Why is 3 at the back starting to become so prevalent in soccer?
It wasn’t too long ago that the 4-2-3-1 formation dominated soccer tactics, at one point every team in the French top division were playing it. I played the 4-2-3-1 for years with my team, experimenting with the formations flexibility and defensive soundness. When you look around soccer today, you will still see that the 4-2-3-1 formation is still very popular and relevant. The other major formation that has been widely popular over the last 10+ years is the 4-3-3. FC Barcelona brought the major attention to the 4-3-3, as they showcased it at all levels of their club, from the academy right up to the first team. Of course Barcelona didn’t invent the 4-3-3, all these formations are not totally new, they have been tweaked, regurgitated and adjusted to fit modern soccer. The original 4-3-3 was introduced and used in the 1974 World Cup by Rinus Michels with the Dutch squad. It featured the idea of “Total Football” which involved players interchanging positions on attack, being able to penetrate using the pass or the dribble and using an aggressive defensive pressing game to win the ball back. Does that game plan sound familiar? It is no coincidence that the Barcelona’s playing philosophy has been heavily shaped by Dutch coaches over the years. Look back in history and you will see that the flat back four was introduced to the world during the 1958 World Cup by the Brazilians. They wanted a way to stop the oppositions wingers from getting the ball too easily when the play was switched quickly. The solution they came up with was to add another defender in the back, so they could cover the wide areas quicker, stopping the opponent’s wingers from exploiting the wide spaces. The Brazilians actually played a hybrid 4-2-4, with their wing backs getting forward on attack. The more you analyze tactics the more you can trace the roots of what we see in today’s modern game. Pep Guardiola played 2 in the back essentially against Roma in the Champions League, but if you look back to 1878 in the Welsh Cup Final, Wrexham brought about the first emergence of 2 in the back. There is no doubt that soccer is a fluid ever changing game, influenced by a myriad of factors. From a coaching perspective this is what makes the game so fascinating, it literally is a chess match. The best coaches are searching and looking for what is next, even if that means digging up ideas from the past and reconfiguring them. If you ask me what is the next big trend in soccer formations, the answer is 3 at the back.
I am not a huge formation guy; I believe in a team shape that can morph into many different shapes, while still keeping the team in balance. But the reality is what teams have started leaning towards playing 3 at the back. Chelsea are playing a 3-4-3, Arsenal who have not changed anything tactically for years have just played a 3-5-2, Juventus have had huge success with the 3-5-2, Manchester City play numerous formations and overall 17 English Premier League teams have implemented 3 at the back over the course of the 2016-2017 season. Without a doubt there is a shift in tactics and a trend has started, much like the 4-2-3-1 over the last 10+ years. The question is why? Part of the answer could be that coaches are ready to make a commitment to get forward, press, score goals and entertain the fans. I remember watching the Italian League through-out the early 1990’s and there was literally no risk taking, every team dropped deep and defended, the games would not get interesting unless there was a goal, which at some point would force the other team to come out and take a risk. Another reason teams may be shifting to 3 at the back is, they want to control the midfield with five players, helping dominate possession. By combining five in the midfield with two strikers up top, it creates an attack with numbers and options. In a 4-2-3-1, one of the problems is the isolation of the striker without any immediate support. The 4-4-2 formation offers support with two strikers but leaves a numerical disadvantage in the center of the midfield. However, no matter what formation, it is fact that every formation has its strengths and weaknesses, if you give something here it takes something from there. I switched to 3 at the back about two years ago because I thought it served my team better, with our high tempo pressing style. We keep one of the strikers high at all times, located in between the opponent’s two center backs when we press, so once the ball is won we immediately have an option to penetrate and score, if that option is closed, we keep possession. Another strength of the 3-5-2 is that the three center backs are just like having two CB’s and a DCM in a four back system, this positions the wingers naturally higher up the field, the wingers take the role of what would be aggressively positioned wingbacks in a 4 back formation. I can analyze the 3-5-2 and compare it to other formations, but to keep things simple, I personally believe it is the positioning of the wingers high up the field that helps makes this formation so effective. This brings us to the current trend of 3 at the back. Each formation using 3 at the back has its strengths and weaknesses, but for now more coaches are seeing the advantages of 3 at the back compared to the disadvantages.