6 February ~ Playing three central defenders has long been consigned to English football's tactical dustbin. Even during the 1980s and 1990s, when much of Europe embraced the tactic, England never really took to it. Some Premier League teams are now following the lead of several big European clubs in reviving the system in new and interesting ways. Despite its history and association with grand failure on the international stage, the three-man defence is on its way back. The last time England played a 3-5-2 they suffered a disastrous 2-0 defeat to Croatia in Zagreb and failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Steve McClaren’s tactical shift backfired comically as Croatia ran out winners off the back of Gary Neville’s ridiculous own goal.
Playing three central defenders was rendered redundant throughout Europe by the rise of 4-2-3-1 and the return of 4-3-3. Against these systems, the tactic is often ineffective as the backline marks a single striker inefficiently. The wider defenders can be overstretched if they try to match up with the attacking team’s wingers, while pulling the wing-backs into a deeper position reduces a team’s attacking potency. That nobody even mentioned a back three when discussing how Arsenal could cope with an injury crisis that robbed them of all their recognised full-backs shows just how far removed it is from mainstream thought here.
Perhaps it is time to reconsider the tactic. Half the teams in Serie A play with a three-man defensive base. The pioneers of this rebirth were Napoli and Udinese, who both secured Champions League places last season. Their success has come in response to the extensive use of the diamond midfield in Italy in recent years. The strikers are marked by the back three, while athletic wing-backs exploit the space available out wide.
In Spain, Barcelona morph from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, with Sergio Busquets flitting from midfield to defence as the full-backs push on to create attacking options. This latest evolution of their brand of total football was most effective in August’s 5-0 demolition of Villarreal.
At international level, Germany experimented with a formation similar to that used by Napoli in a friendly against Ukraine last year, and Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile electrified many at the last World Cup using an attacking, high energy 3-3-1-3.
The fact that Kenny Dalglish and Roberto Mancini have been among the first to reintroduce the tactic to the Premier League should come as no surprise. Mancini is obviously familiar with the latest tactical developments in Serie A, while Dalglish achieved much of his early managerial success during the golden age of 3-5-2.
Mancini’s Manchester City used a 3-4-2-1 at Anfield in the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final. The left-footed Joleon Lescott and the right-footed Micah Richards played either side of Stefan Savic, while Pablo Zabaleta and Alexander Kolarov offered the athleticism required of modern wing-backs. Samir Nasri and David Silva added fluidity, playing off Edin Dzeko in a formation that made absolute sense for a squad depleted by injuries and absentees.
Dalglish’s Liverpool first deployed three central defenders in the League against Stoke last season. The tactic helped neutralise the Potters’ front two and left an extra man free to sweep up loose long balls. Liverpool won 2-0 and they have continued to use the tactic intermittently since.
Traditionally, the three-man defence has been used best against an opposing front two. More than half of Premier League teams still deploy strike pairings on a regular basis. Whether facing a subtle, technical partnership like Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez or an altogether more rugged partnership like Grant Holt and Steve Morison, outnumbering the strikers and freeing up the full-backs makes tactical sense. The globalisation of ideas means it is surely inevitable that the back three will become a more common sight in the Premier League. Mark Elliott