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Playing with back three

The development of formations in the Premier League has been one of the most fascinating aspects to watch on the pitch. After more than a decade in the doldrums, three-defender formations have come back into fashion in the current soccer landscape. Antonio Conte has used his brand of back three to first make Juventus great again using a 3-5-2 formation and he conquers English football with Chelsea using a concrete 3-4-3. Even Pep Guardiola has utilized some version of a defensive trio in each of his three managerial jobs to date. And much like the 4-2-3-1 took over the sport during the last decade, it feels like everyone’s getting in on the back three either using it their main playing formation or under specific circumstances as a strategic alternative.

With soccer evolving to the point where defenders can be the fulcrum for launching attacking moves in addition to their traditional duties, the back three has made a comeback thanks to the numerical advantage it affords the deepest of deep-lying playmakers: the modern center-back.

In the last 2 years, more and more teams are using a formation with three central defenders either with 2 forwards (1-3-5-2) or 3 in front (1-3-4-3) or even some other variations that create more depth depending on the quality of a team’s players (1-3-4-1-2, 1-3-1-4-2, etc). Inter Milan’s Antonio Conte has made a name for himself by operating with that system. It worked in the Premier League with Chelsea as he claimed the title in 2017. Inter Milan is not the only team in Italy using a back three formation. Atalanta is another team using the specific system with great success.

The fundamental of 3 – 5 – 2

The 3-5-2 is an extremely versatile formation that modifies itself throughout the course of a game forming a stout defense and a powerful offense. Depending on the ball position and the players the backline can be 3, 4, or 5.

The keys to a successful 3-5-2 formation are a dominant and cohesive trio of center backs, versatile players to play on the outside of the midfield, and a pair of dynamic strikers. Among the best examples, this season, were Inter Milan and Atalanta in Serie A and Wolverhampton Wanderes and Shieffield United in EPL.

Communication between the three Center Backs is essential. In most cases, the three central defenders need to move as a unit. The trio must be aware of how much space is between them and they must maintain a linear shape to prevent attackers from making runs behind them. However in counter-attacking situations, if an opposing attacker cuts inside the closest Center Back must quickly realize this and pressure the ball while the other two cover the space behind him.

In addition to traditional skill sets required from central defenders in four at the back formations, such as phenomenal positional awareness, strong tackling, and the ability to win the ball in the air, Center Backs in a 3-5-2 formation require more speed. They need more speed because there are not traditional Left and Right Backs to match up with opposing teams fast wing players.

The three Center Back strategy that the 3-5-2 utilizes is particularly successful against teams that play a formation with two Strikers, such as the 4-4-2. The reason being the two opposing forwards are now going head to head with an additional Center Back. Many forwards are not accustomed to this because most teams play a formation that only features two central defenders. On the other hand, when a team plays with only one Striker, the three central defenders can find themselves all marking the same man.

The outside midfielders in a 3-5-2 formation are another key component to the formation. Instead of being referred to as Left and Right Midfielders the players on the outside of the 5-player midfield are categorized as the Left and Right Wingback, or LWB and RWB. In a 3-5-2 these players serve as a hybrid between the traditional Fullbacks and outside midfielders. When their team has possession the Wingbacks take up the responsibilities of an outside midfielder and when their team is defending they drop in line with the central defenders.

Because of the constant and fluid transition that Wingbacks make the 3-5-2 essentially becomes a 5-3-2 while in defense. The Wingbacks join the center-backs to form a singular backline and the CAM drops further into the midfield. From there, the CAM and the remaining two central midfielders move from across the field in unison to pressure the ball and protect the backline.

Because the Wingbacks are tasked with the duties of two separate positions they must be extremely versatile and fit. In addition to their defensive duties, Wingbacks often push as far up the field as the team’s forwards in order to provide width, support, and deliver crosses. The Wingback position in a 3-5-2 formation is often occupied by either a Fullback who has superior ball control and passing or an outside midfielder who can contribute on the defensive end of the field.

The two strikers in the 3-5-2 formation serve as the team’s primary goal-scoring threats. They combine with each other and central midfielders, mainly the CAM, to pick apart the opposition’s defense. The two strikers should also be looking to receive through balls by making runs behind the opposition’s backline. It’s always positive to have at least one of these two players possess the ability to play as a target man. Meaning he has the size and strength to win crosses and long balls while holding off defenders. This allows the Wingbacks, the three men central midfield, and the other Striker to join the attack and make themselves available to receive the ball. 

History

Back-three formations (usually some variant of 3-5-2) became popular in the 1970s and ’80s for similar reasons. With most sides fielding two true strikers, it was popular to play three central defenders in order to create a “spare man” at the back. There would be two stoppers tasked with diligently marking the opposing forwards, and one sweeper, or libero, afforded the freedom to sit behind the defensive line as a form of insurance should a striker break beyond his marker.

Evolution of the 3-4-3

The 3-4-3 formation could be considered a relatively new formation however, it”s precursor is the “WM” formation that was first used in England in the 1920’s by Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman. The WM was later adopted by many teams in the English game.

The “WM” formation was named WM as a result of the 3-2-2-3 shape, created to address a change in the offside law in 1925-26 season. Before 1925-26 a forward needed three opposition players between him and the goal to be onside. The rule introduced in 1925 decreased 3 opposing players to 2. This meant forwards needed two opposition players between them and the goal which immediately led to an increase of goals scored.

Most teams pre 1925 played a 2-3-5 formation and the “Third Back” was introduced by Herbert Chapman to create the WM formation. This system was adopted by the England National Team until the infamous 6-3 defeat by Hungary in 1953 that exposed the tactical and technical deficiencies of the side against the Hungarians.

Back Three Returns

As Jonathan Wilson points out in his excellent book “Inverting the Pyramid”, tactical changes in football followed a trend of adding more players to the defensive line. The back three evolved to a back four and then to a back four with a libero sweeping in behind the defensive unit.

A back three was successfully re-introduced by Argentina Manager Carlos Bilardo. He led his country to the 1986 FIFA World Cup playing a 3-5-2 system, and devised the formation to include playmaker Diego Maradonna into a defensively focused approach.

Bilardo adopted the back three because he felt that wingers were not as relevant in systems at that time, becoming wide midfielders rather than attackers. He switched his full backs into midfielders as this provided support and security in advanced areas of the pitch where Maradona could then operate.

Van Gaal

Van Gaal progressed the concept of facilitating a playmaker within the team by changing his Ajax side from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 system. In Van Gaal’s approach the defensive three marked zonally, the midfield four played in a diamond shape, and width was provided by two wingers either side of the center-forward.

The Dutch manager changed Ajax’s back 4 defensive line into a back 3 by pushing one of the two center-backs into the holding midfield role to dictate play from deep. The holding midfielder was key to Van Gaal’s formation as he recognized his No.10 had become too constrained by the opposition to control the game.

In the 1995 Champions League Final, Frank Rijkaard played the holding midfield role and went on to provide the assist for Patrick Kluivert’s winning goal as Ajax defeated AC Milan 1-0

Modern Day 3-4-3

The 3-4-3 has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years with a number of professional coaches and managers adopting the formation, both internationally and in domestic leagues.

Marcelo Bielsa

The revered Argentinian Coach, Marcelo Bielsa, experimented with the formation at Newell”s Old Boys in the early 1990’s. He guided the side to the Argentine Primera División title and the 1992 Copa Libertadores Final, in which they lost on penalties to Brazilian side São Paulo.

As a result of his meticulous preparation and obsessive analysis of the game, Bielsa is affectionately nicknamed “El Loco”. In implementing his philosophy at the International level he gave Chile a style, identity, and philosophy which was preserved by his protégé Jorge Sampaoli and continues to this day.

Bielsa describes his philosophy in four terms; permanent focus, mobility, rotation, and “repeitización” – which is a musical expression to describe the process of playing a piece without having practiced it first! This fluid approach to the game led Bielsa to again utilize a 3-4-3 at Athletic Bilbao, with his players being encouraged to be flexible and change formation mid-game according to the opposition”s shape.

This culminated in Bielsa’s side beat Manchester United 5-3 over two legs in the last 16 of the 2012 Europa League, they pressed all over the pitch and attacked as a team to outclass the Premier League giants.

Jorge Sampaoli

Sampaoli is described as a “Bielsista” as he is an advocate of setting his teams up in a 3-4-3 and deploying a high pressing game to regain possession and attack at every opportunity. This was in line with the stylistic principles laid down by fellow Argentine Marcelo Bielsa.

Jorge Sampaoli’s impact at Chilean club Universidad de Chile did not go unnoticed and he replaced Claudio Borghi as the Chile National Team Coach in 2012, as the country was keen to continue the themes introduced by Bielsa.

Results improved and the team entered the 2014 World Cup full of confidence. Chile faced World Cup holders Spain in the group stages and the 3-4-3 approach dominated the Spanish as Chile were 2-0 up before half time, knocking the holders out of the tournament.

The methods of Sampaoli and Bielsa, and their 3-4-3 approach, were justified in 2015 when Sampaoli’s side won the Copa América for the first time defeating Argentina in the final.

Pep Guardiola

One of the most successful “Bielsista” coaches is Pep Guardiola. Anecdotally, before Guardiola entered football management, he flew to Rosario in Argentina, to seek inspiration and advice from “El Loco”. The football pilgrimage involved the two coaches discussing football, tactics, and philosophies for over 11 hours and resulted in the formation of mutual respect and admiration.

The future Manchester City Manager is renowned for being one of the games great thinkers and regularly adapts his team’s formation. At times he changes his formation mid-game to add tactical flexibility, unpredictability and expose potential weaknesses in the opposition system. It has been reported that Guardiola prefers using the 3-4-3 system against opposition teams with two strikers, to create a 3v2 overload in the defensive third to secure possession and play out, this was evidenced when his Barcelona side defeated Villarreal 5-0 using this approach.

However, in the 2015 Champions League Semi-Final first leg against his old club Barcelona, Guardiola set his Bayern Munich team up in a 3-4-3 system against Barcelona”s 4-3-3 formation; effectively going man for man all over the pitch as his wide midfielders locked on to Barca’s full-backs and a three-man defense were tasked with man-marking Luis Suarez, Messi, and Neymar.

Unfortunately for Guardiola and Munich, the tie finished 3-0 to Barcelona, although all of the goals were scored in the final 13 minutes. Nevertheless, the approach by Guardiola demonstrated his innovative thinking in what was unquestionably a difficult task; namely, to try to contain arguably the best forward line in world football.

Advantages of Playing with back 3

The biggest advantage that comes with playing a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 is the number of players in the middle of the park. Controlling the center of the field and you control the game. The possession in the center of the field when a team has the necessary quality can be easy. The central axis provides more options to attack, pass, shoot, assist, and protect the most dangerous zone in the pitch which is the “zone 14”, the area just outside your box.

Another great advantage is the flexibility and many alternatives that a team has regarding the number of players that form of the backline depending on the phase (in possession, out of possession) and the position of the ball (wide lines, centerpiece). Many teams that use a back 4 defending line, choose during the build-up, especially against high pressing teams, to drop a midfield at the backline to create overloads and assist with the ball progression. A system using 3 central defenders provides that tactical option without the need to move players from another line.

Teams that play with this structure, have more numbers in the central areas, meaning that there are more situations with overloads. In addition, the formation provides a natural structure with rhombus and triangles that is one of the fundamentals of a possession-positional play philosophy.

If a coach’s philosophy is the Positional Play and the utilization of half-spaces, then a system with three at the back has a natural positioning of players in half-spaces. The utilization of half-spaces gives multiple options for the build-up, maintain possession but also for the finishing phase.

In brief, the pros are:

  • 3 attackers provide options for the team to pass the ball forwards or in behind opposition defensive line.
  • 3 or 5 attackers (in case of full-backs pushing very high) can occupy opposition back 4 to exploit space in between fullbacks and center-backs or to create space for advancing midfield players to exploit.
  • Width provided through wing-backs or wide forwards (when playing a diamond midfield and a formation 3-4-3).
  • Promotes rotation between players to create and exploit space during possession and offer defensive security out of possession
  • Defensively strong in central areas of the pitch.

Disadvantages of Playing with back 3

The biggest aspect that goes against this system is pretty evident- it seems very defensive and could easily go wrong if it hasn’t been mastered. In the attacking phase, at least 1 or two midfielders must stay at the back to provide defensive cover in case of transitions due to the fact that wing-backs must push up to provide width in the attacking phase.

Another potential flaw of playing with a back three is that the space behind the wingbacks can be exploited when they push forward. This isn’t much of a problem if you have wing-backs capable of running up and down the line with defensive and offensive skills equally developed. Players like Trent Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Walker, and previous years Victor Moses, Alonso, and Dani Alves have the ideal profile for such a demanding role. These players have spent much of their career as a conventional fullback and can defend and attack with the same ease.

To be able to minimize any disadvantages, it is very important to choose players with the right characteristics for this system. The right and left center back must be players who are comfortable defending wide areas because they will have to do it during games. Also, it would be a great asset left-foot left center back because it would provide more options during the build-up as he will be more comfortable with the ball.

If either wingback gets caught too far up the pitch, they usually have some cover from central midfield who usually stays behind the ball to provide defensive cover but also provide offensive support for a back pass or for a change of play with long or short passes. A brilliant example was Kanté at Chelsea. A player with a huge amount of energy capable of covering a lot of space and provide defensive balance to the pushing up full-backs. In case the preferred formation is the 3 – 4 – 3 there is a need of two defensive midfielders very skillful both on the attacking and the defending aspect and also with the ability to stop opponent’s counter-attack.

The team has to work in unison to avoid being exposed in case of a ball loss and quick transition from the opponent. That meant that the full-backs also had to operate as left and right backs to ensure that they weren’t left short on numbers down the wings. The opponent knows that the gaps will be in the wide lanes, behind the wing-backs mostly in the phase of transitions. A well trained-team high fast attackers can expose a team playing with back three. To use a system with 3 defenders requires fast players capable to defend 1 v 1 in large spaces or to stole a 1 v 2 situation and wait for help.

In the orange circles are the areas where a 3-4-3 (red) could be exploited by a team using a formation with 3 forwards (blue). In the yellow circle is the right-wing back caught high up the pitch when the ball is lost. The opponent winger has a lot of free space to take advantage of. 

Nowadays there are a number of players that have made this role their own, but that has been down more so to the evolution of full-backs and what they are required to do.

In brief, the cons are:

  • Back 3 can be exposed through opposition attacks from wide areas or through switches of play.
  • Challenging if playing against an opposition front 3, as no spare player to offer defensive support and cover.
  • Susceptible to counter attacks if both central midfielders advance forwards.
  • Space can be exploited in wide areas if wide players (forwards and midfielders) do not track back.
  • Players to be tactically astute and aware to take up positions to control space on the pitch to the teams advantage.

During the build-up

If a team manages to master the fundamentals of the system at a really high level, the options that they will have both in the attacking and defending phase will be numerous.

A traditional 3-5-2 (red) against a 4-4-2 (blue) with the sweeper (central defender) in the middle. A GK with god feet is a valuable weapon for a team due to the many available options for distribution.

When in possession, the central defender/sweeper would, in theory, be free to collect the ball in deep positions and move forward into the midfield zone to instigate attacks. The freedom and responsibility of the role meant that the sweeper was often the most gifted player on the team. A sweeper with impressive passing range, like it was David Luiz with Chelsea, can play direct balls high and wide to the wingbacks or forwards and that it is something the majority of teams would find it difficult to defend. When bypassing the center of the field in this way, the defensive midfielders are less relied upon to be the main solution for ball progression and instead can concentrate on ensuring that their team maintains possession in these high, wide zones by pressing and nipping counter-attacks in the bud.

Legendary German World Cup winner Franz Beckenbauer is the most famous example of a master sweeper — and even used the same tactic as coach of Die Mannschaft — while Carlos Bilardo coached Argentina to a World Championship in 1986 with a back three. Rinus Michels’ Netherlands, with Ronald Koeman as their spare man, conquered Europe in a similar manner in 1988.

David Luiz under Conte’s instructions had one of his best seasons playing as a sweeper and due to his exceptional ability with the ball in his feet, he help Chelsea a lot during the possession phase and the build-up phase.

On the attacking phase, the high wing-backs can put the opponent in a really difficult place. A team with a system with two strikers (3–5–2) can push forward up to 6 players (including the two attacking midfielders) and that will put in a very pressure situation the opposite team. The two wingbacks will stretch the opponent’s lines and that will create spaces in the center. If the opponent chooses to close the central axis as to avoid vertical penetration or shoots outside the box, that will create spaces on the external corridors and with quick changes of play to the weak side, there will be a lot of 1 v 1 or 2 v 1situations.

During the defending phase

The back 3 formation provides great versatility. The formation can change to back 3, back 4 or back 5 depending on the ball position, the team players and the opponents. Adopting a positional play methodology and training the players to move according to specific references, the ball, the teammates and opponents and also to use for training purposes a pitch divided to 5 vertical zones, it will assist the team to automate a lot of their movements in defense. The backline of 5 can cover successfully and with very little effort the width of the field. The team will probably lose from the depth but having players with great endurance and cable to cover a lot of space and provide the necessary balance.

A very defending approach is the transformation of a 3-4-3 to a 5 – 4 – 1 with the 2 wingers dropping to the midfield to protect the wide lines and avoid the exposure to 1 v 2 situations.

A team may adopt a very high pressing behavior, especially on the opponent’s kick-off. The possibility for success is located on the ability of the two wing-backs to control based on their positioning and their awareness, at the same time the opposing winger and full back and also to be able to apply quick pressure in case a pass is made anywhere to the external corridor.

The Barcelona success changed the scene

Toward the beginning of the new millennium, the back three had largely become a relic of a bygone era, rendered redundant by the preference of single-striker systems — usually 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. The huge success of Guardiola with Barcelona and the new era of Positional Play and possession football pushed many coaches to use the 4–3–3, 4-2-3-1 and other variations of these systems. With only one center forward to mark, a team fielding three center-backs would effectively have two spare men in defense, while often getting outnumbered in midfield or down the flanks.

Aside from the odd and often unsuccessful exception, back threes were mostly unseen in top-level European soccer — at least outside of Italy, where they occasionally remained in use — for the better part of a decade.

Back 3 formations appears again in European football

In the previous years (2018-2020) there were many teams who started using the 4-4-2 formation, like Leicester City F.C in their title-winning season, and that forced coaches to bring to the surface a formation with three center backs as to be able to face the two strikers. This year in EPL, there were teams that had significant success using a back three formation like, Sheffield United and Wolves.

With many managers de-emphasizing the importance of possession, back three-based formations have taken on new relevance for their counter-attacking potential. With wingbacks able to quickly transition from defense to attack, and with skilled passers adept at instigating swift offensive moves making up the backline, formations such as 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 become attractive options.

In this respect, the fear of being overrun in midfield is also less of an issue for those willing to cede possession, absorb pressure, and attack rapidly into wide areas. The risk of playing with a numerical disadvantage in central zones — e.g. when up against a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 — is a calculated one that can be outweighed by the greater potential for defensive solidity and speed of attack.

Furthermore, the potential for any team playing a back three to be overloaded in wide areas is reduced by the fact that modern soccer players are much fitter than their counterparts of even 10 years ago, to say nothing of players from an even further bygone era. While many wingbacks would previously struggle to adequately undertake both their attacking and defensive duties for a full 90 minutes, players today, generally speaking, are much more capable of covering the kind of ground needed to get up and down the touchline for an entire game.

The general uptick in fitness levels has also seen a greater level of athleticism required of top-level professionals. Center-backs used to be powerful yet lumbering, but the modern defender is fast and agile; gone are the days when there would be a gaping speed disparity between forwards and their markers. Modern athletic central defenders are able to cover ground in a way that wasn’t previously possible, meaning they are much more adept at snuffing out danger and closing down any space that should appear in behind a roaming wingback.

That’s not to say that a back three formation is invulnerable to coming unstuck out wide — that risk will always be there to some extent. But the greater proliferation of specialist defensive midfielders also mitigates against this. Ever since Claude Makélélé’s transfer ushered in an era of a disappointment for Real Madrid and one of great success for Chelsea back in 2003, almost every top side has sought to have a midfielder dedicated to defensive duties within their ranks. These specialists are masters of spotting danger and plugging gaps; in that regard, they are a wingback’s best friend.

Trends within soccer are often cyclical, and most innovations stem from ideas borrowed from the past; old solutions are adapted to answer new problems. The back three is no different. It went away in an era when, generally speaking, possession was king. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona — the tiki-taka masters — epitomized this line of thinking as they swept all before them with intricate, short-passing combinations and superior ball retention. But today, many coaches prefer to emphasize the need to press, build from the back, and counter effectively. For that, a back three can form a fantastic base.

Like every other tactical principle, back-three systems have their flaws. But, in the current landscape, with defenders as much a part of a team’s offense as its strikers, the back three have found a new lease on life.

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