It is important to take whatever the other team gives, but even more important to take some things they don’t want to give.

I’m not a big believer in formations or systems of play.  As a coach, I would rather have ‘soccer’ players, as opposed to ‘players’ who ‘play soccer.’  However, I understand the importance of having a basic rhythm system of which players can feel comfortable in and build out of or fall back into.

I have probably used every possible set-up imaginable, and then some.  I used to favor a 1-3-5-2 because of its ability to establish possession and its’ built-in shape. As time has passed and I have spent more and more time in the women’s game, the irreconcilable differences between male and female players has led me to realize that both the defensive and offensive demands of that system are so brutal on female players they increase the chances of failure.

Females play on the same size field as males. They both play with the same size ball and with the same size goals. The difference lies in the amount of space an average male player can cover compared to a female counterpart. When a team plays with three males in the back they can typically can cover more ground within a faster time then three females.  This is in no way meant to be a sexist comment, but rather a matter of fact; factually one of the ‘few’ differences between the genders that coaches of this game must understand.

The same correlation applies on the attacking end of the field. This is one reason why we seldom see a women’s team playing with three in the back.  The amount of space they have to cover is tremendous compared to males. On the flip side, it’s also a reason why we see so many three fronts in the women’s game.  The more players involved the easier it is to cover the space.

It’s in this same context why more women’s teams play with four in the back and why so few men’s teams play with more than two front-runners.  Too many male front-runners can take-up too much space and congest the area.

 One of the more popular systems of play being used today is the 1-3-4-3. Even with the above mentioned gender discrepancies, I still see this being run with both male and female teams. With this in mind, let’s take a more detailed look at the 1-3-4-3.

In doing so, we’ll talk about how this system should be approached offensively and defensively, as well as different variables and responsibilities it entails. *


1.) Teams should develop and always play with a mentality of applying a maximum level of high-pressure defense for 90 minutes over every square inch of the field. You don’t want to allow the opponents to breathe anywhere.      You don’t want to track players (as a rule), but rather track the ball.

2.) When possession is lost the players closest to the ball must sprint at it to win it back. The players off the ball must sprint into their shape (usually underneath or behind the ball).

3.) Everyone must play with a doubling mentality. 

• The strikers should double back in their column at a sprint if the ball is there.

• The attacking center midfielder needs to double in all directions and anywhere they feel there is not enough pressure on the ball, at a sprint.

• The defensive center midfielder must attack every ball they can from their starting position underneath the backs in all directions like the attacking center midfielder. Their starting position should be based seven to ten yards off the backs between the ball and the middle of the goal they are defending. The only exception to this positioning is once the ball is within service range of the penalty box; then they should drop in next to the center backs. This will release the center backs to provide cover for the flank defenders.

• Both flank midfielders have to double back and front the play ball side with balance being provided weak side at a sprint.

• The backs must step forward while the ball is in motion on every back pass and any square ball to compact the game. This will also allow them to get “sideways on” before any ball can be served behind. If a ball does get played over the top or through, it is imperative that they sprint back (DROP!).

• The goalkeeper should play high off their line and function as a deep sweeper unless the opponent is within shooting range.  Then they ‘play the line’ like a keeper, literally on their line.


1.) The team should develop and approach the game with the mentality of playing as fast as humanly possible. 

2.) You should be moving the ball quickly via one and two touch play until you find a matchup that results in 1v1 isolation.  You should be looking from these isolations on the flanks or up front in the attacking half. Once this isolation is found, the player with the ball needs to be given the green light to shred that defender with whatever aspect of their personality permits them to beat the defender.

3.) Once this defender is beaten, the player with the ball should be looking to get off a cross or a shot on goal.

4.) Players without the ball must be sprinting somewhere. To get in behind. To get wide. To find space. To support. To somehow tear the opponent’s defense apart.

The team should play a threatening combination of direct and indirect styles. It is important take whatever the other team gives, but even more important to take some things they don’t want to give. As soon as a player wins possession of the ball, there are a series of choices they should be making. These choices should be made in this order:

1.) They should look to shoot immediately.

2.) They should look to penetrate on the dribble if they have only one player to beat to get off a service or a shot.

3.) They should look to get someone in.

4.) They should look to change the point directly.

5.) They should look to go forward.

6.) They should look to go wide.

7.) They should look to play back or shortly square as a last resort to maintain possession.

These are all decisions to attack and that’s the mentality the team should have in this system. When given a choice ALWAYS leave the ball on the ground. Whenever you pass the ball, you must move at a sprint immediately after (knock and move).

The team also needs to properly organize the attacking box:

1.) They should be fighting for the spaces in front of (slashing) defenders and the goalkeeper.

2.) Anyone moving towards the back-post has to remain patient.

3.) The player with the ball should first look to shoot or combine for entry through a passing seam from the top of the box.

  • If that isn’t on, their next look should be the back post with a bent ball or a finishing seam from the end line.
  • If those options don’t develop they should again look for the back post with a bent ball or a passing seam from the flank.

4.) The goal HAS to be Framed on every shot:

  • Players should be sprinting to each post every time a ball is struck.
  • Someone needs to always ensure the goalkeeper is being slashed or fronted.

Hopefully, you’ll find this brief, focused look at the 1-3-4-3 beneficial and if you choose to implement it as your base system of play you have some ideas and concepts to consider.  Remember, no matter what type of system is your rhythm pattern, it will only work as good as the players within it and reciprocally only as good as the coach who can teach the proper roles, responsibilities and various options for them to choose from.   In the mean time, I’ll keep grinding away – down-under.


* General context referenced and parts quoted in full from Anson Dorrance (Head Women's Soccer Coach at the University of North Carolina) and the Ohio Premier Eagles Soccer Club (Columbus, Ohio).