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Can a three man defence work in the Premier League?

Joseph Solomon has a look at the Premier League’s history with a three man defensive system, it’s current implementation and if it can sustainably work in the league.

Martinez Rodgers Van Gaal

There is something ‘hipster’ about a three men defence. It has a certain ‘vogue’ to it. A certain charisma and perhaps a notion of attacking intent. Affairs with a three man defence,  like all formations, has it’s positive and negatives. Nonetheless, there is a certain degree of attraction, when a team fields three defenders.

Practised in the land of defensive gods, such as one Alessandro Nesta, the three man defence recently flashed across England and has gone under the microscope of perhaps all possible lenses. The hipster formation, has taken the Premier League by storm and in a league where 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 used to be a traditional trademark of almost every team, the three man defence has garnered her suitors with utmost grace and seduction.

The introduction from Wigan Athletic

The Barclays Premier League, witnessed the arrival of a three man defensive structure (in more recent times), through former Wigan Atletic and current Everton gaffer, Roberto Martinez. The current iteration of Everton, does not play with a three man defensive structure, but Martinez, was arguably the first manager to field a three man defence – to some extent –and with some success.

There is one thing that minnows in the English Premier League are known for – apart from all the manager sackings and turmoil suffered mid season – and that is perhaps their ability to kill top clubs. Swansea City (though not technically minnows now) under Brendan Rodgers dominating Arsenal, in their own style of game pops to mind.  Another example which aptly reflects the robust nature of minnows was a newly promoted Norwich City under Paul Lambert, which gave teams like Manchester Utd and even Chelsea a run for their money.

Amongst all these “Giant-slayers”, Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Atheltic stood out. A team, which relied on perhaps motivation and inspiration, was one of the most frustrating teams (as per giant’s point of view), when their tails were on fire. The frustrating bit, was orchestrated by Roberto Martinez, who deployed varied tactics. But one stood out.

For a team, who was apparently dubbed favourites for the relegation battle, season after season, deploying a three man defensive unit, became something of a gamble, which if dealt with a strong hand could lead Wigan out of the drop zone.

Nonetheless, Martinez, call it a last ditch effort to elate Wigan, a tactical master-class or just pure naivety, was brave enough to employ the formation, even against the bigger sides. Wigan Athletic, used a back three against teams like Arsenal, Manchester United and at some point in the game against Chelsea. Martinez’s intention to congest midfield was clear and it was reflected in Wigan’s fixtures against the aforementioned teams.

The Spaniard orchestrated an average Wigan side to rely on numbers in the midfield region, while the wingers regularly performed their chores as wing backs and focused on defensive duties. However, the lack of proper personnel was evident in Wigan and after a string of results, Martinez, without asserting further his chances of relegation, reverted back to a flat four. The inability of Wigan’s wingers to track their man back and often succumb directly when fired upon by more talented wingers like Theo Walcott, Antonio Valencia and Florent Malouda, which left a massive void in Wigan’s defensive half, often leading the three central defenders to split apart and vacate acres of space in their wake, was perhaps another major reason for Martinez’s switch of tactics.

Nonetheless, the three men defensive unit had (till then) attracted interest and the sight of Wigan Athletic was greatly romanticized by perhaps every footballing enthusiast.

Rodgers’ first experimentation and Van Gaal’s implementation

Next candidates to field a three men defensive unit, were Liverpool in the last campaign. Under Brendan Rodgers, the Reds started to play their opening encounters with a back three. Liverpool’s system was easily more stable and more balanced than Wigan’s, courtesy to a talented squad, which Wigan lacked. However, the basic fundamentals were very similar to Wigan’s style of play, which accommodated attacking fluidity along with defensive solidity.

However, even Brendan Rodgers, did not field a three men defence against ‘giants’ of English Football, unlike Wigan – who perhaps had nothing to lose. Wigan’s 3-5-2 reflected the problems with a three men fundamental structure in England and perhaps Rodgers took hint from that and saved himself from committing ‘suicide’.

Enter World Cup 2014 and the 3-5-2, was largely practised by many teams, notably Holland, and that too, to great effect. Louis van Gaal’s Holland reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, fielding a three men structure in most of their game and Chile defeated giants Spain, using the same structure. However, World Cup football and Premier League football are two contrasting siblings of the same parent, football, and that is pretty evident in this season’s Manchester United, under Louis van Gaal.

The Dutchman, who crafted Holland’s World Cup journey, started teaching Manchester United, the same structural formation. Although, Manchester United won games, using a back three, problems were clearly evident. Problems, that Wigan faced in their short romance with the 3-5-2 and problems that Liverpool, safeguarded themselves from.

Wigan’s 3-5-2 like Liverpool’s and Manchester United’s, relied on attacking fluidity. It accommodated pacey and tricky wingers along with ‘fox in the box’ type of strikers. Notably, Victor Moses and Hugo Rodellega. However, Wigan succumbed to lack of defensive solidity, which is *kind of* analogous to Manchester United’s defending, now. Tactically, not individually.

Hence, the million dollar question which surfaces itself, seems to be, “Can 3-5-2 work in the Premier League?”

Wigan’s and Liverpool’s example seem to suggest it does, although to some certain extent, but Manchester United’s fails to pass the acid test.

A major reason why Wigan succeeded against teams with a 3-5-2, is that the then iteration of Wigan Athletic, played with three men at the back, but two ‘returning’ wingers, made it five. Hence, technically, when defending Wigan played with five men at the back – in what seemed to be a 5-3-2 – relying on pace to attack with counters. Nonetheless, a team like Wigan were expected to commit men behind the ball and rely on counters, and that is where the difference between Wigan’s 3-5-2 and Manchester United’s 3-5-2, tactically, occurs.

In what appears to be a classic case of a minnow 3-5-2 and a giant 3-5-2, Manchester United, ironically failed to garner suitors, like Wigan.

Can it succeed in the Premier League?

But the bigger picture here seems to be the tricky question. Like all formations the three men defence has it’s positive and negatives. A major positive of a three men defence is to out-muscle and out-number teams which have a hefty midfield. Notably like Italy deploying a 3-5-2 against Spain.

In Premier League, where teams rely on a basic 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2, the battle for the midfield seems to be redundant, as one runs into defensive traffic, safeguarded by the pivot. Hence, the flanks make easy prey for Premier League teams to stamp their authority. Here, we are not to forget the pivot, or the creative midfielder, who at the slightest hint of chance from midfield will rocket one in or pick a defence splitting pass. Teams are more probable to suffer from midfield domination and wing domination. Hence, teams are more likely to concede from the midfield rather from the fringes of it. The 3-5-2, which basically is a formation of supplying men to the middle of the park, succumbs in this, if the attacking wingers are not wing-backs.

If the wingers, don’t track back then the centre backs, much like Wigan, are bound to split apart to meet the oncoming danger, vacating acres of space between them and this is where Premier League teams take advantage. The space vacated is easily filled in by an opponent, who at the slightest hint of opportunity, can wreak havoc.

Another major problem with the 3-5-2, is that the midfield and the defence have to be closer than normal formations. Hence, if the defensive setup decides to play a high-line, then a player who operates on the back of the last defender can easily capitalize – if the long through ball finds him- and outrun the defensive trio, to score, if imagined, an easy goal.

That said, the 3-5-2, if played with the right personnel, can be deadly. But given that no Premier League team, accommodates three out and out quality centre back, and fail to have a dying breed of wing-backs, 3-5-2 seems to be an outdated formation in the Premier League.

A counter argument which can be given in the favour of 3-5-2 can be, with most Premier League teams now opting to play with a two men up the park, two of the three men can mark the opposing strikers, while one could provide cover. But that once again, allows the opposing wingers to capitalize on space and the two opposing strikers can easily pluck defenders out of their domain.

Imagine the current iteration of Manchester United, playing with a wingback like let’s say, Juventus’s Stephan Lichtsteiner or Napoli’s Cristian Maggio or even Lazio’s Senad Lulic. Solid, I’d say. But, the problem with traditional wingbacks is their inability to perform like wingers in the final third, maybe due to the lack of technicality. Hence teams can be forced to decide between defensive solidity or attacking fluidity, in a 3-5-2. To attain both, proper personnel, with proper bred wingbacks capable in the art of penetrating the attacking third, are certainly needed.

Nonetheless, when it comes to the Premier League, the 3-5-2 is largely termed ‘redundant’ due to wing-play and due to the fact that Premier League teams have wingers and overlapping fullbacks to create problems.

Rodgers’ second affair with a three man defence

For Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers, has panned out a three men defensive system which is part of a 3-4-3. Perhaps, to accommodate attacking talents present in Liverpool, in the final third. The 3-4-3, also serves as a playground for Rodger’s mentality of quick pressing and swift attacks. However, Rodgers’s 3-4-3, works differently from a 3-5-2.

First off, the defensive cover provided by players such as Lucas and Henderson, is unparalleled (for a team playing a three men defence ). Secondly, playing with four men in midfield and three men atop, ensures Liverpool safeguard it’s flank. Though, if danger escapes the man which presses from the front, i.e Raheem Sterling in this case, it is easily swept by the player operating behind him.

On case of the flanks, Rodgers has used unlikely wingbacks in this season’s campaign with the likes of Lazar Markovic being deployed there despite not being particularly astute defensively. Replacing Kolo Toure with Emer Can at Turf Moor against Burnley and in the subsequent fixtures was also a bit of a surprise, though the versatile German has been deployed there previously in his career. Although, this tactic has certain risks, it has worked fruitfully for Liverpool. The forward and the wingers in Liverpool’s attacking trio and midfield quadruple, respectively, work their socks off to safeguard the defensive backline.

Rodgers’ ideology to play fast, quick attacking and pressing football, is thus best reflected in a 3-4-3. But, unlike Wigan, Liverpool has the proper personnel to do so and moreover have the skill in their wingbacks to deliver. Another trait of this Liverpool side is versatility, players such as Kolo Toure, Glen Johnson, Emre Can and to some extent Jose Enrique (though not clinically) can play in the heart of defence, as well as on the wings. This, provides Rodgers’ with flexibility in the tactical system and a  change from a 3-4-3 to say a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3, more easier. This also helps in duties, as a centre back can also play as a wingback and vice-versa.

The fascination with a three men defensive setup has proved to be both futile and fruitful. For, Louis van Gaal, it remains to be a mystery, but the Premier League rewards those who have the capacity to adapt, and perhaps the 3-5-2, should follow the same pattern. Use when it looks most useful. Just don’t exaggerate it.

Written by Joseph Solomon

Joseph Solomon
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