Playing a formation consisting of three central defenders has long been perceived as taboo by your average soccer fan. While fillips of overseas influences have creeped into the English game and wholesomely enhanced it, the comfort in England and the USA of an elementary four-man back-line is something that fans still cling to. It seems as though that could be about to change, though.
Admittedly, the lingering apprehension of fans isn’t without foundation. Of all the teams that have won the Premier League since it’s inception, none of the managers have deployed a system underpinned by three central defenders. Indeed, when coaches have tried to use it—Roberto Mancini at Manchester City and Jurgen Klinsmann with the US Men’s National Team being two most recent examples—it’s typically been filed away again pretty quickly.
And while there have been fleeting instances in which it has worked for English teams—Terry Venables’ England got to the semi-finals of Euro 96 and Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic won the FA Cup in 2013 using variations—it remains a system best left alone if you got the opinions of most fans.
Nonetheless, teams across the globe have shown that it can be utilized with sustained success in the modern era. Under Antonio Conte, Juventus’ variation of 3-5-2 saw them establish a three-year hegemony in the race for the Scudetto, but it’s a system that’s quintessentially more technical in its routes anyway. Plus, the lesser pace of Serie A makes it easier to deploy with real distinction when compared to the notoriously ferocious tempo of the Premier League.
Like any tactical trend, the system is relative on personnel available to the head coach or manager. The Bianconeri, for example, found a formation that could accentuate supreme playmaking skills of Andrea Pirlo. His lack of dynamism is covered by the three central defenders and two unrelentingly industrious midfield men, while the two wing-backs and two strikers give the Italian targets aplenty to ping passes towards.
Pep Guadiola has also used adaptations of systems that hinge on a back three at Bayern Munich; it was the catalyst for the German champions’ 7-1 demolition of Roma earlier in the season in what was the finest team performance put in by any side in European soccer so far this campaign.
Now it seems to be creeping back into fashion in the Premier League too. Louis van Gaal’s utilization of a 3-5-2 at the World Cup and subsequent appointment by Manchester United has added to the scrutiny surrounding the system. And although the Dutchman has used the formation more than anyone else in the division this season, he’s not a sole pioneer for a back three.
Liverpool, Southampton, Everton, Hull City, West Ham United, Sunderland and Queens Park Rangers have also used their own variations of a system involving three central defenders, per WhoScored.com, and have had varying degrees of success. However, former United defender Gary Neville isn’t overly convinced by his former team’s utilization of the system.
“Louis van Gaal wants them to recycle the ball and switch the play. I’m not a fan of 3-5-2 because the center-backs are the free men and they become the safe option,” said Neville earlier in the season on Monday Night Football. “They play out from the back but the tempo is too slow. Far too often they are keeping possession and passing it backwards.”
By playing Angel Di Maria as an orthodox center-forward, it’s as though Van Gaal is trying to make the Argentine his equivalent of Arjen Robben from this summer’s Oranje team; a blisteringly quick, left-footed attacking player who can stretch teams on the break. It’s not quite clicked into gear yet for the Red Devils, but sitting third in the league, it’s clear the Dutchman is doing something right.
Indeed, Brendan Rodgers’ implementation of a 3-4-3 has expedited a turnaround in fortunes for the Liverpool as of late. The pictured centre-back threesome of Martin Skrtel Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can have afforded the team a fortitude that has been scarce under Rodgers’ tutelage and it’s allowed the manager to accommodate more intricate midfielders without disturbing the balance of his side. There’s little denying that it’s worked for them and there are plenty who attest to the merits of this way of playing.
“If you go three at the back, sort that out and get a good relationship between the three, you are building from somewhere”, said former Liverpool star Mark Lawrenson. “And you can play an extra attack-minded player – that might make all the difference between a 0-0 and a win. It’s a really, really good system.”
Looking ahead and with the cyclical nature of soccer tactics considered, the system should become increasingly commonplace as the game motors forward.
Intelligent pressing has become a vital component of any successful side and with more players in advanced areas, systems founded on a three-man defence allow teams to put more pressure on higher up the pitch. The lack of an extra defender may bring a sense of vulnerability, but the onus is on winning the ball back long before they’re triggered into last-ditch action.
Center-backs are becoming increasingly comfortable with the ball at their feet too, meaning that if they do become the spare men in this system, eventually it’ll be no bad thing. Indeed, Liverpool have used orthodox midfielder Emre Can in their back three as someone who can facilitate attacks and United have occasionally done the same with Michael Carrick, who can stride out an play purposeful forward passes.
It’s spreading to the United States too. During the USMNT’s recent friendly game against Chile, Jurgen Klinsmann set his side up in a 3-5-2 system, with the German claiming that it’s always handy to be acquainted with this way of playing for tournament football.
If sides are going to go “like for like” to their opponents, then it’s something that a lot of teams must become well versed in. While 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 remain in vogue amongst the majority of the game’s elite, it would be no surprise whatsoever if we were to see a Premier League or even UEFA Champions League winning team building a prosperous campaign on this divisive way of playing.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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