Tactical analysis: The rise of the three man defence

Tactical analysis: The rise of the three man defence

Just a couple of seasons ago, critics were questioning the possibility of a come back of the sweeper role in modern football. The preference for the 4–3–3, 4-3-1-2 or 4–2–3–1 systems made unusual the use of an old-fashion role such as the sweeper. So we had three-man central defences lined up against one-forward attacks. Also, playing against formations with only one central forward meant losing an extra man in midfield without much cause.

The come back of the 3-men back line latest seasons suggested again the utilization of a spare man behind two centre-backs. The idea of a three-men back line come up in the first ’90s, following the success of West Germany and Carlos Bilardo’s Argentine at 1990 World Cup and of Germany at Euro 96, where the best player in the tournament was Matthias Sammer, the sweeper in the Deutsch 3-4-1-2 formation. In that defence, the ’spare man’ was required to cover the spaces behind the other two centre-backs but also to go forward in the offensive phase, adding a man to the midfield.

During the 1990 World Cup, Bobby Robson switched England to a 3-5-2 formation, lining up Mark Wright as a sweeper. After the defensive problems they had in Euro ’88 with a four-men flat line, Robson went for an extra defender in the Italian campaign.“I decided I’d play with a sweeper to cover myself against the Dutch and the Germans,” he told later told to Four Four Two magazine. A great team to succesfully utilized the spare man was Chile under Marcelo Bielsa. In the past Euro 2012, Cesare Prandelli lined up Italy in a 3-5-2 mode. Prandelli started playing a 4-3-3 before to switch to a 4-3-1-2, but the fixing scandal, that left him without the starting left-back Domenico Criscito and bad shape of some players made Prandelli playing with a 3-5-2 pattern, with midfielder Daneiel De Rossi lined up in middle of the back line, alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

Barcelona too played often this system the past two seasons. The reasons for the sweeper’s  come back are clear. The rise of 4-3-1-2, especially in Italy, made a 3-man back line a good way for the teams to close the gaps centrally. Also, some of latest versions of 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, formations featuring just one central forward, were unconventional, as they count on cutting inside wingers that don’t stay wide open. Those movements turn a 4-3-3 into a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-2-3-1 into a 4-2-1-3, ammassing players in the middle of the attacking zone. This made a 3-men back line still forthcoming to defend against those opponent’s systems as centre-backs had to deal with an increasing number of attacking players in central positions.

The spaces opened on the flanks, which the full-backs can exploit, can be covered by just one player, the wing-back of 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formations. This means that the classic edge of a team playing with two men on the flanks against a team utilizing just one man is nullified. Although the winger on the strong side stay wide open, working toghether with an overlapping back in the way to create issues to the 3-men defending team, if the interior midfielder in a 3-5-2 formation can slide laterally to help the wing-back, the opponents’ numerical superiority on the flank is lost. On the other hand, if the 3-5-2’s wing-back can push the rivals’ winger successfully, he can create trouble on the opponents’ team, being the wingers in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formations not suited to defend. And the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formations haven’t need of pure technical and expensive wingers but just need of athletic wing-backs or full-backs also able on the offensive phase. It’s a question of adaptation too: playing a 3-men back line way is unusual so teams accustomed to face four-men defences have problems to adjust to defences with one man less. Some of the last example of successfull back three teams were Rangers Glasgow, Napoli and Juventus.

All those teams raised in context with a large amount of 4-men defences. Not all 3-men back lines are the same: Napoli’s back three became a back four with the ball on the flanks and work as an offensive back four line, pushing up, in the way to keep the squad short and compact. All of the mentioned teams were winning sides. But also for a team with no great chance to play an active brend of football, playing with three central defenders is still a good way to defend against most technical sides, counting on fast-breaks. Playing a 3-men back line becoming a front five on the defensive phase is still a good way to win the race to avoid relegation for teams at the bottom of the table as we saw with Wigan in the Premier League towards the end of last season.

Follow Michele for more analysis @MicheleTossani