Football/Soccer is a sport that has evolved in many aspects recently. With time passing by, this sport has visualized many formations that constitute of 4 defenders. (e.g. 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1). However, if there is a formation that has revolutionized not just Italian football but also the English Premier League in the last 5 years, it is the formation of 3 at the back.
If there is one manager who we can think has made this formation an art, it is Antonio Conte as his influence of 3 at the back brought him titles in Italy and England. The beauty of this sport is that there are multiple ways to play it. In every league, we see teams line up in different formations depending on the players at the manager’s disposal, the opponent, and their manager’s philosophy.
However in the case of 3 at the back, there are many more talking points. We visualize them one by one.
If a manager wants to play a formation with 3 at the back, he needs tactically astute players who have a complete understanding of what role they will be given. They must be “switched on” no matter if they have the ball or not.
The mentality of the players in this formation is very crucial because if they are fragile and are worried about making mistakes, they are not for this formation as the formations with 4 defenders allow more freedom in comparison to this formation, and maybe there they can adjust better.
However, if the manager finds success in this formation, he will dominate his opponents from the first minute with an exchange of passes making the opponent run out of gas, especially if they want to press them.
There are 3 common denominators within this formation.
- TACTICAL DISCIPLINE
- TACTICALLY ASTUTE PLAYERS
If the player profile has three attributes, he is perfect for this formation. He must understand the time when he must go forward and come back. The tactical discipline is so crucial in this because once the player does not track back if he is in an advanced position, the team loses stability altogether.
If we look at the blueprint of Antonio Conte’s title-winning team at Chelsea in 2016/17, his team lost consecutive matches against Liverpool and Arsenal because of his inability to find a balance in midfield. He had 4 midfielders at his disposal i.e. Kante, Matic, Fabregas, and Oscar. Oscar had no positional awareness and Fabregas demanded freedom which was against the requirement of 3 at the back. As a result, Matic and Kante played as a pivot with hard-working full-backs in Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso.
If we start from the goalkeeper, usually he has a responsibility that is bread and butter to him i.e. shot-stopping. However, the most crucial aspect is with the ball in his feet. He has the ball more in this formation than in any other formation because of the quickness every outfield player requires in his passing. Hence, if a fatigue issue occurs within the team, their defense can pass the ball back to the keeper and build again.
Coming to the 3-man defense, their job is not just to defend but also to recover the ball, spread the ball and move forward themselves. As a result, the central of the 3 center backs become a deep-lying central midfielder in this formation. In 2011/12 Juventus side, the defensive setup of Georgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli allowed Bonucci to move a little bit advanced so he can launch balls into the likes of Allesandro Del Piero in attack or Andrea Pirlo in midfield.
When the team has the ball, the central CB dictates by launching balls into the wider areas. If their team comes up against an opponent who are stubborn and very tough to break down, they join the midfield and the attack as an external outlet, creating confusion for the opposition regarding who to track.
Apart from their defensive attributes, they should be an incredible vocalist and should show leadership skills in terms of creating a structure within their defensive shape.
Then come the RCB and the LCB positions whose prime objective is to cover the spaces of their wingbacks when they bomb forward. As the wide outlets of the opposing teams usually are quick, they too must match their speed and be extremely good tacklers.
All the 3 central defenders should be great ball carriers and their attacking responsibilities as a whole should only be limited to the time when their team has a set piece.
However, like every defensive formation brings deficiencies, so does this. If you bring this formation against a team that has lots of attacking players, you are bound to struggle. The 2016/17 team of Chelsea got outplayed by 2 teams that season, Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham had a front 3 of Harry Kane, Son Heung Min, and Christian Eriksen. They managed to win the game 2-0 with both the goals coming from a player who played as an attacking outlet behind them i.e. Dele Alli. This caused Conte’s Chelsea to become outnumbered in defense and they got punished.
Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in 2016/17 had a big presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top. However, the Portuguese coach put him on the bench and utilized a 2-man axis of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford who got behind Chelsea’s backline time and time again whenever United’s midfield recovered the ball in midfield and attacked the midfield spaces. Additionally, the United strikers didn’t allow their defense to distribute the ball comfortably. Hence, controlled Chelsea with and without the ball
The wing backs or the left and the right sided players of the formation are the ones with the most distance to cover in the entire formation setup. Hence, they are considered as the most athletic players of 3 at the back.
The wing-backs must be fast and mobile so they are able to cover the entire wing by themselves. They are one of the biggest reasons which enable stability within this formation. They should time their runs to absolute perfection going forward, allowing them to get behind the opposition defense. If they are good dribbles, it will be an asset because the oppositional full-backs will be concerned about their ability on the ball. This causes the team to have a 2 on 1 in the oppositional half with wing-backs and wingers creating troubles together for the oppositional full-back.
Moving into midfield, it could be a 3-man setup or a flat setup of 2 midfielders. One is usually attacking, the other is defensive. However, being a pivot brings responsibilities on their shoulders both offensively and defensively. The midfielder who is more creative has to link up with the wide areas consistently by moving the ball quickly. The midfielder who is more defensive intercepts the ball and breaks up play. As a result, both the midfielders should be incredible readers of the game. Like we mentioned above, these characteristics were found in the midfield duo of Matic and Kante as they were crucial to Chelsea’s league title in 2016/17.
A 3-man axis is suited for those teams who are possession-based with one player having the freedom to dictate the game whereas the other two midfielders being allocated the attacking and defensive responsibilities. Antonio Conte’s key to success at his time in Juventus was because he was able to find a stable midfield who can create and defend for him simultaneously. Andrea Pirlo was deployed as a deep-lying playmaker with Marchisio and Vidal going back-and-forth to help him out. As a result, his team can press (Marchisio), create (Pirlo), and score (Vidal). This was changed in 2015/16 when Pirlo retired, Vidal left and Paul Pogba emerged onto the scene. Pogba took the free role with Marchisio and Khedira taking defensive responsibilities.
This midfield formation brings a few troubles, especially in 3-4-3. A 2-man pivot in 3-4-3 allows large spaces for the counter-attacking teams to utilize.
One of the standout performances of the record-breaking Manchester City’s 2017/18 season was the way they played at Stamford Bridge. The midfield pivot of Kante and Bakayoko was not allowed to come into the advanced position at any moment bar once as City had the ball all the time as you expect from a Pep Guardiola side. Once they did, Fernandinho recovered the ball from the defensive phase and Kevin De Bruyne attacked the space left behind that midfield pivot to score the winner and set the blues to their title charge.
In the same season, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United played a 3-4-3 against Arsenal at the Emirates. Despite them winning the game 3-1 in one of the matches of the season, the spaces left between a midfield pivot of Nemenja Matic and Paul Pogba was so much that the Arsenal midfield was walking past them and having shots i.e. 33 in total. It was at times so one-sided that the Manchester United manager had to bring Ander Herrera on to take the sting out of the game and bring some sort of stability by changing to a 3-5-2.
The 3-5-2 formation brings stability in midfield but cuts out the supplies from the wings as the roles of wing-backs get eliminated. This results in opposition teams to attack the team from wide areas.
The biggest asset that this formation has is that it allows the team to have so many attacking options if they are up against a team that is well-organized. From the wing-backs to even the center-back filling the deep-lying playmaker role, all become part of the attack. However, we have, by formation, 3 attacking players in a 3-4-3 formation and 2 attacking players in a 3-5-2 formation. The strikers have a lot of freedom in the advanced areas where they can drop anywhere in the advanced area and feed their fellow strikers.
Chelsea in 2016/17 had a formidable front-three of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, and Willian. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Diego Costa were the only two strikers who could have played the role of a central striker of this formation in 2016/17. Costa was the biggest presence out of the front-three as his ability to play a “9.5” role allowed him not just score goals but also drop deep to feed Hazard and Willian on the counter-attacks.
The wide forwards in Hazard and Willian can impact the attack in a number of ways through their positioning, dribbling skills, and creativity.
They can drop wide to support their wingback in attacking the opposition’s fullback which helps draw the opponent’s center-back of deep-lying midfielder across. They can also use the wingback’s overlapping run to drive past the fullback and push into the box themselves to either flash a cross across the box or go for goal themselves.
In a 3-5-2, one striker comes to deep and feeds the other striker. With no support coming from the wing-back positions, the source for the striker up top comes from either him or the deep-lying playmaker in midfield.
So if we can summarize things for a 3-4-3, the central striker makes the system, but the wide players run it. Consequently, this is exactly how in one of the games they were stopped.
In Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Chelsea in 2017, Jose Mourinho deployed Ander Herrera and Matteo Darmian to nullify the threats of both Eden Hazard and Willian/Pedro. As a result, we can see that Ander Herrera was playing almost as a wing-back at times. This automatically eliminated the danger of Diego Costa too as he cannot come deep to feed his wide players nor can feed on them as they are nullified. Plus, the wing-backs also cannot come and join the attack because of the counter-attacking threat.
Comparison with 4 at the back
There are 2 parts of football. One is when you have the ball and the other being when you don’t. In these parts, it is very important to understand the role. If we draw a comparison between 3 at the back and 4 at the back, the difference is clear for everybody to see. When the team doesn’t have the ball, we can see that the strikers do not come back in a 4-4-2 and are left on their own up top. However, in the case of a 3-5-2, the team defends more as a unit with everyone chipping in with defensive work.
When the team has the ball, both the formations of 4-1-2-3 and 3-1-4-2 can build as per the instructions of the manager and balance of the team.
Here we can clearly see that the pressure of moving the ball quickly is higher in a 3-5-2 (4.56 average) in comparison to a 4-2-3-1 (2.30 average). The more team separation (8.34m) especially in the midfield allows more spaces for the opponents to counter them in comparison to a 4-2-3-1 (8.25m).
The 3 at the back formation is incredible to use if the manager finds success with it
Every single player must understand his role and he can put the opponent under immense pressure with the high energy display that the formation demands.