The back three: back in style

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Michael Cox, editor of, on how a discredited system is coming back into fashion...

There hasn’t been a great amount of tactical variety in European football recently. With two-striker systems largely abandoned in favour of formations featuring one central striker supported by two wingers, top-level football in the past half-decade has largely consisted of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3.

There have been variations within these systems, of course. We’ve seen hints of teams using false nines and inverted wingers (playing on the opposite side to which their foot would generally dictate) have recently become popular. But these have all been developments in attack – we’ve seen nothing of interest in defence, bar the further rise of attacking full-backs.

European football is still fixated with the four-man defence. The three-man defence effectively died out because it only worked against two-man strikeforces. When teams played one striker supported by two wingers, the three-man defence had no natural solution – either the two outside centre-backs would be drawn out of position to the flanks, or the wing-backs would be forced to stay at home, meaning a 5 v 3, and a shortfall somewhere else on the pitch.

The World Cup, though, will see plenty of three-man defences – mainly from non-European sides that have evolved differently in tactical terms – meaning it will be a refreshing change from simple 4-2-3-1 v 4-3-3 battles we’ve become used to.

The three types of three
These three-man defences can broadly be broken down into three groups. Firstly, we have sides that consistently play a three-man defence in the traditional fashion: three solid centre-backs, supported when not in possession by two wing-backs.

New Zealand are a good example of this, expected to field a 3-4-3 system with Blackburn’s Ryan Nelsen at the heart of it. North Korea play a more defensive version, as the wing-backs rarely look to get forward and one defensive midfielder sits solidly ahead of the three centre-backs, forming what amounts to a 3-3-2-2 system.

Secondly, we have teams that specifically change their defence according to how many strikers they are facing. Chile have attracted a lot of attention in South America with their exciting 3-3-1-3 shape, but Marcelo Bielsa has encountered the traditional problems when facing one- or three-man attacks: the defenders get dragged out of position.

In those circumstances, Bielsa instead moves the wing-backs backwards and replaces a central defender with a central midfielder, creating a 4-2-1-3 instead. The three forwards and playmaker never change – the central striker plays a traditional role and the outside forwards press the opposition full-backs – but Bielsa insists on having one ‘spare’ defender: three against two, or four against three, but never three against three (or one).

Bielsa: "Quick! They've changed shape!"

This is very similar to the approach favoured by Greece’s Otto Rehhagel -  he too insists on having an extra defender, as he did in Euro 2004. With European sides predominantly using three-man attacks, however, Rehhagel works the other way around – he prefers 4-3-3, and then switches to 3-4-3 when necessary.

Finally, we have the teams that shift from one system to another within games. Mexico are a good example of this – they play two centre-backs and two players comfortable at both full-back and wing-back, with Rafael Marquez either playing as a centre-back in 3-4-3, or a defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3, with the wing-backs shuttling up and down as necessary.

Like the above teams, they always maintain three forwards, but the key to Mexico’s ability to shift within games is Marquez – equally comfortable in central defence or central midfield.

Brazil have also displayed tendencies to shift between the two systems. They start with a four-man defence, but Gilberto Silva can drop into the backline to create a three – allowing Maicon and Michel Bastos to storm up the flanks and create something approaching a 3-3-1-3 system.

Are these teams tactically backward, are they one step ahead of the European sides, or are they merely displaying strategy formed in a different footballing culture? New Zealand and North Korea will probably find themselves embarrassed, but Chile and Mexico are genuinely exciting prospects. Arrigo Sacchi claims that there has been nothing new in footballing tactics in the past 20 years, and a mini-revolution at this tournament would certainly be welcome.

It has been argued that Greece won Euro 2004 because they deployed strict man-marking, a problem which the rest of the European sides had forgotten how to solve. If they’ve also forgotten how to solve the problem of a three-man defence, we could be in for some shocks.

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