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Why 3-defender systems exploded in popularity across the soccer world this season

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The back three was once thought to be obsolete, but Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola sparked a revival. Other managers are figuring out why and implementing it themselves.

Chelsea v Stoke City - Premier League Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

After more than a decade in the doldrums, three-defender formations have come back into fashion in the current soccer landscape. Antonio Conte has used his brand of 3-4-3 to catapult Chelsea to the top of the Premier League, while Pep Guardiola has utilized some version of a defensive trio in each of his three managerial jobs to date. And much like the 4-2-3-1 took over the sport during the last decade, it feels like everyone’s getting in on the back three fad this season.

With soccer evolving to the point where defenders can be the fulcrum for launching attacking moves in addition to their traditional duties, the back three has made a comeback thanks to the numerical advantage it affords the deepest of deep-lying playmakers: the modern center-back.

Back-three formations (usually some variant of 3-5-2) became popular in the 1970s and ’80s for similar reasons. With most sides fielding two true strikers, it was popular to play three central defenders in order to create a "spare man" at the back. There would be two stoppers tasked with diligently marking the opposing forwards, and one sweeper, or libero, afforded the freedom to sit behind the defensive line as a form of insurance should a striker break beyond his marker.

A traditional 3-5-2 (red) against a 4-4-2 (blue) with the sweeper moving forward and the wingbacks providing width.

When in possession, the sweeper would, in theory, be free to collect the ball in deep positions and move forward into the midfield zone to instigate attacks. The freedom and responsibility of the role meant that the sweeper was often the most gifted player on the team. Legendary German World Cup winner Franz Beckenbauer is the most famous example of a master sweeper — and even used the same tactic as coach of Die Mannschaft — while Carlos Bilardo coached Argentina to a World Championship in 1986 with a back three. Rinus Michels’ Netherlands, with Ronald Koeman as their spare man, conquered Europe in a similar manner in 1988.

But toward the beginning of the new millennium, the back three had largely become a relic of a bygone era, rendered redundant by the proliferation of single-striker systems — namely 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. With only one center forward to mark, a team fielding three center-backs would effectively have two spare men in defense, while often getting outnumbered in midfield or down the flanks.

Highlighted here are the areas where a 3-4-3 (red) could be exploited by a 4-3-3 (blue).

Aside from the odd and often unsuccessful exception, back threes were mostly unseen in top-level European soccer — at least outside of Italy, where they occasionally remained in use — for the better part of a decade.

In the 2011-12 season, Antonio Conte brought three-defender systems back into the limelight when he used a 3-5-2 formation to guide Juventus, who had finished seventh in the previous campaign, to a Serie A title. While Serie A remained the lone top league where three-defender formations were still used regularly through the 2000s, a team hadn’t won the scudetto while primarily using a back three since Roma did it in 2001.

Juventus finished that campaign unbeaten in Serie A with the best defensive record in the league, and they have won the Italian championship every year since by staying true to the blueprint Conte laid down. With a pair of wingbacks equally effective in both the attacking and defensive phases of play, and with one of the front two adept at dropping deep to augment the already talent-rich midfield, the Bianconeri mitigated against many of the pitfalls that saw the back three previously rendered obsolete.

At Chelsea this season, Conte has elected to use the kind of 3-4-3 system that became a hallmark of his time in charge of the Italian national team, rather than the 3-5-2 of Juventus.

The Blues have found that with wingbacks Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso tasked with providing the width, Eden Hazard and Willian or Pedro are able to operate in more central zones than was the case in the 4-2-3-1 that José Mourinho had them set up in previously.

In turn, this means that central striker Diego Costa has benefited from greater support, with Hazard and Pedro acting more like inside-forwards than touchline-hugging wingers.

One of the main caveats with such a formation is that the two-man central midfield can become overrun and outworked by an opposition lining up with three midfielders. However, With N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic forming the duo at the heart of the team, Chelsea benefits from having two players much better at pressing and covering distance than average central midfielders.

Furthermore, the Blues capitalize on the impressive passing range of David Luiz by having him play direct balls high and wide to the wingbacks or forwards. In bypassing the centre of the field in this way, Kanté and Matic are less relied upon to be conduits for ball progression, and instead can concentrate on ensuring that their team maintains possession in these high, wide zones by pressing and nipping counter-attacks in the bud.

David Luiz (circled) as sweeper drops deep to collect the ball before playing a long pass towards the Chelsea forwards.

Another potential flaw of playing with a back three is that the space behind the wingbacks can be exploited when they push forward. This isn’t much of a problem with Alonso on the left. He has spent much of his career as a conventional fullback, and rarely negates his defensive duties. On the right side, where Moses has been converted from an attacker into a wingback, Conte deploys César Azpilicueta as a right center-back. The Spaniard is a fullback by trade, which means he is more comfortable defending in wide areas than his central defensive colleagues, making him the perfect candidate to provide cover behind Moses.

And if either wingback gets caught too far up the pitch, they usually have some cover from central midfield, too. Noted for his pace and unrelenting work rate during Leicester City’s title-winning run last season, Kanté has been just as good at Stamford Bridge, slowing down counter-attacks before opponents can break into the spaces Chelsea’s defenders have vacated. His partner Matic is impressive at stopping counters and providing cover for marauding wingbacks as well.

Pep Guardiola’s use of a back three varies greatly from Conte’s. In his final season at Barcelona, the Catalan tactician switched to a version of 3-4-3 which included a diamond-shaped midfield to accommodate new signing Cesc Fàbregas. This would ordinarily mean that the side lacks width, but with Sergio Busquets dropping into the backline alongside Carles Puyol, Dani Alves, and Éric Abidal were able to bomb forward from wide defensive positions like they were used to when playing in a back four. That edition of Barcelona also occasionally employed a lopsided back three, with two traditional center-backs, plus usual left-back Abidal.

During his three-year spell in charge of Bayern Munich, Guardiola occasionally used a similar system to allow Thomas Müller to operate in a free role behind the front three. When doing this, midfielder-cum-defender Javi Martínez would act as the team’s sweeper; the Basque’s assured passing and confidence on the ball meant he could move forward and combine with the midfield when required. Later in Guardiola’s Bayern tenure, Jérôme Boateng became adept at playing this role as well.

Since taking over at Manchester City this season, Guardiola appears to not fully trust the fullbacks at his disposal. As a way of circumnavigating the need to play the likes of Gaël Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta, and Bacary Sagna, the 45-year-old coach has used a flexible back-three-based system. This has allowed John Stones to take advantage of the additional time and space afforded to him to instigate attacks from deep, while the extremely offensive-minded Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané have lined up as wingbacks on a couple of occasions.

The passing lanes open up for John Stones when he moves forward with the ball as a sweeper.

Around Europe, several other teams are jumping on the back-three bandwagon. In Germany, Hoffenheim, under the tutelage of 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann, uses a defensive trio, while Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel has been willing to utilize an amorphous shape akin to 3-4-3. In France, Nice has stormed to the summit of Ligue 1 thanks to Lucien Favre’s propensity to switch between 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, and Lazio and Fiorentina have had success with 3-4-3 systems in Serie A. Sevilla’s Jorge Sampaoli is perhaps the most adventurous proponent of the back three, thanks to his idiosyncratic, Marcelo Bielsa-inspired system. Though the Spanish side’s formation is incredibly fluid and malleable, it is, at its core, a brand of 3-4-3. With their new setup, Sevilla have stormed to second in La Liga, ahead of Barcelona and Atlético Madrid through 17 rounds.

After being overlooked for so long, coaches are now realizing that, with a heavy emphasis on building attacking moves from the defensive third of the pitch, fielding three central defenders offers numerical superiority and a wider variety of passing lanes. Players who were once tasked with simply blocking and tackling are now expected to act as the deepest of deep-lying playmakers.

David Luiz is a prime example of this. Eyebrows were raised when Chelsea spent £30 million to re-sign the Brazilian from Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, with the overriding images of his first spell at Stamford Bridge being of high-profile errors.

But Luiz’s supreme ability on the ball has never been in question. In a back three, with Gary Cahill and Azpilicueta on either side of him, the former Benfica man has a smaller share of the defensive duties that have caught him out in the past. Meanwhile, he benefits from having the ability to carry the ball forward with his colleagues plugging the space he vacates.

David Luiz carries the ball into midfield with Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta covering behind.

Though Manchester City doesn’t field a back three every week, when they do, Stones benefits from similar freedoms to Luiz.

With many managers de-emphasizing the importance of possession, back three-based formations have taken on new relevance for their counter-attacking potential. With wingbacks able to quickly transition from defense to attack, and with skilled passers adept at instigating swift offensive moves making up the back line, formations such as 3-5-2 — and especially 3-4-3 — become attractive options.

In this respect, the fear of being overrun in midfield is also less of an issue for those willing to cede possession, absorb pressure, and attack rapidly into wide areas. The risk of playing with a numerical disadvantage in central zones — e.g. when up against a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 — is a calculated one that can be outweighed by the greater potential for defensive solidity and speed of attack.

Furthermore, the potential for any team playing a back three to be overloaded in wide areas is reduced by the fact that modern soccer players are much fitter than their counterparts of even 10 years ago, to say nothing of players from an even further bygone era. While many wingbacks would previously struggle to adequately undertake both their attacking and defensive duties for a full 90 minutes, players today, generally speaking, are much more capable of covering the kind of ground needed to get up and down the touchline for an entire game.

The general uptick in fitness levels has also seen a greater level of athleticism required of top-level professionals. Center-backs used to be powerful yet lumbering, but the modern defender is fast and agile; gone are the days when there would be a gaping speed disparity between forwards and their markers. Modern athletic central defenders are able to cover ground in a way that wasn’t previously possible, meaning they are much more adept at snuffing out danger and closing down any space that should appear in behind a roaming wingback.

That’s not to say that a back three formation is invulnerable to coming unstuck out wide — that risk will always be there to some extent. But the greater proliferation of specialist defensive midfielders also mitigates against this. Ever since Claude Makélélé’s transfer ushered in an era of disappointment for Real Madrid and one of great success for Chelsea back in 2003, almost every top side has sought to have a midfielder dedicated to defensive duties within their ranks. These specialists are masters of spotting danger and plugging gaps; in that regard, they are a wingback’s best friend.

Trends within soccer are often cyclical, and most innovations stem from ideas borrowed from the past; old solutions are adapted to answer new problems. The back three is no different. It went away in an era when, generally speaking, possession was king. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona — the tiki-taka masters — epitomized this line of thinking as they swept all before them with intricate, short-passing combinations and superior ball retention. But today, many coaches prefer to emphasize the need to press, build from the back, and counter effectively. For that, a back three can form a fantastic base.

Like every other tactical principle, back-three systems have their flaws. But, in the current landscape, with defenders as much a part of a team’s offense as its strikers, the back three has found a new lease on life.