In the Premier League, playing three defender at the back has become a norm recently. Antonio Conte became successful using the system at Chelsea last season. Arsene Wenger, who is very fond of a four-man defence, used this system during the end of last season. Even Jose Mourinho, who never liked three at the back, has used similar tactics in pre-season with Manchester United.
3 Defender Tactics in Football | EPL Context
The essential three man defence can take two forms, one used by sides such as West Germany in their World Cup win of 1990 or Chelsea last season, sees two stoppers flanked by a defender with licence to carry the ball out, make long sweeping passes, and generally act as a catalyst for attacking as much as a spare man at the back. Klaus Augenthaler played the sweeper or libero role for West Germany and David Luiz for Chelsea. Other sides, such as Argentina’s 1986 World Cup winning side under Carlos Bilardo, used three traditional stoppers, with limited scope to attack, focussing instead on marking attacking players out of the game and sending the ball either to a deep-lying playmaker in midfield or pumping it out wide to wing-backs or wide-midfielders.
This system is often employed when sides create two blocks within the team, a defensive seven and an attacking three being the most common; the job of the centre-backs and midfield is to create a screen and to win the ball back from the opposition and transition it rapidly to the front three, who responsibility it is to create and finish, supported sometimes from wide by two of the defensive block. Ahead of a back three, teams can play wing-backs or wide midfielders but, in the modern game with players generally athletic enough to shuttle up and down a flank, the distinction is less defined than in previous eras.
Due to the demands on a midfield axis of two in a 3-4-3, these players tend to be deeper-lying, destructive or creating with long passes rather than pushing up as an 8 would do; examples of this are N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic for Chelsea last season, or Xabi Alonso and Didi Hamann in the second half of Liverpool’s 2004/05 Champions League win. This prevents too much of a lop-sided central midfield, which could be passed through with ease if both wide players are forward in attack, supported by an 8.
In this way, the central area of the field is congested, forcing teams to attack a 3-4-3 from wide, creating a defensive solidity through the spine of the team which is hard to pass through. Against a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, it is easy to see how a 3-4-3 or even a 3-5-2 matches up to make it hard to pass through a side. It’s also worth noting that some sides, such as Mauricio Pocchetino’s Spurs play a four man defence, but one that sees full-backs pushing so high up, and a central defensive midfielder dropping deep to cover, in a way that can resemble a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1; Pocchetino used Victor Wanyama in this role at Southampton too, and has used him or Eric Dier at Spurs.
While not a true centre-back in this system, the dropping midfielder plays like a libero who has not started between the two stoppers, and covers when the full-back push high, but also has the versatility to play further forwards. In attack, a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 or 1-2 tend to rely on the rotation and movement of the front players, with a striker or strikers who can drop off or move into channels, and players who like to occupy the half-space before drifting in. Pedro and Eden Hazard were supreme examples of that last season, and both had the ability, working off Diego Costa, to create overloads in central areas against two centre-backs.
With the wide players, even as wing-backs, pushed up on the opposition fullbacks, again the 3-4-3 and its variants create overloads in the opposition’s defensive third, requiring them the pull midfielders back to assist. The 3-4-3 and its variants is not a perfect system, of course. It can be unsettled by matching up, either as a 3-4-3 or 5-3-2, and effective counter-pressing by a 4-2-3-1 could leave the three defenders exposed, especially if the ball is turned over in the wide spaces. But with the right personnel and a coach who understands the system, there is much to be said for playing three at the back and it’s likely that the reason it has taken time for sides to change and adapt is simply unfamiliarity; tactical changes tend to ebb and flow and systems are in fashion and then not.
While three at the back is in vogue now, it’s only a matter of time before someone works out the best way to counter it, and then everything will change again. That’s the beauty of tactics.