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

Comments (8)
Comment by ooh aah 2012-02-06 16:54:41

The main problem with 352 is the ease with which good wingers can exploit the space between the central defenders and the wing backs. In England 352 failed to oust the traditional 442 for precisely this reason - fast, counter attacking sides could always switch play quickly and take advantage of that space (and 442 in the 90's was hardly sophisticated tactically). In order to play the formation you need central defenders who are genuinely comfortable as full backs, and not that many teams have central defenders who are that versatile. I certainly wouldn't consider playing 352 against a Man Utd front two of Rooney and Hernandez, when you consider Valencia and Nani will also be on the wing.

Maybe the slower, more patient buildup in Italy means that this weakness is exploited less often, and so therefore the advantages of playing the 352 system are greater, hence it's re-emergence there.

Comment by jameswba 2012-02-06 17:12:56

It (3-5-2) was originally thought to strengthen teams in the central midfield area, where it definitely had an advantage over 4-4-2, and in central defence, where it might compensate for a lack of pace in the back line and enabled a ball-playing centre-back/sweeper to come out and make the play. But it demands an awful lot of the wing-backs and, yes, against teams adept at quickly switching play wide, it's vulnerable.

The author mentions Liverpool v Stoke last season but omits this season's equivalent at Anfield when, I gather, Pulis altered his tactics on seeing Liverpool's team-sheet and realising they were going to play three at the back again. He switched to one up-front, the second striker dropping deeper, and Liverpool's midfield advantage was neutralised.

Good to see it making a comeback, though, if only for variety's sake.

Comment by Coral 2012-02-06 17:38:33

Have to echo that comment about the demands on a wing back. When I was asked to play in that position it would normally take a couple of days to recover from it.

Comment by Outside Agent 2012-02-06 23:06:41

When I think of the popularity of three at the back in the early part of the last decade, I think of Glenn Hoddle's preferred defensive line for Spurs - that of Gary Doherty, Dean Richards and Ben Thatcher. And I shudder.

Comment by phnompenhandy 2012-02-07 02:40:09

Man City's recent experiment was severely undermined by the limitations of Savic. I'd like to see them reuse the formation now Kompany is back. I think Lescott and Richards will deal with the left and right flanks perfectly well.

Comment by jameswba 2012-02-07 06:02:34

WBA have had periods of doing less badly than usual with 3-5-2. Going back as far as 90/91, between the Woking defeat and the appointment of Barmy Bobby Gould, Stuart Pearson had them playing quite competently with it. It got round the problems of Graham Roberts' slowness and the fact that no two of the central midfielders were good enough to control things in a 4-4-2.

In 95/96, Alan Buckley signed Richard Sneekes, realised that he was never going to do any defending, and changed the team's set-up to 3-5-2 to accommodate him. Sneekes didn't stop scoring and the run-in to the end of the season was full of promise. The less said about 96/97 the better, mind...

Gary Megson also used 3-5-2 for much of the 2001/2002 promotion season and 2002/2003. His version, unsurprisingly, often meant three scrappers in central midfield. Not that many complained, at least not in 2001/2002.

Comment by t.j.vickerman 2012-02-07 07:08:29

Manchester United have been experimenting without a left-back for most of this season and seem to have done pretty well.

I'll get me coat...

Comment by danielmak 2012-02-07 22:48:18

Valery Gazzaev is interviewed in Champions maybe 3-4 years ago. I can't remember the issue number but was the issue with the special on the role of the number 10. He talks in the interview about preferring to adjust his defense based on the number of strikers used by the opponent. He believes that a good defender should be able to mark man for man. I don't know if Gazzaev used a three-man defense when CSKA won the UEFA Cup in 2005, and clearly his discussion of tactics post-dates many of the examples listed in previous comments about English sides, but Gazzaev seemed to be ahead of the curve in terms of recent moves among European sides.

In response to Ooh aah's comment, I would say that EPL is still faster than Serie A but often during those super high energy games, the play is very very sloppy. Serie A, though, is not the mid-90s play for a 1-0 Serie A that seems to be reflected when people talk about a "typical" Italian style of play. I would say that Serie A seems to be pretty quick these days, but more measured than the sloppiness of most EPL sides.

Related articles

Football 2.0: How the world’s best play the modern game by Grant Wahl
BackPage, £12.99Reviewed by Charles MorrisFrom WSC 380, November 2018Buy the book Roberto Martínez is watching television at home...
Forget fancy passing – the long-ball game can be a thrilling tactic
Embed from Getty Images // Yes, short passing is a pure way to play football. But hoofing the ball upfield can be an effective way to get fans on...
The Mixer by Michael Cox
Harper Collins, £16.99Reviewed by Paul ReesFrom WSC 366, August 2017Buy the book There’s no getting around it, that is an extremely...

More... tactics