 season, having recorded zero losses in the latter. 

It is therefore no surprise that Marcelo Bielsa cites Rinus Michels’ Dutch side as his point of tactical obsession and has gone on to tweak and work with the system enduringly throughout his career, despite facing vitriolic criticism at almost every team he managed (most notably when employing it as coach of Argentina and Chile). He even utilised the 3-3-1-3 as far back as 1992 in his Copa Libertadores run with Newell’s Old Boys. It is for this reason that Bielsa is considered a pioneer the 3-3-1-3 formation, despite not having actually coined it. 

Although this system has never been widely employed and is used primarily when in possession, it’s use was duly admired and analysed in Jonathan Wilson’s seminal book, Inverting the Pyramid. This is because, despite its scarce use, the 3-3-1-3 underpinned some of the greatest footballing teams and was instrumental in their success. The reason it is so seldom used, given its achievements, is due precisely to the fact that only the best has been able to successfully utilise it – it is extremely physically and technically demanding. 

Modern Proponents 

As mentioned, this formation has not been used by many, successfully at least. Nonetheless, the successes of those who have employed it rather victoriously warrants a closer look. We will follow Bielsa’s use of the system through several clubs with a focus on Leeds United, and then briefly look at Guardiola during both his Barcelona and Bayern Munich days. 

Marcelo Bielsa 

Chile, Bilbao & Marseille 

Bielsa certainly used the 3-3-1-3 system from the beginning of his career and with every team he managed, at least in some phases of play. However, for the sake of brevity, only four of his teams will be looked at.

When Bielsa started using the formation as manager of the Chilean national side he faced significant backlash, particularly following some poor results. This, according to Bielsa, was attributable to the time needed to get comfortable with such a unique and demanding formation. This proved to be true as the Chilean national side qualified for the 2010 World Cup for the first time since 1998 and ended up being one of the most attractive teams in South Africa. Arturo Vidal featured in several positions but was mainly used as a centre-back because Bielsa favoured using defensive midfielders in that position. He believes that their tendency as midfielders to push forward and their ability to pass, combined with their defensive capabilities, lend themselves to creating ideal ball-playing centre-backs for this system.

Chile were not particularly successful in Copa America since the early 1990’s either before he came. Following his arrival, Chile produced much better results in this tournament, reaching the quarter finals in both of his runs in the tournament. Chile winning the 2015 and 2016 Copa America tournaments cannot be attributed to solely Marcelo Bielsa, but he undoubtedly laid the foundations that would go on to make Chile genuine contenders in South America. 

During his spells at Athletic Bilbao and Olimpique Marseille, Bielsa played with a fluid 4-2-3-1 system out of possession, switching into a 3-3-1-3 when attacking. For both teams, one of the central midfielders would drop back into the defence (Javi Martinez at Bilbao and Alaixys Romao at Marseille) to create the back three, with the full backs pushing up to form the middle three. With Athletic Bilbao, Bielsa reached the final of Europa League and Copa Del Rey in his first season in charge. In Marseille, he almost inspired a title-winning charge in his only season, losing in the run-in to a recently acquired and heavily funded PSG. 

Leeds United  

Bielsa initially used 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 for entire games at Leeds as he wanted to prepare the team for the style and intensity of play that’s required. There were glimpses of 3-3-1-3 in his first season, but it was not until their Championship winning season that it was wholly adopted. The formation, particularly Bielsa’s interpretation of it, requires non-stop fluid movement of both the players and the ball which in turn require high fitness and technical levels of the players.  

Now, Bielsa typically starts with a 4-1-4-1 formation when out of possession and morphs into a 3-3-1-3 when on the ball. With seamless rotation of players, Bielsa aims to outrun and overload opponents in key areas. Out of possession, his teams either goes back to 4-1-4-1 or creates a 5-4-1 with the wingbacks and wingers tucking inside, if the situation and opposition require them to do so.  

Defensively, Bielsa always likes to have an extra man in relation to the opposition. He will utilise a back three against a front two and a back four against a lone striker and two wingers. This once again highlights the fluidity that is required of both Bielsa and the 3-3-1-3 system – which is perhaps why he is considered one of the pioneers of the system and why they seem to work hand-in-hand with each other. 

Bielsa favours inverted wing backs, who are required to be athletic all-rounders, but he also demands the most of them as they are integral to the 3-3-1-3. They aim to help the deep-lying central midfielder as auxiliary midfielders by moving the ball into central areas when the team is in possession. They are also required to help out wide by creating numerical overloads and by making overlapping runs around the wingers to provide a passing option. Defensively, they are expected to join the back three and close the channels on the wings. Bielsa’s entire team is required to be constantly moving and providing options to each other, but it is the wing-backs that are without a doubt the powerhouses of his Leeds team and are often the difference between wins, draws and losses. 

To further highlight the versatility and fluidity behind the 3-3-1-3 system, we will look into how Leeds United press and mark their opponents. Bielsa asks his players to mark their opponents tightly and insists on individual battles being won. He aims at winning the ball high up the pitch, as soon as the opponents have won the ball from them or have started an attack. This has the obvious consequence of scrambling the clear 3-3-1-3 set-up, but it does indeed illustrate the versatility with which a coach can operate under this system. However, pressing intensely on a situation-by-situation basis can have its drawbacks which I will be discussing below.

When attacking, Bielsa requires ball-playing defenders to start the attacks and looks to create six-pronged attacking phases (see below). This is why he has a trend of playing defensive midfielders as centre backs – Vidal for Chile and Javi Martinez for Athletic Bilbao. 

Bielsa prefers to focus his play on the flanks by creating overloads and passing triangles there. As previously mentioned, the full-backs are essential to this as they are key to creating 2v1 and 3v2 situations. 

Given everything we have looked at regarding the way Bielsa sets his Leeds side (and most sides) up, it follows that he likes to play quick and vertical football, with retaining possession being a priority. He likes to get from the back to the opposition penalty box as quick and seamless as possible. He requires technical and physical players as he loathes (quite visibly on the touchline) any needless giving away of possession, either through long balls or clearances when there was a passing option available. To further aid the retention of possession, Bielsa likes to set his teams up with there ideally being no more than 25 metres between the forward and centre-backs.  

Pep Guardiola

Barcelona

When Guardiola made the move from Barcelona B to the first team, he preferred a 4-5-1 when defending and 4-3-3 when attacking. But as many analysts correctly point out, they never really played with a back four. At the beginning of Pep’s reign, Abidal used to tuck into a back three with Dani Alves surging up the right wing to create the middle three with Busquets and Xavi. Iniesta occupied the no.10 role with Villa, Messi and Pedro playing up front. Of course, this is just a blueprint as attacking with a 3-3-1-3 required fluid movement of players who constantly fill in for each other. As we all know, Messi often dropped into the false nine role instead of Iniesta to collect the ball and other players interchanged as well. 

With the arrival of Adrian and Alba, as full backs who naturally like to push up, they replaced Busquets in the midfield three with Busquets dropping in between the centre backs, acting as a ball-playing defender. The full backs would become part of the middle three with Xavi, as auxiliary midfielders under Bielsa do, or Dani Alves would often replace Messi as the right winger with Messi filling in at the no.10 role with Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Villa up front. 

Bayern

It can be argued that what Pep Guardiola employed at Bayern Munich was a hybrid version of 3-3-1-3, with the wingers tucking in slightly to create a 3-3-3-1. He did switch between the two, but the availability of goal machine Robert Lewandowski meant that he could often operate as a lone striker. 

The difference at Bayern was that their starting formation was a 3-3-3-1, not being used solely when in possession. The back three consisted of Badstuber, Dante and Boateng, all of which could play full backs when needed. Xabi Alonso played as the pivot Lahm and Bernat completing the midfield three. Either Lahm or Bernat would tuck in as full-backs if the situation called for it, illustrating the versatility needed by the 3-3-1-3 and the fluidity that results from this. When asked about Bielsa, Guardiola replied with a smile, saying “He is probably the person I admire the most in world football – as a manager and as a person.”

*Other noteworthy proponents of this system include Roberto Martinez’s Wigan (2009-2013), winning the 2013 FA Cup and Miroslav Blazevic’s Croatia (1994-2000), coming third in the 1998 World Cup in France. 

Tactical Overview

This formation starts with three players at the back and as shown, the makeup can consist of players from various positions. In front of them is another three players, usually a central midfielder paired with full-backs. The creative midfielder, or ‘enganche’, sits in front of them linking the midfield to the front three. If this formation is used solely when in possession, as it often is, the starting formation will usually be a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1.

The keys to both Bielsa’s and Pep’s success with this formation were versatility and fluidity. So, despite both teams having ‘set’ formations, the 3-3-1-3 required the players to be constantly moving and filling in the gaps that are left by teammates. This means that many players within this system have to be capable of playing in more than one position. 

The 3-3-1-3 in essence lends itself to high-paced attacking football. It requires pressing high up the pitch with a high defensive line, and constantly looking to utilise the full width of the pitch.

Players should never look to be in an exact line with each other, in order to easily create triangles with the wide players or next line of three. Also, the 3-3-1-3 is capable of creating overloads on the wings as the players positioning allows for 3rd (if it’s 3v2) and 4th (if it’s 4v3) man runs to be utilised. These types of runs are essentially one-two’s but with a third or fourth player timing and making a run, rather than the second player in the one-two. 

Due to both fluidity of passes and fluidity of movement being required, this formation demands high technical and physical levels. 

Strengths 

The benefits of employing the 3-3-1-3 system are plentiful if done right, but it is a high-risk high-reward game meaning that if not properly orchestrated, it can be disastrous. Nevertheless, what you are guaranteed if it is well-planned is fast, fluid possession-based football. The positioning of the players allows for multiple passing triangles to be created vertically up the pitch, with the flanks being of major importance as that is where numerical superiority is created. 

The system is also very flexible, capable of morphing into several other formations – a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, and a 4-5-1 for more compactness in the defensive block. This allows managers to employ it when and if needed, as the 3-3-1-3 lends itself to defensive problems – only natural with so many players being committed forward. 

Additionally, 3-3-1-3 allows for effective pressing up top due to the aforementioned numerical superiority. In combination with fast-paced passing and attacking, the system creates beautiful and intense footballing spectacles; goals are guaranteed. This is what most fans think football at its core should be about. When asked about the reasons behind his obsession with 3-3-1-3, Bielsa replied that it is “impossible to defend, and the future of attacking football”. However, this leads me to next point about the defensive problems associated with such a formation (which is perhaps why most teams use it offensively) and other drawbacks of using this formation.

Weaknesses 

Using the 3-3-1-3 and pressing high up the pitch leaves a team vulnerable and exposed at the back and on the wings if the opposition does manage to get past the press. This is perhaps why Pep’s Bayern, blessed with a multitude of defensive talent, were one of the rare teams seen to successfully employ the 3-3-1-3 throughout entire games. Even then, a back four would occasionally be formed in defence if the opponents managed to break the press in numbers.

As mentioned, the 3-3-1-3 system requires players of high technical quality, which is why Bielsa often chooses to play defensive midfielders in defence – they are better on the ball and at dictating play with passes, as well as being keen to push up as often as possible. However, this can only increase the above drawback during counter attacks as the defence is further thinned from an already ‘weakened’ three-man defence. 

Additionally, playing defensive midfielders as centre backs requires an extremely deep and versatile squad as the system is both physically demanding (thus resulting in more injuries) and requires a high number of midfielders. This has the additional financial implications as most teams have nowhere near the spending power, nor pull, as Bayern Munich. It is quite possibly the reason why Bielsa, never having a truly world-class squad at his disposal, is only able to achieve so much. It would be extremely interesting to see what he could do with teams such as Liverpool, Bayern, and PSG – where he could bring in the personnel he wants as well as having some certainty that when his team are defending, they are defending with some of the best defenders in the world. 

Summary

All in all, the 3-3-1-3 system is capable of creating fast-flowing attacking football when employed correctly. The threshold for this is very high as it requires highly technical and physical players which is why some of football’s most successful sides (Pep’s Barca, van Gaal’s Ajax, and Michels’ Dutch National Team) have utilised it with deadly effect. The reason this article may seem like an ode to Bielsa is because he managed to make the system work with less technical players (with all due respect) than those in such successful teams. Yes, it is true that on average players are more technical nowadays, even amongst defenders and sometimes even keepers (Ederson). But he nonetheless paved a way for teams who are not world class to attempt and play this attack-minded style of football, as if they were. It will be exciting to see whether any managers follow, and how they bring their own vision to this ingenious tactical blueprint – especially given the rise of attacking full-backs and inverted wingers.

See Also: An Introduction To The 4-2-3-1 Football Formation

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