“I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0”
This quote from Johan Cruyff perfectly demonstrates the philosophy behind the system he used with Ajax and Barcelona. The 3-4-3 diamond system was a dramatic change from the standard 4-4-2 most used during the ’80s and ’90s yet brought so much success. In this retro analysis piece, I will be discussing how he managed to achieve so much with this system, including four La Liga back-to-back titles and one European Cup, and whether or not it could be used in today’s game.
How did Cruyff create his system?
Johan Cruyff’s main tactical influence was a Dutch manager named Rinus Michels. He played under Michels for several years, first at Ajax, before meeting again at Barcelona. Michels was the creator of the well-known concept of ‘Total Football’ which Cruyff adopted himself during his time as a manager. One of the key Total Football principles was that each player could play another’s role in the team. What this enabled Michels’ teams to do, was to manipulate the opposition’s man-orientated defending systems by dragging players to create space in the vacated area. To do so, Michels decided to steer clear of the commonly used 4-4-2, instead opting for a 4-3-3 formation. This significantly changed the dynamic of matches, allowing for a more flexible and fluid system, in contrast with the rigid, flat 4-4-2 that his opponents usually played with.
The graphic above exhibits Michels’ 4-3-3 up against the usual formation used by the opposition, the 4-4-2. The role Cruyff played was as the ‘nine’, however, he wasn’t the traditional number nine. He was given license to drop deep in a similar fashion to the ‘false nine’, the now popularised term for a centre-forward that situationally drops into midfield. Cruyff essentially played at the tip of the diamond midfield in this position. This diamond in midfield was key to the tiki-taka style that Total Football was renowned for. Diamonds allow for multiple passing triangles to not only be created within the midfield itself but also in combination with those in surrounding positions, such as the fullbacks and centre-backs.
So, how did Cruyff differ?
Cruyff adapted and evolved Michels’ system. He decided that he wanted both the diamond in midfield and the potential to create areas of numerical superiority in all areas of the pitch.
“If you have four men defending two strikers, you only have six against eight in the middle of the field: there’s no way you can win that battle. We had to put a defender further forward.”
Here, Cruyff states his reasons for moving away from the 4-3-3 in favour of the 3-4-3 diamond. He felt that the 6v8 that materialised when in possession with the 4-3-3 was less than favourable, making it more challenging to create space. The 4-4-2 diamond, the other formation where he could have had a diamond, was too restricted in terms of width in both attack and defence. Cruyff saw that the wider midfielders would have to cover the wings to prevent the opposition from creating an overload on the fullback, and as a result, you have “lost your diamond”.
He recognised that he could sacrifice one defender from the 4-3-3 and still maintain numerical superiority at the back. What this allowed him to do was place an attacking midfielder at the tip of the diamond while keeping his centre-forward closer to the box.
How did the 3-4-3 diamond work?
At the back, Cruyff’s tactics were to deploy a back three. This was an important aspect of his system in both the attacking and defensive phases of the game. Maintaining three at the back allowed Cruyff’s teams to possess numerical superiority in defensive transition with a 3v2 against the opposition’s front two. In possession, the opposition were unable to press them, again due to their numerical superiority, forcing the strikers to drop into a block. What this allowed the outside-backs (numbers 2 and 5 in the graphic) to do was to carry the ball up the pitch. The opposition ball-near striker either stayed in position, allowing the outside-back to play a pass unopposed vertically towards players in advanced areas, or they would be forced to track back on every occasion and eventually tire, becoming “no longer dangerous offensively”, according to Cruyff himself.
The holding midfielder would be able to slot in behind the centre-back that had pushed forward to sustain their 3v2 advantage at the back.
The main job of the holding midfielder in possession was to stay central, never moving a great distance from the centre circle, essentially acting as the pivot of the team. What this allowed him to do was to receive the ball in front of the midfield line and see everyone ahead of him. Thanks to the diamond, he had many different passing angles to play at as shown in the diagram. He could either play a shorter pass into the feet of one of the midfielders to begin one-touch passing combinations or play diagonals out to the wingers who would be 1v1 against the fullback, which is exactly where you want them to be. An example of a player that performed this role seamlessly for Cruyff was Frank Rijkaard during his time at Ajax.
One of the key differences between Cruyff’s system and Michels’ system was the additional midfielder that was placed at the top of the diamond behind the centre forward. His role was one of simplicity. Cruyff didn’t want him to receive the ball, turn and try and to take on players by himself. He wanted him instead to play one-touch passes to one of the two wider midfielders to open up the flank, creating patterns of play as shown in the above graphic. He would then get into the box to support the centre forward, so scored a lot of, particularly headed, goals. In this sense, he acted like a second-striker.
The two midfielders that played slightly wider (numbers 8 and 10) were typically the main sources of creativity in the team. Guardiola was one of the Cruyff’s key players for Barcelona and played this role to perfection. They were responsible for both making runs behind the opposition defence and playing incisive balls into any given one of the front three. The lay-off passes they would receive from the attacking midfielder were ideal for this task. It meant that they regularly received the ball facing forwards, so could play one or two-touch passes into the front three. This combination of one-touch passes allowed Cruyff’s sides to take advantage of the space they created, as the opposition were not able to shift across and cut off passing lanes in time.
The positional fluidity of Cruyff’s teams made them deadly in the final third: the striker was pivotal to this. He often would drop into the midfield area to create a 5v4 against the opponent’s midfield, allowing the free man to find space, often in between the lines. If a centre-back stepped up, however, the attacking midfielder could make a run into the space vacated by that centre-back.
Here are the combined movement patterns of players off the ball. It is easy to see how Cruyff’s teams were able to disorganise the opposition in order to create space with this array of movements.
How did Cruyff organise his teams out of possession?
Cruyff’s philosophy, simply put, was that if his team had the ball, the opposition couldn’t score. As already discussed, it is clear that his teams were able to consistently find passing options and space on the pitch. However, inevitably, they did occasionally lose the ball. To follow this philosophy, Cruyff always used a high press, no matter the opposition. The 3-4-3 formation worked perfectly for this.
Cruyff wanted his teams to make the pitch as big as possible in possession, but as small as possible when defending. He reasons this by explaining that defending is easiest when having to defend a small area of the pitch. The sheer number of players that were positioned in advanced areas in Cruyff’s system meant that his teams could counter-press with great efficiency, as demonstrated above.
The obvious disadvantage of this system is that you cannot defend in a block without transitioning into a back four/five defensive structure. This is because a defensive line of three players simply isn’t enough to cover the width of the pitch against a team in their offensive structure that can fully utilise the width of the pitch.
It would certainly be intriguing to see this system used in modern football. I am certain that it would be useable against teams who defend in a deep block and commit few players to the counter, and could definitely better some teams’ efficiency at breaking low blocks down due to the areas of numerical superiority that it creates and passing combinations it allows for. However, as mentioned throughout this piece of retro analysis, the system that Cruyff designed was based on the assumption that the opposition was playing in a 4-4-2 formation. For example, against a 4-3-3 the extra man in midfield that this system provides could limit its key benefit which is overloading the midfield, and the 4-3-3 would more likely be able to exploit the space down the flanks on offensive transitions. In addition, today there are now many more teams that are significantly better at playing through the press, so the 3-4-3 diamond’s incapacity to form a compact block would be its downfall.