Over the past decade the 3-man defence has led the life of an endangered species, slowly dying out. The decline has had much to do with the increase in popularity of single point attacks and correlates well with fewer and fewer 2 man attacks. When I began following football at a tactical level the 4-4-2 was the formation of choice and anything other than this was seen as some exotic monster from the continent.
“What are these ‘wing backs’ and ‘trequartistas’?” screamed the plebs “Give us our long ball up to the front man, flick it on, knock it in, repeat! Give it to us!” Perhaps this is a slight over reaction but the subtlety of playing three at the back is being lost as it erodes away, leaving us with nothing more than a memory of Germany triumphing at Italia ‘90 with the 3-5-2 and Euro ‘96 with the 3-4-1-2.
Last week in Serie A 4 teams played with 3 at the back. It has not quite had it’s last showing but it is certainly not favoured. Even in it’s heyday there were a number of teams who used a centre back in midfield as their defensive midfielder and ask him to drop into a back four when the opposition had the ball in their half. Roy Hodgson explains how England used this sort of system at Euro ‘96 here.
So when is a good time to play an extra centre back or a libero? The simple answer is against any 2 pronged attack. Two of your centre backs, usually the left and right centre back, take a man each and man-mark him. The libero will play in between making sure to mop up after the first challenge. The first challenge may not be won by your centre back but your libero will be expected to do his best to win the second ball.
This is the most popular use of a three man defence, it manifests itself under a number of different guises such as the 3-4-1-2. This is a good system to use against a team playing 4-4-2 with 2 quick strikers and 2 skilful central midfielders who are bossing the midfield. This formation will give you lots of width and allow you to outnumber your opponents in the middle of the pitch. You can then take the bull by its horns and play simple passes around them to try and create scoring chances.
When playing against a team who are looking to park the bus and play 8 very defensive players and 2 fast strikers, a team that will look to win the ball and play direct passes up to their 2 front men to try and score on the counter, the 3-4-3 is an good choice of formation. You can look after the 2 strikers with cover at the back but also have as many players as possible attacking the opposition goal.
The front 3 can move wide to try and stretch the opposition back line or cut inside to allow the right and left midfielders to overlap and get in behind the opposing team. Your central striker will have to be very versatile, looking to drop off when the wingers cut in but also good in the air when they push wide to put in cross.
This formation is very attacking and requires all of the players on your team to be very skilful, comfortable on the ball so they don’t panic when under pressure. There isn’t as much cover for mistakes in attacking areas as the team is stretched across the whole pitch.
This can also be seen as a 3-6-1 if the two wide players are of the attacking 3 are placed more centrally creating a sort of 3-4-2-1. Australia used this formation at the 2006 World Cup but it is has not had much of an airing following their progression to the 2nd round.
1-4-3-2 ( 5-3-2 with sweeper)
The rarest incarnation of the 3 man defence, it is also the most defensively minded. All of the width in this formation has to come from the full backs, if you have defensive full backs it won’t work. At the same time if your full backs are too attack minded from the Dani Alves school of attack you will leave yourself open to being countered with balls into the channels. This formation can work well when you are under lots of pressure.
How to beat a 3 man defence
The best way to beat such a defence is to avoid playing 2 strikers, playing 1 spearhead with very wide wingers or 3 strikers who are able to push wide and pull the centre backs out of place is most effective.
The most recent Rome derby illustrated both the best and worst ways to play against three central defenders. In the first half Rome played with 3 strikers but all of them very centrally placed, the centre backs dealt with this superbly. At half time Roma changed to a wider 4-2-3-1 and pulled Lazio out of position. They scored 2 goals to come from behind and win comfortably.