Formations in football are dynamic, the numbers describing the shapes — 4–4–2, 3–4–1–2, 4–2–3–1 — are just mere simplifications of how the players lineup at a certain point of time or during a specific situation. The 4–2–3–1 can be in possession something of a 2–3–5/3–2–5 as some of the top Premier League teams are doing now or it can be a completely different thing.
City’s 3–4–3 used in the second half against Sheffield United and Everton isn’t the typical wide 3–4–3 used to stretch the opposition or gain an extra-man advantage against a back four, like Conte’s 16–17 Chelsea for instance.
It’s actually hard to stick a number on the shape, sometimes it’s a 3–4–3, a 3–4–2–1 or even a 3–4–1–2. What is important though, is that the principles and ideas stay the same.
However, before jumping into City’s new dynamic 3–4–3 it’s appropriate to go back to the reason Pep Guardiola actually made the switch at half time against Sheffield United.
Starting in their 4–3–3 shape City morphed in possession into a 2–3–5/3–2–5 with Oleksandr Zinchenko going inside next to Rodri and Kyle Walker jumping between City’s first and second line. The issue City faced against Chris Wilder’s compact 5–3–2 is that they couldn’t penetrate Sheffield United’s lines. City’s lack of movements meant that it was easy for Sheffield United’s almost mirrored shape to hold, and even when Kevin De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva dropped deep in the channels they were followed by the aggressive marking of Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham with no City player free to make a run into that space.
Guardiola’s solution was to switch to a back three, line of four with wing backs providing width, and a front three. “We put more players close to Sergio (Aguero) and the guys who passed the ball from outside to inside are players with better quality than we had in the first half, with Kevin (De Bruyne) and Bernardo (Silva) and then (Ilkay) Gundogan. That was the reason why,” he said after the game.
The tactical tweak worked and City improved in the second half despite not creating an enormous amount of chances. Eventually, winning the game.
The idea behind the shape is based on three principles; putting a technical player between the lines to create, fielding your best passers in the center to have more angles whether wide to the wing backs or to the narrow front three, and finally allowing rotational movements between the narrow front three to create space for each other.
Dropping between the lines
The common sighting in the game and a half where City played this shape is that there’s always one or two players dropping between the lines. Meaning that the 3–4–3 is either a 3–4–1–2 or a 3–4–2–1 with two players ready to create.
An example can be seen early in the second half, Sheffield United’s front five are focusing on City’s first two lines while Aguero and Raheem Sterling are pinning O’Connell and Jack Egan. Out of the picture on the left is Chris Basham who’s keeping his position as a right center back. Riyad Mahrez moving from the front three line drops between the lines to present himself as a passing option.
The scene occurs again but this time it’s Aguero and Mahrez dropping in the right and left channel to help City penetrate Sheffield United’s lines.
As Oliver Norwood moves forward to press Bernardo Silva, Mo Besic moves inside to protect the center of midfield leaving Mahrez free.
Bernardo quickly feeds De Bruyne, and now that Mahrez is free De Bruyne intelligently finds him to bypass the midfield.
Another snippet in the 62nd minute shows how Sterling and Mahrez’s movements allowed the presence of a player between the lines. Sterling drops deeper than Mahrez to occupy Norwood and John Fleck while Besic is keeping tabs of De Bruyne. Mahrez at that moment was in the perfect spot.
Mahrez’s positioning between the lines finally paid dividends in a game that could have ended in a draw. His presence behind Sheffield United’s midfield allows De Bruyne to play the penetrating pass and continue his burst forward.
Mahrez then dribbles past Egan and spots De Bruyne’s run.
The Belgian cuts inside and pins Dean Henderson with a low bottom strike right side of the goal.
Everton played in the same shape as Sheffield United, a 5–3–2. This time Guardiola started with the shape and ideas he ended the Sheffield United win with. In a similar situation to the one aforementioned above (62nd minute against Sheffield United) Phil Foden drops into midfield to occupy the midfielders to free Mahrez between the lines.
Lucas Digne stops following Foden to prevent a pass into Joao Cancelo out wide, leaving the task of marking Foden to Tom Davies and Fabian Delph.
Foden realizes the pressure and plays a one touch pass to De Bruyne.
Now with Everton’s 3 midfielders focusing on De Bruyne, Digne wide against Cancelo this leaves Mason Holgate lonely versus Mahrez and Foden who dropped back in between the lines.
De Bruyne finds Foden with an incisive pass, and the domino effect begins. Too fast for Everton players to adjust
Foden receives the ball inside which pushes Holgate to press him, and with Gabriel Jesus pinning Yerry Mina. Mahrez is now officially the free man between the lines.
Mahrez collects and finds Jesus with a simple pass between Seamus Coleman and Mina.
The masterpiece ends in City’s second only thirteen minutes into the second half.
A 2D top view also gives a better illustration of the movements and the slickness of the passing.
A switch in shape to a 4–4–2 from Everton made things easier for Mahrez and Foden as Carlo Ancelotti removed the third player from the center.
Both dropping behind Davies and Delph means that De Bruyne can find them with a single pass.
Foden then bulldozes through Everton’s midfield but he’s denied a penalty claim after Djibril Sidibe manages to clear the ball.
Key passers centrally
A player dropping between the lines would need a pass to find him, and one of the tweaks Guardiola did was to put his best passers centrally to either find the player dropping between the lines or wing backs out wide.
Mahrez and Jesus’ positions here gives Gundogan two options, either to play it into the space in-front of Holgate for Mahrez to drop there or the long shot and take out 8 Everton players with a ball to Jesus.
Gundogan goes with the second option and Jesus now has two options as well, a cut back to Mahrez or to go on his own.
Jesus cuts inside but only to adjust the ball on his right foot and curls it into the top corner.
The movement of the front three was still dynamic, dropping and creating space for each other — a point that is elaborated next. Yet here it’s about the importance of putting a key passer centrally. Jesus drops to the left wing and plays the ball back to De Bruyne centrally.
Immediately, Jesus starts his runs behind Sidibe.
De Bruyne’s ability and positioning centrally allows him to find the Brazilian behind Everton’s defence.
Jesus then beats Sidibe and sets up Mahrez whose shot is blocked by Holgate denying City their third of the evening.
Rotational movement upfront
To complement the passers in midfield and players dropping between the lines, the front three rotate positions between them to occupy any free space.
Mahrez positioned centrally here between Norwood and Egan presents himself as a passing option to Zinchenko.
Once he receives the ball he moves wide doubling up against Basham, and switches positions with Aguero catalyzed by a flick from the Algerian.
Aguero who’s now central of the front three then plays Sterling. Meanwhile, Mahrez is untracked wide on the left.
Sterling spots Mahrez who’s free because of Basham’s run inside to mark Aguero.
The rotational movement between Mahrez and Aguero mesmerized the Sheffield United defence, and only Egan stood between Mahrez and the back of the net.
An example in the 28th minute against Everton showcases the three main ideas. Foden dropping between the lines to present himself as a passing option, moving Coleman out of position.
The midfielder then tees up the key passer centrally in Gundogan, all that whilst Benjamin Mendy is making a run behind Sidibe and Coleman. Gundogan only needs one touch to find Mendy out wide.
Now the third part comes, Mahrez instead of continuing his run slows down and cuts inside to the center tricking the three Everton defenders left.
Mendy finds Mahrez with a cutback putting him in a position where he usually excels.
Finally, Mahrez goes to the outside of Mina but his strike is stopped by Jordan Pickford.
Other than the rotational perspective, the narrowness of the front three allowed also for quick combinations.
Mahrez’s one-two with Gundogan puts him in a good position to create. On the other hand, Jesus smartly positions himself outside of Sidibe rather than central.
Jesus’ previously mentioned positioning makes him a perfect passing option for Mahrez.
The latter puts him through on goal to grab a deserved hatrick but Jesus’ shot hit the post.
The three points revolving around this shape enabled City to outplay a 5–3–2 block. The dropping of one or two players of the front three resulted in the presence of a player between the lines which was found by a key passer in central midfield. That as well as the dynamism of the front three when one or two of them drop, exchanging positions and occupying vacated space.
City’s league position makes it difficult for them to catch a rampant Liverpool side. Three titles still remain though, and with a versatile approach as the one mentioned here the Champions League should be the one in their sights.