Why PSV is better off with an offensive 4-3-3 formation

Posted on 30 August 2011


Only six games into the season, PSV manager Fred Rutten has seen his side transform from a toothless bunch to a free scoring title contender. This post will first glance over the match tactics involved, in order to identify the positive changes made by Rutten, before taking a dive into some detailed match stats to illustrate the effects of Rutten’s tactical changes.


Early season results

After a false start that saw them lose 3-1 away at AZ in the first match, PSV continued with a narrow and bleak 1-0 home victory over newly promoted RKC. At that early point in the season, Rutten changed things around a bit. His side came in for quite some stick on the back of two season’s ending in third place finishes under Rutten’s reign, and more so, Rutten’s general conservative approach was openly criticized by the home fans. Early signs of the pre-season games were hopeful of a change to a more progressive midfield and the arrival of left winger Mertens, offensive midfielder Wijnaldum and upcoming all-round midfield man Strootman has injected PSV with the types of players needed in such a system.

However, Rutten didn’t extend his pre-season intentions into the first competitive games of the season, but rather returned to a double holding midfielder system, introducing young Funso Ojo beside Strootman, with Wijnaldum in the hole behind lone striker Toivonen. The abovementioned disappointing games against AZ and RKC helped Rutten turn back to his offensive pre-season midfield, shifting Lens from right wing into the striker role to move Toivonen back to his natural offensive midfielder role, supporting Wijnaldum and leaving a single holding role for Strootman. The vacated left wing was filled in by 18-year old talent Zakaria Labyad.

From that moment on, PSV’s season took a turn for the better. And as if to destroy any remaining doubts, Rutten changed his team back to the conservative double holding midfielder system for the away game at Ried, for a disappointing 0-0 draw that was erase with the more offensive system with a 5-0 win in the home game.

For clarity, let’s refer to PSV’s initial conservative formation as a 4-2-3-1 and to PSV’s subsequent offensive formation as a 4-3-3. The 4-2-3-1 was applied in the games against AZ away, RKC at home and Ried away and the 4-3-3 was applied against ADO away, Ried at home and Excelsior at home.

Average positions of the 4-2-3-1 as used against AZ. Also note the deep position of striker Toivonen (7).

Average positions of the 4-3-3 formation as used in the home game against Ried.















A simple glance at the results under the 4-2-3-1 system (1-3 ; 1-0 ; 0-0) versus the 4-3-3 system (3-0 ; 5-0 ; 6-1) tells quite a story already, but there’s more to it than that. With the help of InStatFootball, a company specifying in detailed football match data, 11tegen11 is able to use specific team and player data to study the differences between both system more in depth.


Goal scoring chances

The major change in score lines between the three matches played under the 4-2-3-1 versus those three played under the 4-3-3 system is underlined by a spectacular improvement in the amount of goal scoring chances too. The table below illustrates this well, showing that PSV increased their shots on target from 3.7 to 11 per match, while reducing their conceded shots on target from 4 to 1.7.



Goals PSV






Shots PSV






Shots on target PSV







Midfield passing

PSV’s change from a double to a single holding midfielder is reflected very well in their midfield passing statistics. Kevin Strootman and Funso Ojo started all three 4-2-3-1 matches as the double pivot, holding the midfield in front of PSV’s back four. Both contributed an equal share of passes, averaging 68 and 66 passes per 90 minutes respectively, with completion rates of 83% (Strootman) and 87% (Ojo).

However, offensive midfielder Wijnaldum lacked support, resulting in him passing the ball less than half as often as his defensive midfield team mates. Wijnaldum made on average only 29 pass attempts per 90 minutes, completing 86% of those.

Under the 4-3-3 system, Strootman increased his passing to an impressive average of 98 pass attempts per 90 minutes, even slightly increasing his completion rate to 85%. With Toivonen’s support, Wijnaldum’s pass attempts increased to 47, with 85% completion and Toivonen added another 43 passes himself, reaching 91% completion of those three games.

In conclusion, PSV’s midfield passing improved massively with Strootman operating as a sole holding midfielder. He proved very well capable of increasing his game to cover for the absence of Ojo in that department, while Wijnaldum received the support of Toivonen in the offensive midfield area. PSV’s total amount passes made by central midfield players increased from 163 to 188 (+16%), while the completion rate remained intact (85 and 86%). On top of that, passes were now made in a more offensive and central midfield zone, as is illustrated in Wijnaldum’s passing diagram’s for the Ried away game (4-2-3-1) versus the ADO away game (4-3-3).

Wijnaldum's first (top) and second half passing chart shows his lack of central offensive passes in the match against Ried away.

Note the contrast with his passing in the ADO game, where the support of a second offensive midfielder allowed him a much more active and central role.














Offensive efficiency

As a whole, PSV operated more efficient in terms of generating attacks from possessions and generating chances from attacks. Under both the 4-3-3 and the 4-2-3-1 system  PSV averaged a similar amount of possessions (134 and 136), and the amount of attacks resulting from it were equal too (95 and 100), amounting to a figure of 71% to 74% of possessions turned into attacks. Note that attacks are defined as any spell of possession with passage to the opponent’s half of the field.

The difference in offensive efficiency between both systems becomes very clear when looking at the amount of open play attacks turned into shots. For clarity reasons set piece attacks and quick counter breaks have been eliminated. On average 6.8% of open play attacks resulted in a goal scoring attempt under the 4-2-3-1 system, while the 4-3-3 nearly tripled that number to 18.8%, resulting in an increase in the number of attempts from open play from 5 per match to 13.


In the end

This post clearly illustrates the difference in passing and offensive efficiency between PSV’s three matches played out under last season’s 4-2-3-1 system in comparison with the more offensively intended 4-3-3 system. Particularly, in player terms, the major step up by Kevin Strootman in his role as single holding and passing midfielder has been impressive.

This is the first post on 11tegen11 to use extensive in-depth match data, which was courteously provided by InStatFootball, without whom this analysis would not have been possible. The aim is to keep using match data in order to back up (or reject) tactical observations of the naked eye. Please don’t hesitate to provide feedback via the comment boxes below this post, twitter, or email.

Posted in: Eredivisie