Unlocking the 4–3–3: A change in formation sparks a new identity for women’s soccer
September 23, 2022
The greatest thing about soccer is that it’s a game best played with joy. At its apex, the sport can resemble an art form painted on the canvas of a pitch—each player doing their part as a bristle of a larger brush, back and forth until they have created something to be proud of.
Anyone who attends a women’s soccer match at Pickard Field will see a team like this, one that exudes joy, love and passion both for the game and one another. It is truly a special unit of players. Special isn’t a word I use lightly, either. The changes made ahead of this current season have clearly paid off thus far. The team has won five of its first six matches to date and has scored five or more goals in half its matches played. However, before we go any further, let’s take a quick step back to get a better picture of Bowdoin women’s soccer.
Brianne Smithson took over the program in 2012, and the impact of her arrival was immediate. The Polar Bears, who finished 6–6–3 in the season prior to Smithson’s appointment, boasted an 11–4–4 record in her first year as head coach. However, in recent years, the win totals have begun to decline with back-to-back seven-win seasons in 2018 and 2019 and an 8–7–1 year in 2021.
Smithson, the third most-winning head coach in program history, not only recognized this lull, but acted on it. In the spring, Smithson hired Jane Walsh as an assistant coach. Walsh previously served as head coach for the better part of a decade at Salve Regina University.
In addition to the staff changes, Smithson made an on-the-field adjustment as well. Working collectively with both Walsh and the players, the team opted for a formation switch to a 4–3–3, a drastically different shape from the previous 3–5–2. The new shape allows for not only more flexibility in the midfield and attacking areas, but it also gives Smithson’s team a stronger defensive core.
With only three defenders in the 3–5–2, the defensive responsibilities of central midfielders are often increased, requiring them to play a deeper role and rely on more direct, long passes to generate chances. This type of play can be effective, but it is far from attractive. Watching a team boot the ball long, hoping that it might bounce favorably for an oncoming attacker is far less enjoyable than watching a team who can mercurially break down a defensive block through creativity and quick one-touch passing. Just ask Pep Guardiola.
This more attractive brand of soccer is what the switch to a 4–3–3 aims to accomplish, and through six games, it has been more than successful. However, the shift in shape has led to a rise in team identity as well. When done right, the 4–3–3 often results in possession-heavy teams that remain patient and dominate the flow of the game.
This is what Bowdoin wants to become, and through six games, it is the type of team it has become. As the season continues, I will take a deeper look into what, specifically, the team is doing to exploit their own advantages within the new formation.
Now, I would be remiss to write about this season without diving into the crucial roles of deep-lying midfielder Greta Farkas ’24, captain Shannon Gallagher ’22 and constant goal-threat Morgan Smiley ’24. Smithson’s modern creativity with her outside backs, as well as the team’s unprecedented depth, will also prove crucial in determining the success of this season. But for now, understanding the team’s past with an eye for the future is important.
Back-to-back matches against Middlebury College and Williams College this weekend will serve as measuring stick games for the Polar Bears, and I am excited to watch them take Pickard Field for just the third and fourth times this year.
As the women’s soccer team begins to unlock its potential in this new system, I look forward to following them this year, not just as a fan, but as someone who loves the game.
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