This post has been translated from the Hungarian version.
In recent years we have seen the second wind of 4-4-2 in European football, which started not just the defences’ strengthening, but helped another system indirectly to return to the top class football. And this system is the ‘three at the back’ (when defending it’s usually more a five-man chain). I don’t know whether it will be a wide-spread formation or not, but we can see that the evolution has surely begun. Our task is to enjoy it and try to understand its working.
-Warning! This post contains some hypothetical thoughts. ;)-
This system is not the modern football’s invention -teams used to line up with three defenders already in the first decades of football, but it was just because somebody had to pass the ball to the seven forwards. But when the game started to become more pragmatic and defensive -this was the time when football started to become more than just a game- this concept disappeared. The tendency turned around in the ’80s, owing to international football. The most famous teams with three defenders were Argentina in the Carlos Bilardo era and Piontek’s Denmark. Then clubs started to follow international teams, in Northern Europe Luis van Gaal’s Ajax were the style’s flagship, while on the southern parts of the continent Johann Cruyff acclimated it.
“If the opponent plays with strikers, while we use four defenders, they will have a two men advantage on the other parts of the pitch. This is such a luxury that we can’t afford.” -Johann Cruyff
This quote takes us to the starting point of this system -managers had to react to the spread of the well-known 4-4-2. Cruyff used a 3-4-3, and he explained the reason of his decision in a Dutch TV-programme:
But now back to our original topic, we still haven’t started talking about tactics. My plan is to explain the benefits of different formations and then I try to conclude.
This is the most wide-spread system now -just think of Juventus and Italy. The obvious reason is that it can be easily varied between 3-5-2 and 5-3-2. This flexibility shows us why teams love it.
In this phase teams try to use different conscious schemes to get the ball to the attacking half. During these moves they try to avoid meaningless long balls, so everything must be well-planned.
Man-to-man marking highlights the strengths of this shape.
As you can see it on the picture, during building up from deep three defenders are very useful, because they can give the team stability, and if the opponent wants to pressing actively they have to use three forwards. But this leads to the red team’s man advantage on the midfield which can be exploited with a precise long pass and a lateral lay-off. The white fullbacks could help the midfielders, but this would lead to a too dangerous situation at the back, with only two men defending against two strikers.
But if the opponent chooses a passive form of defending -this happens usually in a 4-4-2 – it opens up space immediately in front of a CB, in which he can penetrate due to the lack of presence of the white team in the halfspace.
“Everything is much easier when the first progression of the ball is clean.”
– Juan Manuel Lillo
But there is anther great advantage of the system: it uses a so called built-in Salida Lavolpiana.
La Salida Lavolpiana is a scheme in which the defensive midfielder -in Italy the regista- drops back between the central defenders. In our case we can call this variation La Salida Lavolpiana because these days the middle centre-back usually has a controller vein (e.g. Bonucci in Juventus Turin).
Of course these are just the basic build-up advantages, the more detailed ones depend on the coaches’ imagination. But the biggest benefits of the system are just coming now!
Playing against mid- and low block
And we finally arrived to the most interesting part, which is the greatest pro of this system. You might have guessed what is this: stretching the opponent’s defence. I will use 4-4-2 as the defensive example for a simple reason: this is the most wide-spread defensive formation in modern European football (I will indicate it if not).
The three central backs luckily ease breaking up the mid- and low blocks in a viewpoint. This means that the strong sided central back can easily drift to the flank, setting up the so called triple-width system. In our picture the left midfielder, the strong sided central midfielder and a central back create the pattern, while the defensive midfielder balances the shape and gives horizontal pass option.
The picture is the sequel of the one above. As we can see, using this pattern our team can easily penetrate against a 4-4-2 in the wing area. With the midfield drifting to the left side the opponent has to relocate its players too. With this the team can open up space for the far sided central back, whose vertical pass options multiply, so with a precise pass the red team can immediately penetrate. The other option is that the LCM uses a horizontal lay-off. His positioning in the left halfspace gives him the opportunity to pass easily to the flank, so the white player can’t mark him and cover the passing lane towards the LM at the same time.
But let’s see another version:
Here we can see again a left-sided overload, and its main goal is not to penetrate on the strong side, but to create space on the other flank for the free man. In our case the RM has space and time to control the ball so he can attack the unorganized defense of the opponent.To achieve their goal, the central structure is very important. This means that to destroy the opponent’s balance and drag to one side of the pitch they must have a large central presence between the defensive lines. In this situation the two strikers position themselves between the defenders and the midfielders and make them close the gap between each other. The result is a team that covers a too small part of the pitch, so the attacking team can now attempt a long pass to the far side.
But why is it practical to do this on the wing? I’d like to demonstrate it with a picture:
Photo: PEZE Thomas, analysport.fr
Because if the pass is attempted from the central zone, both fullbacks can drift to the flanks immediately, so the scheme wouldn’t be penetrative enough. But with a pass from the wing area, there is a much bigger space in front of the player on the far side.
But now move on and have a look at another option.
As it’s shown on the right side of the picture, the red team invited its opponent to press, and with that opened up space behind their defense. It’s important to mention that this pattern depends on the abilities of the defenders, as without a ‘fake Salida Lavolpiana’ the space creating is meaningless, as nobody will be able to pass the ball to the strikers. But if he can do that, the result is like Giaccherini’s goal against Belgium.
In a 3-5-2 -as everybody knows it- the flanks have an outstanding role. If they really want to exploit them with the high wingers, they need to give them the opportunity to have a clear take-on.
The pass from the LCB reaches the wingback, who could be easily closed down by two white players. But now the strong-sided striker and central midfielder have a big role: The LCM makes an underlap run and drags the white winger away, while the LF makes a run between the CBs so the strong-sided CB can’t help the fullback. After all, the LM gets the opportunity to make the take-on, which can be followed by a cross or a simple pass into the box.
I’d like to start the defending part with a closer look into pressing situations.
In this case the 3-5-2 faces a team using a 4-3-3. As we can see, the opponent’s passing options can be easily limited, they have only two possible solutions:
The first version is to risk a vertical pass to a central midfielder, but this -as we can see- is too hazardous. As the red team pressings in a locally compact shape, they can close the passing lanes fast around the ball carrier. The result is an immediate regain of the possession, which can be followed by a dangerous counter.
The other option is a simple horizontal pass, which is the best for the passer: he can’t be blamed by the coach as he didn’t do anything But the red team due to their five-man chain can create the same situation on this side with only a little shift. The meaningless long ball remains the only possible solution for the white team.
But to see, what can this system do against a 3-4-3, I show another example:
Credits: Judah Davies, spielverlagerung.com
This is a man-orientated mid-block, in which the strikers get a double guarding. The wingbacks and the forwards man-mark, the three backs’ only task is to guarantee security. This scheme was used by Massimilano Allegri’s Juventus, who use less zonal marking in the SerieA than in the CL.
But to see the low block too:
The 3-5-2/5-3-2 is one of the best defensive formation, because the five-man chain is able to cover the whole pitch horizontally and a defender is able to step out of it without destroying the balance in the back line. There are two possible solutions: The first one is that a central defender steps out and follows the striker between the lines. This pattern was used by Borussia Dortmund, where Mats Hummels man-marked Müller. You might think that this is an old style, and you are right. But why not to use it until it works?
But the shape can be formed in different ways, with a fullback stepping out of the defensive line. We have to mention two possibilities: having a man advantage or man-markig can both be real options. In the first case the RM mustn’t step out too far, as the goal is to regain possession, so the spaces behind him are less covered, and if he doesn’t succeed, this can be exploited by the opponent. But when the RM’s task is man-marking, the team just avoids a pass to the flank, so the four remaining men shifts and covers the pitch horizontally.
You might remember to Pep Guardiola’s last season in Barcelona. If yes, you will surely understand the working of the 3-4-3. If not, then concentrate. We can talk about two different approach, depending on the shape of the midfield: there is the flat midfield and the diamond. Both formations have great advantages, as in the first one the team has a huge presence on the flanks so they can penetrate there. In the second one the central zones play the biggest role.
As I’ve said before, the flat midfield concentrates on the flanks, and the key is that the team always must have a plan, not just hoping that the winger makes a run and crosses. The formation helps penetrating on the flanks, as it can be easily transformed into a 3-6-1 where there is always a supporting man in the halfpace.
But let’s see concrete examples to analyse the different formations’ advantages through them.
As I’ve said when talking about the 3-5-2, having schemes during every single build-up phase is very important. Here the three defenders give the opportunity to stretch the opponent’s pressing shape and generate vertical pass options.
As you can see on this picture, if the opponent doesn’t want to press so high, the RCB and LCB can drift wide and have a key role during the build-up. The wingbacks’ task is clear too, they have to drag the opponent’s wingers so they can’t help their teammates in the pressing. Of course not just this quite passive pressing is possible, so we should have a look at the ‘agressive version’, where the white team uses an active pressing.
In this case the white team starts its pressing extremely high, so the red team has to remember a few things:
- the goalie has to help the build-ups, because if all the possible pass options are covered he will get a pass
- central backs should drift wide so it’s easier to pass them the ball through the goalkeeper
- midfielders have to drop quite deep for the ball and try to stretch the opponent’s lines vertically
- as a consequence the central forward positions himself near to the half of the pitch, so the CBs must stand next to him
- the wingers can now attack the space that the CF created between the white team’s lines, key is the narrow positioning
- the white team’s fullback have to decide whether they follow the wingers or stay in their position and try to cover space – in the first scenario the wingbacks will have space run into
And to have a look into the situation that the diamond midfield provides, here’s an example of how can be the central emphasis exploited. The opponent must concentrate its forces to the midfield, so the wide CBs can penetrate with the ball again, they have a bigger freedom than in any other variations.
So as you can see the main goal is to create a free man, and the 3-4-3 is totally perfect for it.
Playing against mid- and low block
And we arrived to the most exciting part, which is not else than breaking up the defensive wall. According to the principles of the positional play teams don’t have to play always the same formation to be successful, but their playing style’s effect on the opponent has to be constant and they must follow the same rules and theories. So we should have a look at different formations which have strong connections with the 3-4-3.
The Positional Play (in Spanish: Juego de Posición) is a concept, which can be seen usually in Pep Guardiola's philosophy. It's based on the ball's position, the players movement depends on it. This picture made by Rene Maric analyst shows how Pep's training grounds look like: Players have to concentrate on different zones depending on the ball's zone. The basic of this concept is possession, that's why people think that this is the meaningless tiki-taka.
This formation was used by Carlo Ancelotti’s Juventus, using two trequartistas/tens behind the central forward. 3-4-3 can look like this when the team plays with two inverted wingers, like Messi and Neymar in Barcelona.
This is a version of the diamond midfield, where the attacking midfielders steps up next to the CF. We could see this system in Pep Guadiola’s Bayern Munich, where Müller’s task was to act as a fourth attacker.
This formation is not really relevant here as it eases the defending with its very wide midfield line, but we will talk about it later, so I found it important to mention.
It could be surprising, but it’s a real option when using a diamond midfield. In this case the defensive midfielder steps back next to the three-man chain, when the coach finds it necessary.
But now move on and have a closer look at the 3-4-3.
Let’s start with the flat midfield line.
We can see a right-sided overload here, in which the red team penetrates successfully through the white team’s 4-4-2. Although theoretically positioning three players on the same vertical line is not a good idea, but in our case that’s not mispositioning, but an option to break through the defensive wall. The drifting CF screens the CB and this gives opportunity to the RCM to receive between the lines.
The four-man midfield eases space creation on the far side using overloads. It’s a clear consequence mathematically and logically too, because if a team wants to feel safe, they must have a man advantage around the ball. So a horizontal shift form the attacking team can unbalance the defending one. To achieve this they don’t need more than six or seven players, so this gives the opportunity to make the far-sided wingback free. Of course there’s another solution: If the strikers close the passing lanes towards the far side, the CB can attempt a long ball or penetrate into the space that is opened in front of him.
The big picture shows the original situations, the small ones two possible solutions.
The defensive mechanism showed above is commonly used by Atlético de Madrid, in which the dropping movement of the strong-sided winger allows the fullback to be man-orientated. So they are prepared of the take-on, but they want to manipulate its direction and success. In both solutions underlap runs have a key role, which is used to make the winger man-orientated. In the first picture the team creates space for the take-on, and in the second one they try to benefit from the overload of the halfspace in the central zones while keeping their positional structure.
The picture shows now the diamond-shaped midfield, in which the defensive midfielder’s dropping movement gives the opportunity to the RCB to the vertical play, as he stabilizes the team and also drags the striker’s attention. so the strong-sided midfielders’ task will be to step up a little bit, which opens up space that can be exploited.
Another example of the defensive midfielder’s large role and how he can open up spaces with his movements. One of the strikers has to follow him if he doesn’t want the DM to get ball in the center. This opens up space for the circulation.
Now the DM stands in his original position, maintaining the superiority in the central zones. The whitw LM is now in an extremely difficult situation, as if he man-marks the RW, it opens up space in the halfspace. In this case the DM must drop to keep the balance. But if he stands in his position, the RW can easily get the ball and make a run. He can’t choose a perfect defending.
Here is an example of the dropping DM, now in a right-sided overload. The midfield shifts to the right, which opens up space for vertical passes.
We have finished the attacking part, so only the defending remains undiscussed.
I’d rather start the defending part with the pressing, as I did when talking about the 3-5-2. The 3-4-3 is a very practical shape in these situations as it has a large amount of players who can hunt the ball actively. The CMs main task is to move up on the pitch is necessary.
As you can see it on this picture, the two CMs are able to move vertically between the attacker and defensive lines. Wingers also have a flexible position as they can drop if the team uses zonal coverage.
Another option is the above mentioned 3-6-1.
Picture: Rene Maric, spielverlagerung.com
Here the wingers drop back into the midfield line to mark the opponent’s fullbacks, which gives an opportunity to the wingbacks to become interiors. With this they can maintain the central presence.
And how about a low block?
Here appears the five-man chain, but instead of a 5-3-2 it is a 5-4-1. The system’s biggest advantage is that the opponent’s wingers get extra guarding. This reduces their width, avoiding the horizontal circulation. What allows this is the horizontally compact midfield, as we have seen it in the Atlético-matches.
As you can see it in the picture, the 5-4-1 in the back line is a highly man-orientated system, which of course contains some disadvantages. E.g. it can be broken up with some dribbles, but it makes the defending between the lines easier. The halfspaces are the wingers’ territories, from where they can step up if necessary.
This defensive formation is also good at counters, because it has the necessary width, but there is a strong connection between the players. In our case the wide midfield allows it.
I hope that I’ve reached my goal and succeeded in explaining why are my favorites the ‘three at the back’ systems. These formations may be the next step in modern football’s evolution, because it has all the flexibility to succeed in top football. All you need is a great coach.