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Could The Three Man Defense Work In England?

Upton Park, West Ham v Chelsea , Premier League 11/09/2010 John Terry of Chelsea closes his eyes as he is substituted Photo Marc Atkins Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

Well...maybe not three of him, but you get the idea

For most Premiership clubs with title aspirations it’s not the loss at Stamford Bridge or the Emirates that puts the trophy out of reach, when looking at the schedule those are games that a manager knows are hugely difficult to win. What separates winners from 3rd or 4th is the ability to win at the Stadium of Light, or at Molineux where the home team is compact, with men behind the ball unless they’re on the break. Often when his team is being kicked out of the game a manager might wish for an extra man in the final third, and they could have it if they thought out of the box a little and broke down their rigid four man backline. This tactic rarely works in places other than England, where there is still a lot of 4-4-2, with the two forwards easily corralled by the three center backs. In continental football, where 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 is often the case, the back three will be overran within the hour. However, in Premiership football this could be the difference between three points or one, and not just against the weaker teams.

Under normal circumstances, teams normally have a dedicated holding midfielder anyway, perhaps not an out and out tackler like Mascherano, but someone like Yaya Toure who could easily slip into a fullback position when needed and play higher up the pitch. It’s not impossible to switch to four at the back if in a position of dominance either. The key to the defense is having mobile defenders, because the wide center backs need to be comfortable tracking pacier wingers, while the middle could have the luxury of being a more aggressive type of defender. Full back runs would have to be tracked by the midfielders.

If a manager uses the extra midfielder or forward given to him with this shape wisely, the extra dimension brought to his team’s forward play makes them a real threat. Early on Roma used the shape to play another Dirk Kuyt-esque winger who tracked back but also ran forward giving them real width and numbers up the field. A side like Manchester City, whose fullbacks don’t really go forward that much (apparently Bridge did against Salzburg but I don’t think that’s the usual) and who play inverted wingers could really use this.

Of course this is an extremely situational performance, intended to cause the other team to play out of their comfort zone for a while. Some teams have solved their problems in other ways, Chelsea give Ashley Cole far more license than ever to bomb forward for example, but certain sides could really use this as another arrow in their quiver.

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  1. patrick

    September 18, 2010 at 8:07 am

    It does feel a bit odd talking about England when the next game is 4 weeks away and against Montenegro. But the thing is England have been using a sort of three man defense…

    The way Johnson and Cole run the wings, the holding midfielder and two central defenders play much like a 3 man back line already…

    You may recall that when Sven was in charge they played a 4-4-2 diamond… Of course that never worked cause you Gerrard and Lampard both best at AMC…

  2. ish

    September 18, 2010 at 1:28 am

    chile didnt play a 3 man defense. They had an interesting system that essentially went opposing strikers+1 for their cbs, against 1 striker they play 2 cbs and against 2 they either played vidal further back as a CB or sub’d one on.

    Now the biggest problem with this thinking is of course the top teams dont just play 1 or 2 strikers they change it up. chelsea and barcelona the two most freescoring teams last season regularly played with 3 strikers, 1 main and 2 withdrawn. WHen their fullbacks attacked the space left was easy to exploit which is why drogba scored 30+, lampard 20+ and malouda and anelka both got into the 10+.
    Also in england 442 isnt as common as it used to be, alot of the teams are switching to 4231 or having a striker that can drop back and link up play a bit more. 3 man defenses can work especially if your gonna play a deep line and go for the break because it allows having 2 intercepting CBs and 1 covering CB(sweeper if you will) and CB’s these days are quite decent in attack, even terry is decent when he pushes up and the likes of carvalho and pique are even more so. in the end 3 man defenses arent as common because 2 man attacks arent the be all end all anymore and and by using a DM you can help nullify supply which forces a striker further back to get the ball and means a 1 man attack once again.

    • Dave C

      September 18, 2010 at 11:26 pm

      Good point – the 4-4-2 isn’t really that common in the EPL any more – it’s pretty much standard practice for the “smaller” clubs to play something 4-5-1 against the bigger teams anyway, so a three man defence would be a waste.

  3. Sameer Chopra

    September 17, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    Most teams playing a high line have 10 people in the opposing half of the pitch, or close to it. If positioning is correct congestion isn’t a problem, Chile played a three man defense in the world cup and certainly didn’t get overrun. This formation wouldn’t really suit minnows with one dimensional players, that is correct, but even Liverpool these days have Daniel Agger a quite mobile center half, doesn’t have to be a Ronaldinho, a Jagielka would do fine. When playing three in the back, you can go super attacking with something like a 3-3-1-3 (I think that’s what Chile used I’m not sure), or you could do something like a 3-5-2, in either case there is room for wingers that track back, most clubs have a Bale or even a Benayoun willing to do so. Personnel, as you pointed out, is extraordinarily important here, it most certainly isn’t a catch all, but big clubs have squad depth for this very purpose. Also, this way a 4-4-2 is even more overrun in midfield, hard to pass around such a stacked midfield.

  4. Chris McQuade

    September 17, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    It’s an interesting idea you put forward but as you began to explain it you ended your article. I think a question like this needs a little more. Would putting 10 guys in the opposition half not cause congestion rather than space. Barca don’t need this to break down lesser teams they have the players to exploit the small gaps that defences can leave through intelligent motion. Also most centre halves are more Terry, Distin and Vidic rather than a Kolo or a Vermaelen whose pace makes up for lack of positioning.

    What of full-backs? Would you have wing backs or just left sided ‘players’ like a bale? Or a decade ago Cafu? Also you are not freeing an extra man but restricting one. With 3 at the back – all centre-backs – you have one more than usual in a 4-4-2 that is one more dedicated defender. In a 4-2-3-1 the full backs can move up so that the formation shifts in attack to a 2-4-3-1 and the ease with which your full backs or a kuyt fold back into the original defensive shape is important.

    For your formation to work, that extra man at the back has to come forward provide support late and be there to be a fulcrum around whom the wide players can move for him. Ideally he would be Xabi Alonso but realistically we are talking about a sweeper and this is covered here:

    Chris McQuade

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