The 3–3–1–3 formation: Its audacity and its frailty

Marcelo “El Loco” Bielsa — The coach who popularised the 3–3–1–3
Pep Guardiola has also experimented with his own version of the 3–3–3–1 at Bayern Munich

3–3–1–3 Overview

The 3–3–1–3 employs:

  • 3 centrebacks that stick quick close to each other,
  • 1 central midfielder that roams around in the space in front of the defence,
  • 2 highly mobile and versatile wingbacks that take up any role depending on the phase of the attack and
  • the attacking unit, enganche y tres puntas comprising of one creative attacking midfielder behind one central striker and two wide wingers
Bielsa uses the 3–3–1–3 in his first ever league game with Lille in France
Slide from Bielsa’s presentation on which formations counter which ones according to his theory of the game

Attacking organization

The centre forward is the focus of every attack in this system due to the lack of density of players in the middle. The first phase of buildup coming out of the keeper is straightforward and based on numerical superiority. The defensive flat back-3 provides sufficient width to deal with the press from the 2 strikers. The following three phases of buildup — construction, creation and finishing — however, are quite direct and follow rapidly. The reason is that the outlet out of the first phase to bypass the first line opposition pressure is only via the wingbacks.

Defensive organization

The moments of transition are quite intense in this system. The priority of defensive organization is to delay and win the ball back as soon as possible. The more time the opposition is allowed on the ball in the centre, the greater the risk of conceding shots on goal. Illan Meslier needed to have a good game to keep a clean sheet against Southampton. He made 5 crucial saves which is greater than the average of 4 saves he makes per game.

Lack of central stability

An understanding of the system from the previous sections provides a hint as to why the 3–3–1–3 lacks central stability. If we look at the heatmap against Southampton we see a U-shaped occupation of the area around the 18-yard box in Leeds’ own half.

Leeds’ Heatmap against Southampton (source: WhoScored)
Leeds’ action zones against Southampton (source: WhoScored)
Leeds’ touchmap against Southampton with halfspaces highlighted along with low control around the centre (source: WhoScored)
Roberts (in midfield) provides the assist for Bamford’s goal against Southampton with his second touch

3–3–1–3: conceptual or practical?

The success of this system relies on the ability to be brave and dominate the wide lane despite being pressed to the touchline. The linear stack of three players in a narrow lane need to engage in dynamic rotations to overcome opponents one by one. Bielsa’s four core principles: concentración, permanente movilidad, rotación y repenitización (concentration, permanent focus, rotation and improvisation) echoes louder than ever in the 3–3–1–3.

Leeds against Hull City in 2018 using rotations of players in a single narrow channel to progress forward

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Roshan Rao

Roshan Rao

The beautiful game is a microcosm of our complex human society. Sunday storyteller, Time traveller, Football fiend. At other times I practice Medicine.