This summer’s World Cup in Brazil has so far been fantastic to watch; lots of goals, attacking football and matches played at a very high tempo. What has been very interesting from a tactical point of view is the increase in teams using a three-man defence. To date, teams like Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Italy and the Netherlands have all used a back-three in at least one game. Of the aforementioned teams, every single one made it out of their group and into the knock-out phase, except for Italy who were knocked out by Uruguay yesterday (in a game where both teams used a back-three).
Over the last 10-15 years, the use of a back-four has been the norm in both international and club football. Recently, though, more teams have been using a formation with three centre-backs supported by two attacking wing-backs. Mainly in Italy where clubs like Napoli (under Walter Mazzarri) and Juventus have been very successful. Juventus has won the last three Scudetto’s under Antonio Conte, playing with a back-three. Napoli impressed in the Serie A and qualified for the Champions League (where they did well) under Mazzarri, after many years outside of the top of Italian football, also playing with a back-three.
Conte is a regular user of a back-three
Why are teams using a back-three?
The obvious question, and I believe it to be because of the recent development in world football. Over the recent decade, the role of the winger has changed remarkably. 15-20 years ago, the wingers were meant to go down to the by-line and cross the ball for the strikers to head in. They more or less stayed wide just doing this, beating people and crossing. Often in a very rigid 4-4-2 formations (The English Way?). However, over the last ten years or so, we have seen a gradual change in the role of wingers. The emergence of players like Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben, Lionel Messi and David Silva has changed the way the winger is deployed. These aren’t players who stay out wide and just wants to cross the ball, they come ‘off’ their flanks in order to help the team create chances and score goals in central areas. If you think about the players mentioned, they always play ‘on the wrong side’ if you were to believe the old approach. Ronaldinho and Ronaldo are right-footed, coming off the left while the other three are left-footers, coming off the right. This development has made for more teams attacking centrally, which means there are more players in central areas to pick up for the defending team. We don’t really talk about wingers anymore, now it’s called ‘wide-forwards’ or, sometimes, ‘inside-wingers’.
To counter this, the back-three has been reinstated as the go-to-move.
David Silva comes off the right, cutting in on his left foot
Defending with a back-three
In Brazil, two of the best teams so far have been the Netherlands and Chile. Both of them playing with a back-three, although Chile have used a back-four at times as well. Why have they done that? The common ground is that both had to face the all-conquering Spanish side in the group stages. They have been the side who has attacked more centrally than any other. Their 4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1) has been built around their terrific midfielders and their equally brilliant wide forwards, most often Silva and Andrés Iniesta, coming off the flanks to join the attack centrally. To stop the Spanish dominating central areas, both Louis van Gaal and Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli fielded a back-three. They both lined up in a 3-4-1-2 shape when attacking which changes to a 5-3-2 when defending.
What this gives you when defending is a solidity and a defence which is hard to unlock. The three centre-backs are supported by two central midfielders (and also the attacking one) and the two wing-backs. The wing-backs is charged with closing down the space down the wings, and that leaves the remaining five (or six) players to stop the attack through the middle. This has proved to be extremely hard to break down. Spain didn’t have any answers to the opposition and lost the two games by aggregate score of 1-7.
Of the other teams using a back-three, Mexico and Costa Rica (although they only use one man up front) only conceded one goal in three matches and progressed, further proof of how solid the formation can be.
The main attribute with this system from a defending point of view is the amount of players defending centrally. This will easily make up the numbers against a team attacking with wide forwards and many central players.
Tactical nous: Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli is very flexible with his tactics
Attacking with a back-three
While giving teams a solidity in defence, the 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2 isn’t just a defensive system. It gives you a constant presence up front, with the two strikers always occupying the other teams defence. In addition, the attacking midfielder used by some teams (Vidal for Chile, Sneijder for the Netherlands) will be close by to support the front two. When building from the back, the right and left centre-backs will go wide to create spaces and the wing-backs will push on very high. The two midfielders will then drop down to receive the ball with the attacking one pushing on in order to find a position where he can hurt the opposition, preferably behind the other teams midfield. When you’re in the final third you will have all the attributes you need to open up a defence; width from the wing-backs, the attacking midfielder in a position around the box where he threatens the opposition, your two central midfielders in positions to receive and switch play and obviously your two strikers occupying the opposition centre-backs where they can threaten in behind the defence. And, of course, you still have your three centre-backs together, prepared to stop a counter-attack.
The system also gives a lot of freedom to creative players. When looking at it, 3-5-2, you think of two strikers up front. No team at the World Cup play like that though. Holland have one striker, Robin van Persie, and one wide forward, Arjen Robben, as their front two. Chile have two wide forwards, Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas, up top. Mexico play wide forward Giovani Dos Santos with striker Oribe Peralta. These creative, attacking forward players like to move around freely and play between the lines, and this system gives them that. It gives a fluidity to the attack which is enjoyable to watch. Robben, in particular, has flourished in the role and has been one of the players of the tournament.
Robben is relishing his new role, three goals in the group stages
There are differences between the Netherlands and Chile’s way of implementing the system, however. While Chile is a very energetic side who press intensely all across the pitch, the Netherlands are more controlled where they defend a bit deeper. They also had different ways of dealing with the Spanish defence when they were in possession. Van Gaal had van Persie and Robben (his front two) dropping wide when Spain’s centre-backs were on the ball, with Sneijder the one providing the first pressure. That made the chance to get the ball inte their midfielders even smaller as it created a box of five players limiting space even before Spain got to the five-man defensive line. Sampaoli on the other hand, had his front two, Sanchez and Vargas, putting them under instant pressure, unsurprisingly, in order to make sure they were never given time to get into their rhythm.
Alexis and Vidal, both perfect for Sampaoli’s style of football
A system with three men at the back, whether 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2, is a good option for teams seeking defensive solidity and attacking fluidity. In defence it provides lots of players defending in central areas with good outlets for counter-attacks, and in attack it provides width, runs in behind and control in midfield. Most teams want to use three men in midfield to gain control of the game, often at the expense of another striker. This system gives teams the opportunity to still play two strikers/forwards. In the coming years I believe that we will see an increase in coaches opting for formations with a back-three. It is obviously working.