Raghunandhanan Narasimhan takes a look at why formations with three at the back are coming back in vogue and dissects the pros and cons of such systems.
There has been so much talk in recent days about how effective a formation that deploys three defenders at the back can be. This is a particularly and relatively lesser seen tactic in the Premier League with special focus being given to the systems used by Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte in the recent weeks. Slaven Bilic has reverted to a 3 man defense system to reverse his team’s horror slump in the opening weeks of this season. Walter Mazarri is another manager who is keen on playing 3 at the back with his signature 3-4-2-1. Elsewhere in Spain, Jorge Sampaoli has been enjoying success with his dymanic 3-4-3. Juventus have pretty much been the sole dominating force in last five years in Italy with their 3-5-2.
The Premier League, well, being the Premier League, has not seen these many managers deploying 3-4-3/3-5-2 or such variations. Roberto Martinez was one of the exceptions who did. The league has started to improve on a tactical basis with a lot of managers who place emphasis on tactics being at the helm of the clubs now. There have always been trends in football over the years. Formations have been huge hits only to completely disappear later. The 2-3-5 and the W-Ms are nothing but history now. Of course, with the evolution of football it is virtually impossible for a team to play the 2-3-5 in modern day football. Carlos Bilardo, the World Cup winning manager with Argentina in 1986, was one of the early exponents of the 3-5-2 formation. He was one of the first managers to achieve great success with the formation, at the top level of professional football. The formation though, almost became non-existent a few years back with no club or country keen to play with three at the back.
Serie A particularly has seen teams that use formations with three at the back. Italian football sees a lot of teams playing with three central defenders at the back, so much so that the system has become synonymous with them. The Premier League has never seen teams enjoying success with this system, strictly adhering to four at the back. The 2014 World Cup saw the success of Costa Rica (playing a 5-4-1), Netherlands(3-5-2), and Chile(3-4-3) who all enjoyed significant success playing with 3/5 in the back line).
The formation has been deployed by various managers for varying reasons. The formation can be highly defensive minded with 5 at the back and looking to play solely on the counter. It can also be used to play a possession based game with horizontal overloads in the initial phases of build -up. The recent increase in the usage of such formations must surely be attributed to the evolution in football tactics where building from the back has become mandatory for most sides. Possession minded managers have greatly increased while defensive minded tactics are also well suited to this system.
The Tactical Side
So to understand the system, a back three can essentially become a back four or five based on the situations in the match. Any formation featuring three defenders at the back should not be mistaken to be an out and out defensive formation. The ideal situation when defending would be that the wing backs drop in and form a back line of five. The method of marking depends on the manager, though the three central defenders essentially mark zonally. When playing with a back three, it is vital that the wing backs have a very strong understanding of their positioning as they need to make up the numbers both during defending and offensive transitions. The defenders in the back three would effectively have a sweeper in the middle while the other two defenders can act as stoppers or mark the opposition forwards.
Juventus have been the standout example of recent times, playing a 3-5-2. Here we see the back line of Chiellini, Bonucci, and Barzagli with Alex Sandro and Cuadrado being the wing backs. Juventus are tactically very adept that they have incorporated their style of play into the formation with Leonardo Bonucci being a very important component in the system, for his excellent ball playing abilities. An ideal situation for the back three defenders would be to have a sweeper and stoppers (or a cover and a stopper).
There are also cases of having a back five moving in tandem and defending with a low block. This was the case with Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup. The formation had its own complications, with minimal attacking threat due to the wingbacks being heavily involved in defensive duties.
The formation was played out of need and keeping in mind the limitations of the players available. Though played with a defensive notion, the formation paid dividends with teams struggling to break open their defense.
A more recent example would be wherein Sunderland escaped relegation last season under Sam Allardyce. Big Sam played an unfamiliar three(five) at the back formation, bringing the best out of Lamine Kone while also making sure Jermain Defoe flourished in the system. It worked well in Sunderland’s favour as they survived yet another season to stay in the Premier League.
The advantage of a system that plays three at the back is mainly the overloads that can be generated in multiple areas of the pitch. The formation obviously offers increased defensive stability, especially in the central areas. The team defends deep with a very compact center and cramps out the space. This forces the opposition out wide and minimal impact through the central areas.
For example, a team playing a 3-5-2 would be defending in a 5-3-2 and attack in a 3-5-2/3-4-3. This is made possible by the numbers at the back giving license to the wing backs to bomb forward. Passing options are available for easy circulation of the ball. In certain cases, long passes from the centre backs also form a part of the build-up play, provided a good ball playing defender is present in the team.
This is a situation wherein a team playing 3-5-2 goes up against a team playing 4-2-3-1. The striker is obviously out- numbered up front. The wing backs can mark the space out wide while the two defenders on either side of the central defender in the back three can mark the half spaces. The central midfield is also packed and negates the opposition midfield. This is particularly striking when we see that the midfield 5 can occupy all the wide and central zones along with the half spaces. Teams focussing on building from the back can benefit from this sort of a setup with horizontal overloads in the first two phases of build-up. There will always be an extra passing option available and this would lead to easier circulation of the ball in the initial phases of the build-up. This is one of the reasons why possession minded managers like Pep Guardiola resort to playing with three at the back to facilitate such options in building up play.
With formations increasingly inclining towards a single striker system, the three players at the back are at an obvious advantage. 3v2 situations are also easily negated from a defensive perspective. Banks of five and four are difficult to break down. There are lesser chances of being open to the counter attack with the three central defenders providing cover at the back.
Another major advantage this system provides is that a dynamic game play offering fluidity is made possible. Since the formation focusses primarily on packing the centre, a lot of positional fluidity is made possible with interchanges. Jorge Sampaoli’s 3-4-3 is one of the best examples for this. This way, the team can cover more ground in both attacking and defending phases, a facet Sampaoli is keen on adhering to.
Sampaoli, who sets his team up in a very fluid and hard-working system, had a lot of success with the Chile national team. He played a 3-4-3 with Arturo Vidal operating behind Sanchez and Vargas. The whole team stayed compact and very highly fluid in their transitions. The two central midfielders are expected to be nothing short of engines to cover ground up and down the pitch along with the wing backs. Sampaoli has set up a very similar setup now at Sevilla with the club playing very fluid football.
Playing with three at the back basically gives access to more zones on the pitch and can be implemented in quick transitions. When the ball is won higher up the pitch, there are options up front for the team to counter with personnel and speed.
The formation does come with its own set of disadvantages. When a team is focussed on defending it can invariably lead to lesser attacking threat further up the pitch. Opponents adept at stretching defences will be hard to handle as this would upset the structure of the three(five) at the back. The team can be undone when attacked in the wide areas as the back line is stretched to create openings.
There is a problem when defending when there is a overload created in the wings by the overlapping full back. The wing back is in a mismatch now with both the winger and a attacking full back. This results in the midfielder in the ball near side coming to help out the wing back to compensate for the overload. This will lead to space in the midfield for the opposition midfielders to exploit.
The above said situation will result when the opposition team plays a 4-4-2. The 2 forwards occupy the three centre halves. When the central midfielder who is in the ball near side goes to cover the flank, space is created in the midfield for the opposing ball near midfielder to move into. This is clearly seen in the above pitch map. The wide areas are a liability when playing three at the back and a compact opposing midfield with effective wingers can exploit the formation.
The formation also requires a midfielder with excellent passing range and one who is press resistant. When building from the back, the onus is on the regista to bring the ball out from the back and the team can suffer on a whole when the player is lacking in these qualities. While the ball can be played out to the flanks or through a ball playing defender, it cannot always be the case with midfield support in linking the defense and attack during transitions highly important. The perfect example for this would be Juventus’ case in recent weeks who are suffering from the absence of Marchisio. An excellent passer of the ball and who is press resistant, Khedira and Lemina are unable to fill in Marchisio’s role in his absence. Added to this, the departure of Paul Pogba who can run at the opposition midfield, Juventus have also lost their variability in building up from last season. This renders their build up very passive and predictable.
The wing backs need to be at their best physically, while the positioning of the players needs to be perfect in order to balance the numbers in both phases of the game. The symmetry between the central midfielders and the centre backs also needs to be perfect. The understanding between the three centre backs needs to be coordinated as they risk playing the opposing forwards onside if he plays on their shoulder. The formation is very demanding physically on the team overall with high-energy midfielders a must for the formation too.
The trend of playing three centre halves at the back has been growing in the recent days. The formation seems to be the key in answering a lot of modern day football problems and looks set to stay, even in the Premier League. With Premier League teams playing these formations with English centre halves, it remains to be seen how long before the England national team might also turn to such a system.
The breakdown of different flavors of this system, particularly those used by Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte will be seen in the next article.
Manchester United fan and a tactics afficianado. Loves quality holding midifielders