The teams in the Premier League who featured a 3 man defense this season – Watford, Everton, Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester City , West Ham United, Hull City, Leicester City –and the list is growing.
The wave is definitely here but we have seen flirtings with the three man defence in the Premier League before. Remember Roberto Martinez’s relegation addicted Wigan with Boyce and Beausejoir patrolling the wings?
One might also recall Brendan Rodgers also tinkering with a 3-4-3 formation at the start of the 2013 campaign given injuries to Coutinho and Glen Johnson. Liverpool’s lineup on September 1, 2013:
Why has the 3 man defense not been more popular in the past?
Quite simply tradition.
The English game has historically thrived on “getting down the wing and getting balls into the strikers”. This is part of the reason possession based/ball playing teams such as Arsenal receive heavy ridicule from English pundits. Coincidentally, this also rests at a large part of the reason why the English national team suffers in international tournaments but we digress.
The love affair with wingers from John Barnes to David Beckham was also a big part why the 4-4-2 has long been the prototypical formation in the Premier League era.
So why the shift?
Strategic advantage in today’s football is all about the press and limiting time on the ball for the opponent. Looking at the diagram above one can see how the formation easily makes 5 in midfield with one of the front 3 (in above example Moses) dropping central where as the 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 in opposition will leave less numbers in the middle of the park.
Added to numerical superiority, the flexibility of the formation is the real payoff. Out of possession there are 7 or even 8 defenders including the “midfield” which then switches to potentially 5 or 6 attackers when in possession if the wingbacks and one of the central midfielders are factored.
This flexibility then leads to another spinoff advantage being the unpredictability of the attack. Taking Chelsea for example, in one attack Alonso can pop up in the penalty area, the next Moses or even Matic with the comfort of protection offered by 3 wide berthed centrebacks and a rock solid central midfielder(Kante) – the significance there being “a back four” is always in place no matter what occurs further up the pitch. This can not be said for most other formations.
This creates the “balance” we hear Conte and Matarazzi speaking about often.
So why hasn’t everyone adopted the formation if it’s so perfect?
Well because it’s not.
To play this system a heavy responsibility, almost as outsized as carrying the keys to the nuclear codes, is burdened on the full(wing) backs. As Marcos Alonso recently bemoaned:
“It’s a hard position to play. You have to run a lot more and when you get the ball you are not as fresh as when you are four at the back.“
The wing back has to make 5 at the back when under pressure from the opponent then still get up the pitch to support the attack and provide width given the central positions of the attackers ahead. Fitness is therefore a key question which makes one understand why Nathan Ake was recalled to Chelsea with rumours of an Alonso sore groin. Beyond fitness, the use of wing backs offers an interesting conundrum for a coach. Needing players in that position with offensive ability who can be halfway useful on the wing usually leads to a player (we see you Victor Moses) who is not as adept at defending – either in one v one situations or with regard to positional sense.
The other problem is the wide defenders in the back 3 will find themselves operating more often than accustomed in the wider areas the full back has vacated and accordingly the trend is to use a smaller more mobile defenders in those positions.
To illustrate the issue let’s look at how Chelsea conceded twice in the exact same fashion in their most recent loss at Spurs.
The weakness as we identified is clear – The wider defenders, in this case Cesar Azpillicueta and Victor Moses , were isolated and placed in an uncomfortable position. Moses not being a natural defender failed to track Alli’s run gifting an open header. That said these breakdowns have been few and far between this season.
So ultimately is it just a fad?
Given the lack of quality wingers developed these days more coaches are converting wingers to full backs (e.g Antiono Valencia, Jeffrey Sclupp , Seamus Coleman) and personnel will always dictate formation. Added to this acknowledging a recent obsession with the dominance of midfield, the numbers game is too strong to ignore the 3 man defense going forward. This was borne out by Spurs, Man City and Leicester shifting to a 3-5-2 when they faced Chelsea.
Our diagnosis is it’s here to stay.