Resurgence of the Back Three

One of the most notable tactical trends of the 21st Century is the decline of the 3-man defence. The popularity of the 3-4-3 formation originated during the late 1980s and early ’90s in Italy, when an influx of centre-backs occupied Serie A. Originally created as an extremely offensive formation, the evolution of the 3-4-3 into its current variations (3-5-2, being the most popular) has made it a versatile formation that can be now be used for attacking and defensive set-ups.  It grew as a way to counter the most influential formation in modern football, the orthodox 4-4-2. Now many years on, this formation has become a forte to win League titles and Knockout Championships.

Chelsea employing a 3-5-2 defensive stance (5-3-2) under Thomas Tuchel in the UCL Final 2021

Emergence:

The use of a back 3 was born out of necessity; Football primarily is a game of space. The team that wins is the team that is able to give its skilled players the most space to create and at the same time deny that space to its opposition. As playing roles evolve and develop, usually the players who are allowed more natural space become more creative and progressive. This led to the development of the Attacking Fullback position. As the 4-4-2 came to dominance in European football, there were many occasions where two teams with an orthodox 4-4-2 formation played against each other. When these teams met, both of their central midfielders were marked out by the opposition’s central midfield and the opposition’s centre-backs marked both teams’ centre-forwards. The only free players for both teams were their Fullbacks. As teams looked for more effective ways to attack the ball was pushed out wide to fullbacks, it was the fullback who was given more attacking responsibility.

A basic 3-5-2 (attacking stance) formation

Attacking fullbacks have become an essential part of winning in European Football in this decade of the 21st Century.  As teams become more reliant on attacking fullbacks, the more important these fullbacks become to the tactics and success of teams. To accommodate the advanced runs of Attacking Fullbacks, managers started playing their Wingers in an inverted fashion, with their strong foot on the inside (most impactful cases) of the field instead of on the touchline. This changed the movement of the Wingers who instead of hugging the touchline, would cut centrally into midfield. This created space for the attacking fullbacks, not only by the movement of the Winger but by also pulling the opposition Fullback, who was marking the Winger and drifting centrally to cover him, thus creating space for the attacking runs of the Fullback. Wingers also had a useful defensive function. With more attacking Fullbacks, teams relied more on them to create goal-scoring opportunities. By playing wingers, teams had a natural defender for attacking fullbacks and with an extra central midfielder, there was more defensive cover to allow teams to push their Wingers into more advanced positions.

Basic elucidation:

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 backline 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.

Chelsea under Antonio Conte in 16/17. Conte is revered as one of the masters of this style of play.

The 3-5-2/3-4-3 is particularly effective against attacking teams; its ability to transform easily into a defensive 5-3-2/5-4-1 makes it the perfect formation for a team willing to sit back and hit on the break. It may also be used when there’s a surplus of overly attacking fullbacks who the coach cannot depend on entirely to handle all defensive responsibilities.

The Tactical Analysis:

Starting with the back 3, the middle centre-back performs the role of a Libero. A Libero is a ball-playing sweeper who carries the ball forward to help initiate attacks, while also being the final line of defence when defending against opposition attacks. The Libero is an essential piece in making the 3-4-3/3-5-2 fully function, as, without him, the two central midfielders would be left with no solid, reactionary defensive support. The Libero is supported by two other central defenders whose main function is to cover and be aware of balls floated in behind him when possession is lost. They also are the first to receive the ball when play is initiated by the goalkeeper. The wing-backs are also critical to the functionality of the 3-4-3/3-5-2. As part of the midfield 4, they are positioned strategically wide in the attacking phase of play. During the attacking phase, they are expected to push up the field and overlap to support the front 3, especially when the wingers act as inside forwards, which consequently forms a front 5.

Wing backs add to the front 3 to form a front 5.

Perhaps the most physically demanding position in football, the wing-backs are also expected to track back and help in the defensive phase. In the defensive transition, the back 3 forms a back 5 with wingbacks covering both wings in order to stop opposition wingers from entering the final third. The central midfielders are the bridge between the defence and the attack. In most variations of the 3-4-3, the central midfield pairing consists of a box-to-box midfielder and a deep-lying playmaker/defensive midfielder who protects the back 3. The box-to-box midfielder is usually a dynamic, high energy and balanced player who is expected to help in the defensive transition and the attack transition. The more defensive-minded of the pair tends to stay back in attack, firmly covering and protecting any counter-attacks from the opposition when possession is lost. The central defensive midfielder in the pair must be a tactically competent player, whose ability to read the game is above all other teammates. Using penetrative passes to the midfield, directing play from deep, and spreading play wide to the wingbacks are prominent features of a defensive-minded midfielder in a 3-4-3. 

The front 3 consists of a striker flanked by 2 wingers on either side. The wingers are essential to counter attacks, using their pace to receive the ball to attack opposition defence. During the attacking phase, the wingers tend to tuck inside the half-space, acting as inside forwards to support the striker and receive balls from the midfielders. They regularly make runs into the final third looking for through balls from midfielders, or to drag the opposition defenders for the box-to-box midfielder to make a late run past the opposition backline. In the defensive transition, the wingers trackback also to protect the wingbacks, forming a 5-4-1 formation. The focal point of the formation, the striker, can be very versatile depending on the specific role given by the manager. A false nine would provide an option for the midfielders by receiving the ball from an attacking position. An out-and-out striker would stay deep into the opposition final third in the attacking phase, while also acting as the lone attacking player when the 3-4-3 transforms into a 5-4-1 in the defensive transition. 

Pros and Cons of using 3 at the Back:

Pros: 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 centre and cramps out the space. This forces the opposition out wide and with minimal impact through the central areas.

Defensive stability due to compactness of the formation.

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.

Nullifying traditional attacking formations.

With formations (traditional) increasingly inclining towards a single striker system or a front 3 with wingers on rolling back duties, 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.

Cons: The lack of central midfielders shielding the defenders is a major contributing factor to this formation’s flaws. Depending on the team using this system, the two central midfielders may be heavily exposed on the flanks if wingers do not trackback. The midfield is the first line of defence and if not shielded properly the back 3 will be susceptible to the inevitable attacking threat. The wingers/inside forwards’ responsibility to track opposition is also critical for shielding wingbacks. 

Wing backs get exposed to multiple attacking threats.
Central Mid-fielders rushing to help wing-backs expose the midfield creating holes for opposing counterparts to attack.

Moreover, with Libero’s responsibility of running the infield, the player cannot afford to lose the ball while initiating attacks. Despite the 2 central defenders acting as cover when initiating attacks, the wingbacks are pushed up ready for the attack. As such, a loss of possession from the Libero early causes an automatic 3 on 2 situations where the opposition front 3, 4 if an attacking midfielder is fielded, attack in all areas surrounding the final third. For this reason, the Libero’s ball-playing ability must be as good as their ability to defend. 

Conclusion:

For the right team with the right players, the 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation can prove to be a deadly formation against any opponent. Attacking penetration, defensively strong, and a dominant control of possession. The 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation relies on teamwork, communication, and discipline for the team to get the best out of the formation.

Any formation featuring three defenders at the back should not be mistaken to be an out and out defensive formation. While other teams that play three at the back can be overwhelmed or overrun on the flanks, by playing five in midfield the formation largely mitigates these risks. From a physiological perspective, the physical demands of this formation on the players are immense. A defensive midfielder who carries the responsibility of shielding the defence has to cover all areas of the midfield, which takes incredible physical exertion. Likewise, the box-to-box midfielder and the wingbacks, who all have to help in the attacking phase and defensive phase, carry major responsibility in making sure they succeed in both, further adding to the formation’s physical demands.

The trend of playing three centre-halves at the back has been growing back in recent years. The formation seems to be the key in answering a lot of modern-day football problems and looks set to stay, dominating the top leagues across the world.

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