Tactically Speaking: The 343

It is often sighted by managers and fans alike that nothing should be taken from preseason, however one thing seems prominent in our pre-season which is worth discussing. No I am not talking about Arnie’s hair, instead the formation that Sparky has preferred for every starting line-up, the 343. Now this could all be purely speculation (and we may actually only be accounting for the fact that Arnie is our only genuine match fit winger) but it appears that this formation may slowly make its way into our match day line ups. So therefore it will be useful, to look at what the formation could bring to the side.

This tactical shape is having some form of a renaissance after it was used so effectively by Wales and Italy in the Euro’s. Chris Coleman used the extra central defensive player to ensure his team were tough to break down. This defensive rigidity allowed Wales’ best players Bale and Ramsey to not overly concern themselves with tracking back. This meant they were always available on the counter attack and both were key to every Welsh attack. Also essential to this formation was our own new signing ‘Wee’ Joe Allen, whose tenacious ball recovery meant he had more interception than any other midfielder and won himself a spot in the squad of the tournament.

The Welsh and Italians used this formation in a war of attrition as they soaked up pressure from the opponent and sought to break with speed. Personally I do not see Stoke using this formation in the same way. Our 433 and 4231 formations have both seen great success in the use of the counter attack and you only have to look at performances against both Manchester clubs and nearly every away win to evidence this. Instead it appears to me that Sparky is attempting to use this formation against weaker sides who attempt to sit deep and soak up our pressure.

The thought process behind this is simple. In dropping an extra man into the centre of defence the two wing backs can press higher up the pitch without the fear of leaving their defensive colleagues vulnerable to the counter attack. This in theory gives Stoke a large attacking force as the two wing backs operate in the wide channels, with the attacking three sat inside of that, supported by the two centre midfielders. Meaning that instead of the 5 attacking players and two full backs, the system now simply has 7 players all involved in the attacking phase of play. It is good to see Sparky trying to create a system that will hopefully prevent results such as the Watford and Everton results where we found ourselves undone at home due to our tactics.

So how suited to the formation are we as a side? Well obviously it would not be everyone’s first choice formation, due to it being an unusual formation especially in the Premier League, but we have a versatile squad who could adapt. The biggest issue that this system has seen so far in pre-season is Erik Pieters. Erik is an excellent defensive left back, I would argue that there is none better than him in the Premier League at these defensive duties, but he is not as natural a wing back as Glen Johnson. Pieters is not blessed with great speed and his final ball is not the complete product and unfortunately this meaning he has struggled to have affect against Burton and Preston. Despite this he performed admirably against Orlando and drove forward well creating good opportunities for his attacking colleagues. Despite his initial un-comfort at playing as a wing back it appears that he is settling into the position and could become a vital asset for the Potters.

The left side of defence with Muni and Pieters looked secure in defence, instead it was the other that looked a deal more concerning. If saying Erik Pieters is not blessed with pace then I guess I have to describe Philipp Wollscheid as being cursed with a lack of it. The German affectionately known as Pip struggled with balls over the top of himself, and due to Glen Johnson’s urgency to press forward and help with the attack Wollscheid often became exposed and struggled. It would

appear that he is more suited to the role occupied by Shawcross in the centre of the back 3, as this is perfect for a strong tackling defender. Geoff Cameron, the most athletic player in our side, would be my choice for this RCB role, and now he is back in full time training it will be interesting to see him take up this role, which does seem more suited to the American.

At times against Orlando the back 3 were pressed hard and could only distribute the ball back towards Butland or across the back line. This comes down to a lack of mobility in the midfield known as Charlie Adam. Imbula found himself playing unnaturally deep as he attempted to pick up the ball and transition it forward. Adam meanwhile looked like he needed to be subbed from the 4th minute, and very little with his only contribution being an awful pass which deflected to Bojan and the Spaniard swiftly dispatched the ball into the back of the net.

A more mobile midfielder is needed and in Joe Allen we could not have better. Statistics showed that in his brief fleeting appearances for Liverpool last season he was the most mobile and highest pressing midfielder under Klopp. Allen’s Metronome like box to box work will add vastly to this shape and he could be the key to make it a successful tactic.

At the top of the formation Arnie and Bojan flourished, both players looked head and shoulders above their opposition and team mates. Diouf was used more as a target man than anything else, as the way in which the formation was used there was very little room in behind the defence for him to run into. Again this is something I see Hughes as expecting to come in games where this shape is used, and therefore my preference would be for Shaqiri to slot in alongside Arnie and Bae. The flexibility, fluidity and ferocity was something that was very noticeable against Orlando with constant movement along the front three who at times looked very threatening.

Personally this formation appeals to me. The attacking possibility it brings is undoubted, and unlike any formation that comprises of 4 at the back it is a lot less vulnerable to counter attacks. If the players can get comfortable then potentially we will be one of the first teams to truly create a system to deal with counter attacking systems that have been dominant in the twilight of the tika taka era. The last two Premier League winners both had an effective defence and broke teams down in fast moving counter attacking play, and if a side can create a system to disarm this then they will certainly be moving in the right direction up the table. And our 343 could be the system to do this.

Written by Tom Thrower

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