The basics of the FC Dallas 3-4-3

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dante Sealy.

With FC Dallas continuing to use the 3-4-3 at such a high rate this spring – about 90% of the time – I figure it’s time to talk about how it works. It’s not a widely used shape and many people may not be familiar with it.

This isn’t going to be a nuanced breakdown, there are small tweaks and subtleties to how FCD plays that might change from game to game and/or player to player. Coach Nico Estevez will even use hybrid positions with flex roles.

But for the portion of our audience that’s not familiar with it, it’s worth taking a macro gander at the basics of the 3-4-3…

Or as FC Dallas calls the shape on socials, presumably cause the Coach identified it this way, the 5-2-2-1.

So Is It 3-4-3 or 5-2-2-1?

They are the same thing. We use 3-4-3 for simplicity.

Here, let me show you. First, the base 3-4-3. Three center backs, two wingbacks, a double pivot in front (two six/eight types), and a front three.

The base FC Dallas 3-4-3.

Here is the shape (left) with the 3-4-3 groupings circled and (right) with the 5-2-2-1 circled.

See? Same thing.

Tactics are fluid.

The Basic Shifts

As always these days, FC Dallas is about transition and a fluid shape that changes as they get forward or back.

First, let’s talk wingbacks. They are the ones who drive this shape. They are given the entire wide space, end line to end line, to operate. They have complete responsibility for these wide areas. It’s in the name, “wing” and “back.”

Yes, it’s physically demanding.

Wbs Run

You can easily see why the wingbacks need to be quite vertical with an engine to run and will to work. They are responsible for getting forward into the attack and getting back on defense.

The Attack

When the wingbacks get forward…

Wings Into The Offense

By using this system you get the same front-5 shape as last year in the attacking phase but without making your 8s overwork themselves (the wingbacks do the work).

Instead, the double pivot is more stable with less demand getting forward and you outnumber the opposition 4v3 in midfield. Something that should benefit Asier Illarramendi, for example, as well as Paxton Pomykal.

The Low Block

Then on defense, the wingbacks compress back into a low block just like Coach Estevez likes.

A.k.a, the 5-4-1.

Low Block 5 4 1

While the wingbacks are the engine of this formation, there is another key to making it all work: the 10s.

The 10 Key

The front three – more specifically the position of the 10s – is the key and that’s why Coach and FCD specifically say “2-1” up top and not the simplified “3” we say.

These two players – who in a 4-3-3 were wingers – are in this 3-4-3 underneath the 9 playing as double 10 attacking mids. In the attacking phase, the wingbacks occupy the wide spaces leaving the 10s underneath in the half spaces.

Wings Into The Offense

This halfspace underneath role for Jesus Ferreira is, perhaps, the most important reason to choose this formation. Paul Arriola, Alan Velasco, Enes Sali, and Sebastian Lletget should also like it.

When FCD’s 3-4-3 Goes Wrong

Yet, as we saw last year, when the 3-4-3 is misplayed, it can be a disaster.

So what makes this disaster happen?

When the other two front players get it wrong and occupy the wide spaces… like they did last year. Like this.

Wrong Wings

That width wrecks the tactics.

Why? Allow me to show you.

By taking up the wide wing spaces, the “wings” block the wingbacks, making said wingbacks one-dimensional and static. It turns the wingbacks into normal outside backs and disarms their attacking danger, defeating the tactical purpose of the 3-4-3.

Wrong Wings Problems

And on top of that, by taking up the wide space, the “wings” abandon the midfield – notably the massively important “zone 14” under the striker atop the opposition box – and leave the double pivot isolated in the middle and outnumbered 3 versus 2 for the bulk of the game.

Your team will end up with very little possession, dominated in midfield, facing a team that can carve you apart, right up the gut.

That’s not good.

A Depth Chart

Now that we understand how it works, let’s look at how will it deploy with players in it. Let’s plug in some names.

3 4 3 Depth

Don’t take the above as set in stone and it’s not complete with 30 names. There are still two weeks left before the season starts, several injuries, positions are up for challenges, and the tactics and personnel are quite obviously going to change as the season wears on.

Who knows how much we will even see this formation once the battle lines are crossed.

Heck, Ferreira isn’t even healthy yet. Let’s see what the club does against DC United in the final tune-up game next weekend.

But hopefully, you now know what to look for when FCD does roll out the 3-4-3.


Yes, FCD needs another center back if they are going to play this way. See center back, left.


  1. Is there a world where Arriola plays wingback and Bernie plays as the 10 in the more “vertical” of the two 10s?

    1. Arriola is smart enough to play wingback and has the engine. He’s too valuable a player (and paid) to burn him out running the line I think. But it’s possible.

      Bernie underneath… he’s not so far shown the close-quarters skill and tactical nuance for that. But he’s still young. Right now he’s a very direct, vertical player and that’s not a great fit underneath. It’s not a great shape for him frankly. But he has risen to the occasion time and again, so we’ll see.

      1. Don’t understand it. Estevez is adopting a formation that relegates one of his best attacking options to the bench so he can play Dante Sealy? Maybe he should have insisted on getting better midfielders or fullbacks for the 4-3-3. Or better, why not go with a 4-2-3-1. That gets Ferreira into the ten and leaves Bernie and Arriola in their most dangerous positions. The longer Estevez is here the less I like him. He’s an inflexible tinkerer.

  2. Is there any chance that Farfan is the backup left center back as well as whatever role he ends up with on the depth chart at left wing back?

  3. Do you think we will see maurer as the 2nd choice goalkeeper or has there been enough progress that carerra will be the new 2nd choice?

  4. I really feel like Carl Sainte looked like at least a viable backup at the left centerback spot. Is there a reason you don’t have him cracking that spot?

      1. That makes sense. I haven’t watched much of North Texas, so I’m not sure how he’s projecting, but I was impressed with how he looked in Spain. On a side note, thanks for all the coverage!

  5. Thanks for this explanation. It makes sense with our roster. I feel a lot better than I did one month ago with the changes and the additions.

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