The reintroduction of Villas-Boas’s 4-3-3

November 3, 2011

The Portuguese’s redeployment of Porto’s 4-3-3 formation at Chelsea only scratches the surface of what is a replica of deeper tactical concepts. Chelsea's Andre Villas-BoasAndré Villas-Boas’s methods are still being questioned. Last weekend he had to defend his adventurous football philosophy – like all managers are when losing – after conceding five goals to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.

Interestingly though, reporters quizzed him in context of José Mourinho, a tactical chameleon whose success is centred on pragmatism.

“I won’t change my philosophy,” the Chelsea manager responded. “It’s a personal and club value and we will not sell it cheaply. It makes us proud with the way we are playing. We just have to correct things.”

His answer emphasised two differences to the Special One: Villas-Boas is more attacking – and less flexible. Within months at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho dropped his narrow 4-4-2 diamond in favour of 4-3-3 to accommodate Arjen Robben, Joe Cole and Damien Duff. With Villas-Boas, the system is pre-determined, and players adapt to the formation. In fact so much so that  several Chelsea players perform near-identical roles to those of last year’s all-conquering Porto side.

Chelsea v Porto

A closer comparison of Chelsea 2011/2012 and Porto 2010/2011 reveals these similarities; collectively and individually. Both are certainly athletic, dynamic and versatile, suiting Villas-Boas’s notion of high pressure and attacking fluency.

Chelsea’s fluent set-up under Villas-Boas

But Chelsea were also accustomed to the 4-3-3; a default formation since Mourinho departed. Key positions such as wingers and defensive midfielders were all in place. This might have been a factor for Villas-Boas’s summer move – he saw a team capable of gliding into his tried-and-tested system with relative ease.

Inheriting a new squad, the Portuguese has fitted players into a carbon-copy of Porto’s 4-3-3 tactic, with roles, runs and movements reinstalled. Below follows an analysis of the system and the similarities between those who have occupied the specific roles at Porto 2010/2011 and Chelsea 2011/2012.

Čech v Helton

The goalkeeper may not be the best place to start tactically; it is always slightly isolated from a collective tactic. However, notably, Čech now retains possession instead of lumping balls upwards. While this doesn’t suit the lanky Czech, it does suit Villas-Boas’s tactic and its focus on ball circulation, and the ‘keeper has had to conform.

Terry and Luiz v Rolando and Otamendi

While Villas-Boas possessed decent pace and distribution in Rolando and Nicolás Otamendi at Porto, those qualities are not always present at Chelsea. The agile David Luiz certainly fits the template, but an injury coupled with inconsistency has prevented a longer stay in the team. Yet despite having slow defenders, Villas-Boas has refused to adapt, instead keeping a high defensive line while playing Terry and the static Branislav Ivanović. The result has been a void between a tactical ideal and player material, which some, notably Arsenal, have exploited.

Bosingwa and Cole v Sapunaru and Pereira

Attacking full-backs remain a cornerstone to the system. Porto’s pairing, Christian Sapunaru and Álvaro Peirera, the Uruguayan who nearly followed Villas-Boas to Stamford Bridge, always looked to push forward, often advancing further than the midfield trio to maintain width and support when wingers drifted inwards.

In this sense, José Bosingwa would always be preferred to Ivanovic at Chelsea and he shares four assists with Ashley Cole so far. They are a perfect match; dynamic, hard working and capable of dribbling in one v one situations. When Chelsea control the tempo, two thirds of their game effectively consists of wing-play, often involving runs directly behind the defence (see Cole against Arsenal).

Porto 2010/2011

Porto 2010/2011

Mikel v Fernando

The anchor role is hardly revolutionary, yet Villas-Boas plays it deeper than most. John Obi Mikel and Fernando, the Brazilian, sit closer to defence than midfield, distributing,  breaking up attacks and covering  the full-backs.

A common move is for the centre-halves to split and support the full-backs in wide positions, while the anchor man drops down, forming a three-man defence to maintain defensive balance. Sitting so deep, the passes are always short and simple, with through balls rarely risked.

Lampard v Moutinho

This positions belongs to an industrious central midfielder. João Moutinho, the former Sporting captain, was a perfect fit at Porto,  combining tactical awareness with a good distance shot and a neat passing game. The Portugal international mainly worked from box to box, sharing duties equally between attack and defence.

Lampard is more offensive by comparison. This destabilises the team, with only three defensive players left to cover, and Villas-Boas knows allowing his natural game to flourish is a tactical compromise.

In fact, Lampard nearly lost his place earlier this season, only to hit back with sensational form. To emulate Porto, Raul Meireles makes an excellent option for the role but, seemingly, Lampard’s goals have convinced Villas-Boas that defensive stability is worth risking.

Ramires v Belluschi

The most attacking midfield role, located on the right side, is also the most interesting. It was handed to Fernando Belluschi at Porto; a small, quick and technical Argentine originally equipped for a wide or attacking midfield role. However, Villas-Boas played him as a central midfielder, telling him to break forward according to the movement of Hulk.

This made Porto extremely dangerous down the right. When Hulk received the ball wide, Belluschi would bomb in behind the left back, a movement pacy strikers often make when drifting wide. Conversely, when Hulk drifted inside to drag the full-back with him, Belluschi would overlap to overload the zone, supported by the attacking Sapunaru.

With Falcao staying centrally, at least one centre-back remained occupied. This mean that, to stop Belluschi, the other had to shuffle wide, dragging the entire defence towards the left. Alternatively a midfielder could track him, but the Argentine was speedy and usually gained enough space to create trouble. The left midfielder could also follow him, but that left right-back Sapunaru free.

Chelsea have re-created this move and its occupant, Ramires has scored four goals in eight matches – compensating technical trickery with stamina and tirelessness. At Porto the more defensive Fredy Guarín, who also played the role on occasions, netted five times from 22 appearances.

Sturridge v Hulk

These midfielders’ movement works in tandem with a left-footed right winger. Hulk played this role to perfection at Porto, running directly at defenders and powering shots home from distance.  To keep the same fluency at Chelsea, Villas-Boas opted for Daniel Sturridge; originally a striker like Hulk was. That selection reflects how highly the Portuguese prizes this move, with Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda and Didier Drogba all capable in other roles, yet benched.

Porto right wing movement

Two varieties where Porto overloaded the right wing

Mata v Varela

Unlike the right side, the left wing is fairly independent of collective movement. At Porto, Silvestre Varela hugged the touchline before cutting inside, yet was left relatively on his own. Copying the Porto blueprint, Villas-Boas has allowed himself to tinker with Juan Mata’s role, letting him roam freely to take up a playmaker role between the lines. The Spaniard can also play Sturridge/Hulk’s role.

Torres v Falcao

The striker exists purely to score goals, and who better than Falcao and Torres. They mainly stay centrally, inviting to one-twos, testing the offside trap or taking up positions to convert crosses.

Goals under Villas-Boas are often scored from a sudden killer pass or quick attacks orchestrated in two or three touches. This makes sharpness, movement and acceleration important; classic ‘poacher’ qualities, which both possess. Notably, the increasingly-static Didier Drogba fits equally badly into that description, and the Ivorian stands with one goal in seven games this season despite Chelsea’s being relatively free-scoring.


Villas-Boas had many options when he arrived at Chelsea. He could have played Torres and Drogba together, formed a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-2-3-1 with Mata as trequartista. Yet he kept his formation, his philosophies and his values from Porto, asserting them over a different squad with varying success to date. The defensive line remains a concern but, the way his system is inscribed in stone, changing one area will only affect the rest.

Such inflexibility remains a weakness but Chelsea will take some stopping once their sophisticated 4-3-3 system finds its tune. Until then, fueled by the 5-3 defeat to Arsenal, questions will continue over Villas-Boas’s commitment to attacking football. However, as the Portuguese will know, defending football’s noble beliefs is nothing new for outstanding managers. Just ask Arsène Wenger.

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Villas-Boas picture:

One comment

great post, it’s nice to a blog dedicated to tactics :) i hope you keep up the good work! love from korea

by KG on December 11, 2011 at 2:21 pm. #