The Gradual and Inevitable Rise of The 3-3-1-3

Ever since I first read Inverting The Pyramid I was convinced that Jonathan Wilson had correctly predicted the future of football tactics. For those that haven’t read it, and I advise that you do, here is a brief synopsis. Wilson traces the tactics of football back through history, starting in the very early years whereby teams played with seven or eight strikers, through the sixties whereby four strikers were preferred, through the nineties where there was a front two, and on to present day.

As the name suggests, football tactics have slowly inverted. The emphasis has shifted and the original idea of having a small amount of defenders and large amount of strikers have now been reversed. Wilson goes on to predict that at some point in the future teams will learn to play with no strikers at all. The book completely changed my outlook on football, rather than viewing football in terms of who had the best players, I began to see football as who had the best system. It is tactics, and not players, that bring success. You need only to look at David Moyes struggling at Manchester United after inheriting Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad, or Jose Mourinho’s repeated success at whatever club he moves too, Porto and Inter Milan’s Champions League victories in particular, to see that the real genius on the pitch, is actually the man off it, sat in the dugout. The final chapters of Inverting The Pyramid hypothesises that the future of football will be to play without a striker.

As is clear now, Wilson’s prediction was correct. Pep Guardiola’s invention of the false nine whilst at Barcelona, with Messi up-front on his own but dropping deep, was apparently the final stage of evolution in football tactics. It was in essence a 4-5-1 formation with one deep defensive midfielder in Busquets, two central midfielders in Xavi and Iniesta, two wide attacking midfielders with Pedro and Villa and then Messi as the lone man occupying the space a striker is meant to hold. Messi’s dropping deep and movement from his starting location meant that effectively, Barcelona played with nobody up-front.

There is a wealth of information online about this role, and the tactical choices made, so I shant put up links here. I would encourage you to research it for yourself though if you are unfamiliar. Under Guardiola, and with this system, Barcelona were all conquering. In four seasons they won, an incredible, fourteen trophies. The sheer dominance of the team, and system, inevitably led to others adopting it. With the large majority of Barcelona’s team being homegrown, it was no surprise then that Spain adopted this formation for themselves. Without a Messi-like figure, Spain employed a midfielder in the false nine role, this was most often Cesc Fabregas, and this resulted in the 4-6-0 formation. This was the formation used in the 4-0 drubbing of Italy in the final of Euro 2012. With all this said it seems that football had nowhere else to go. The prophecy of the dominance of striker-less formations had occurred and there seemed to be no system able to match its tactical genius. Football however, is a constantly changing and rapidly evolving game.

To borrow, and rephrase, a Chinese proverb, “Football is like rowing upstream, not to advance is to drop back”. The 4-5-1 with a false nine has been done, as has the 4-6-0. The time has come for the rise of the 3-3-1-3. Though this may seem like quite a ridiculous thing to advocate I can assure you, it is not. The seeds of the 3-3-1-3 system were already in place in both the 4-5-1 and 4-6-0 formations. But our story begins earlier even than that. It begins four years ago, in 2010, with Marcelo Bielsa and his Chile side.

Though 3-3-1-3 has undoubtedly been used in the past and though I nor Bielsa himself are claiming that he invented it, for the sake of this article, this is where we begin. This is because it was Bielsa that resuscitated this system and laid the foundations for the tactical evolution we are in the midst of currently. A tactical evolution that we are yet to see reach its final form by the way.

On June 8th 2010, Zonal Marking ran a piece entitled “Bielsa’s Chile The Most Tactically-Exciting Side”. Within this article they analyse the tactics and formation used by the manager, how the players have reacted to it and the success that has been achieved. The 3-3-1-3 tactic is inherently attacking. It involves a high defensive line, intense pressing high up the pitch and the stretching of the game to utilise as much space as possible.

The first set of three consists of three centre backs, whose purpose it is to defend and block attacks from the opposition. The second set of three consists of two wing backs and a defensive midfielder. The defensive midfielder sits in front of the back three, giving protection, breaking up attacks and recycling possession. The two wing backs are predominantly there to attack. Their defensive duties do not need to be particularly brilliant as their primary job is to support attacking moves, surging up and down the wings and attempting to create 2 v 1 opportunities against the opposition full back. The 1 in the 3-3-1-3 can either be a centre midfielder who acts as a playmaker, spraying balls forward and making through balls for the attackers to run on to, or it could be an attacking midfielder positioned higher up the pitch that is given the freedom to roam and drift in between the midfield and defensive lines of the opposition.

The third, and final, set of three consists of one striker and two wingers. The two wingers drive at the opposition, dribbling and jinking their way around defenders, as well as running beyond the defensive line, looking to latch on to any throw ball played in behind. The striker performs the usual duties that come with such a position though he is required to hunt down opposing defenders in possession of the ball, and intensely pressing and harassing anyone with the ball in their own half.

Below I have included an image of how the ideal 3-3-1-3 would look on the pitch.
Thanks to


Under this system, and under Bielsa’s coaching, Chile, a team that finished in tenth place, bottom of South American World Cup Qualification for 2002, finished second for 2010. Securing their place at the World Cup in South Africa. Athletic Bilbao took a liking to Bielsa after seeing what he had achieved with Chile and in July 2011, they hired him.

Bielsa came to Spain and brought with him his wide repertoire of tactics, including the 3-3-1-3 formation. Athletic Bilbao played a variety of different styles and formations whilst Bielsa was in charge, among them was this 3-3-1-3 formation. Bielsa’s first season in charge saw Athletic finish in tenth place in La Liga but they were able to reach two cup finals, the Europa League final as well as the Copa del Ray final. The run to the Europa League final was particularly impressive as they finished top of their group and defeated Manchester United home, and away, en route to the final. Unfortunately they did not win any silverware that season but this was undoubtedly a major achievement for the club and the new manager. Though Bielsa lost his job a year later, he had made his mark upon Spanish and European football. Such was his impact and reputation that in March 2012, none other than Pep Guardiola called him “the best manager in the world”.

It is here that we leave Marcelo Bielsa and turn our attention towards who I believe is genuinely the best manager in world football, and that is Pep Guardiola.

It is clear that Guardiola has huge respect and admiration for Bielsa and it would be naiive to think that he was not influenced by him. I believe that whilst Bielsa was honing the 3-3-1-3 system with Chile, Guardiola was adopting aspects of it with Barcelona, and when Bielsa came to Spain to manage Athletic, Guardiola was perfecting the system which Bielsa had helped to create.

As mentioned earlier, Guardiola and Barcelona conquered the planet with the 4-5-1 system but as Matt Whitehouse correctly asks in his blog, did Barcelona ever really play with a back four? The answer to that, is probably no. Though it is recognised as a 4-5-1 when defending and a 4-3-3 when attacking, the reality is that Dani Alves at right back was never really in the back four. Whenever Barcelona had possession or were attacking, and this was the large majority of the time, you would see Dani Alves raiding up and down the right hand touchline, supporting attacks and linking up with Messi near the opposition penalty area. Thus, Dani Alves was more a wing back than he was a full back. As Whitehouse explains, at their peak Barcelona would basically have a back three. Abidal would tuck in at left back, and Puyol and Pique would shuffle across slightly to cover the attacks of Dani Alves. It resulted in a fairly lopsided formation but its clear that it was heading the way of the 3-3-1-3.

Barcelona 4-5-1

What was key to both Bielsa and Guardiola was fluidity. The ability to rotate and switch, move and roam from your position without a hole, or gap appearing. This requires players being comfortable in a variety of positions and this comfort then allows players to cover one another when they see a player is attacking or roaming from position. The back three would shuffle across when Dani Alves went forward, Busquets would drop between the two central defenders at times and Pedro and Villa were required to track back, following the runs of opposition full backs.

At Atheltic Bilbao, Bielsa regularly had Javi Martinez drop into the back, becoming the third centre back, a ball playing centre back, and this was not lost on Guardiola. In a Guardian article in December 2011 Wilson admits that football tactics and formations have gone further than the predictions he made, “Two years ago, I suggested we would increasingly see Pique start to step forward with the ball to join Busquets in midfield; actually the reverse has happened and we have seen Busquets drop back to join Pique”. Busquets drop into the back has coincided, or perhaps occurred because of the use of a more attacking left back. Initially Adriano, and currently Jordi Alba. Once Adriano and Alexis Sanchez are included in the team the formation evolves once more.

Barca Evolution

I had always thought of a full back as the least important position on the pitch but as I gain more understanding, and as the game continues to evolve, its becoming clear that this thought is wrong. Before we look at the growing importance and evolution of the full back we have to look further up the pitch and look at who plays in front of them. The wingers.

Matt Whitehouse’s fantastic blog has provided me with a host of inspiration and much of this section is owed to him. His article entitled “Footballs Evolution – The Modern Full Back” highlights the changes that have led to what I believe will be the inevitable adoption of the 3-3-1-3 system.

In the last decade or so we have seen a dramatic change in how wingers have been utilised. The choice to invert the wingers, playing a right footer on the left wing, and a left footer on the right wing, has created an abundance of advantages and opportunities. Mourinho had Duff or Robben on the right, and Joe Cole on the left at Chelsea, there were Reyes and Simao at Athletico Madrid, and Ronaldinho played off the left for Barcelona and Messi was located on the right. More recently there is Ronaldo on the left wing and Di Maria on the right at Real Madrid and the combination of Robbery – Ribery and Robben – at Bayern Munich.

This inversion of the wingers allowed them to cut inside from the touchline and run at the defenders in more central locations. They could slip a ball through to an attacker or unleash a shot, with their favoured foot, across the goal. This attacking change inevitably led to a defensive one to try to counteract it. Previously defenders were encouraged to force wingers inside, they did not want them getting to the byline and whipping in a cross. Full backs would push the wingers away from the touchline into the centre of the field, where it was more congested and where the wingers were forced onto their weaker foot. This defensive technique, however, created space behind the full back, as he pushed the winger inside, the whole touchline became open.

It is similar to a game of chess, whereby you move a piece into an attacking position, encouraging a defensive measure to be taken against it, its a threat after all and your opponent wont just leave it. So your opponent attempts to counter this threat by making a defensive move, this defensive move then opens another space for you to exploit and attack. Tactically it is pure genius.

Here is where the modern full back is introduced. The space created from having an inverted winger pushing infield then allows a full back, or more appropriately, a wing back to exploit that space. Whitehouse asks us to think of the best full backs currently in the game, names like Zabaleta, Dani Alves, Lahm, Alaba, Baines, Jordi Alba spring to mind, and what do they all have in common? They are all attack minded.

It seems the full backs primarily role in football now is to run up and down the touchline providing an over-lap, attack down the wing in support of those playing ahead of him and cross into dangerous areas. In reality, much more a wing back than a full back. As teams begin to employ pairs of wing backs more often, Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, Alaba and Rafinha etc, there is a need to address the balance of the team. This balance is established with use of the defensive midfielder, as Bielsa did with Javi Martinez and as Busquets does at Barcelona, the defensive midfielder drops in between the two centre backs. Thus creating a back three. I agree with Whitehouse’s prediction when he states that he see’s the game moving to a 3-3-1-3 style formation with wing backs and a holding midfielder in the front of a back three.

I would not be at all surprised if Guardiola began to adopt the 3-3-1-3 more obviously at Bayern Munich in the coming seasons, it is the next obvious step in the evolution of the formation. A team playing the finished article of Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 system, winning trophies at home and dominating in Europe would represent the final stage of the evolution. Though Guardiola does not quite play that way now, he is looking to revolutionise, and dominate, football once more. With two trophies won at Bayern already, the bookies favourites for them to win the Champions League and an unbelievable record in the Bundesliga thus far, having conceded only eight goals and winning every game except two, which ended in draws, they sit seven points clear with a game in hand. The future is bright at the Allianz Arena.

Below is my prediction as to how Bayern Munich could play the 3-3-1-3 system currently.
Alternatively Javi Martinez could play where Lahm is and Lahm could move out into the right wing back slot.
Such is the depth of talent at Guardiola’s disposal, anyone one of the front four could be replaced by Kroos or Muller.

Bayern 3-3-1-3




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