Tactical thinking: Three backs to rule them all?

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Three back systems are en vogue again. But after years of jamming the center by pulling from the front line, some managers are snatching a defender out of the back line in order to better control wide areas. Perhaps the most successful purveyor of three-back play is Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, whose Italy side re-introduced a dynamic version of the concept to the world stage during Euro 2016.

Though already creeping up through the German leagues and even deployed by Pep Guardiola on occasion, shapes with three central defenders are still in a nascent stage of re-emergence. That is to say, only a few managers regularly find success with it, and they are generally extremely talented tacticians.

Let’s start by looking at how Antonio Conte’s Chelsea have taken the English Premier League by storm, then examine whether a similar system would be effective for Philadelphia Union.

Conte’s 3-4-3 at Chelsea, from Spielverlagerung.

Conte stop them, only hope to contain them: Defense

Chelsea’s 3-4-3 is not Italy’s 3-4-3. In Euro 2016, Italy typically played with a lone holding midfielder who protected the back three, interacting with the defense through short passes to create time for the talented Juventus men to ping longer passes once a defense stepped up and stretched its shape. Two inside midfielders and two wingbacks shuttled constantly between attack and defense, with the entire team man-marking out of possession. This meant that if an opponent didn’t counterattack quickly, Italy could push wingbacks forward to close down the opposing fullbacks high up the pitch and dominate the wide areas, forcing teams to play through a strong, resilient center.

Conte now plays with two holding midfielders because a) he doesn’t have Juventus’ ultra-talented back line, b) it allows him to use a more attack-minded wingback on the right, and c) it frees up Eden Hazard to do special things. The key attributes of Chelsea’s holding midfielders are their mobility and intelligence. Both N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic cover a lot of ground and show an incredible ability to snuff out counterattacks with smart positioning high up the pitch (more on this later).

With the mids well-positioned, opposing teams struggle to play transition passes into good areas. This allows the right- and left-central defenders to feel safe stepping up to man-mark attackers even if it means stretching the defensive unit. If a team does manage to establish possession in Chelsea’s final third, the wingbacks drop into the back line to form a back five, the holding midfielders clog the center, and one of the inside attackers drops toward the middle to form something like a 5-2-1-2.

Conte stop them, only hope to contain them: Attack

That’s a lot of bodies back. So how do Chelsea attack? This is where it becomes even more important to have players with very specific skillsets on the pitch. The “positional play” theory that forms the backbone of Pep Guardiola’s philosophy argues that a team can gain superiority over an opponent in three ways: Numerical superiority (having more players around the ball), positional superiority (dominating the dangerous spaces), and qualitative superiority (having better/the right players). Chelsea’s success is built in no small way on the qualitative superiority they gain through David Luiz (I know!) and Eden Hazard.

Luiz is an enigmatic central defender. His speed, aerial prowess, and passing range are unique, but his errors under pressure have been a persistent drag on his game. By placing Luiz in the center of his back three, Conte keeps the entire game in front of the Brazilian, which simplifies what Luiz has to think about. Furthermore, it creates an extra few yards of space so Luiz isn’t immediately under pressure when he receives the ball. This alleviates many of the issues that have plagued the defender while simultaneously allowing him to express his phenomenal skill on the ball.

Eden Hazard also has what Liam Neeson would recognize as a unique set of skills. Perhaps only Alexis Sanchez and Coutinho can rival the Belgian’s ability to receive the ball facing away from goal and beat a man without presenting the ball to an opponent. Hazard’s agility means he can often use his body shape to twist away from a defender when receiving the ball facing backwards and under pressure. This means that while most players would need to recycle play when collecting a ball 35 yards from goal facing away, Hazard requires no support. He invokes Rambo and goes it alone, twisting free and immediately threatening a defense. Thanks to the diminutive Belgian attacker, Chelsea can pack their defense but still regularly get forward with only a few bodies positioned upfield.

Of course, the Blues are heavily assisted by Diego Costa’s absurd goalscoring form, as well.

Effective, but not common

Clearly, there is a lot to like about the 3-4-3. It can provide a stout defensive shape and let a team dominate the wide areas the way many modern teams attempt to control the center. Numerical overloads on the outside with the wingbacks, inside forwards, and mobile central midfielders pull defenses wide in the final third, meaning Chelsea have an easier route through the middle. There is still strength in the center defensively, and the sit-deep-and-counter systems that have found some success against the aggressive pressing of other top managers struggle against Chelsea’s active holding mids and central defense.

Yet few other teams regularly deploy a 3-4-3, and even fewer do it effectively. Why?

For starters, it’s weird! Nearly all central defenders develop in four-back systems, meaning their automatic, semi- and non-conscious cues are built on years of protecting specific channels. Suddenly there is another guy between the two center backs: The channels to cover are different, the protection around them is different, and the vertical space they are responsible for is far different. This means that any coach hoping to deploy a three-back system must not only be able to explain the new roles to his defense, but also drill those roles and responsibilities into the defenders so they react as if they grew up playing with three in the back. This is, needless to say, pretty tough. Many managers have aped the high-pressure concepts of the legendary Marcelo Bielsa, but few have found sustained, trophy-collecting success with the Argentine’s high-risk, high-reward 3-3-1-3 or its variants.

Recently, Everton attempted to match Chelsea with a 3-4-3 shape that let them man-mark all over the pitch. Predictably, locking Gareth Barry and Tom Cleverly onto Hazard and Pedro didn’t work out too well.

However, Tottenham matched Chelsea’s shape and broke the Blues 13-match winning streak by smothering Hazard with mobile destroyer Victor Wanyama. Tottenham then exposed a key weakness in Chelsea’s system by attacking the space left behind Hazard with Christian Eriksen (as Dele Alli pulled defenders away from that area). Tottenham then looked to challenge Chelsea’s shortest defender in the air, and succeeded. Notably, Tottenham is one of the few sides in all of Europe that can boast three mobile, ball-playing center backs. And manager Mauricio Pochettino took a page from Conte by switching his defenders to put long pass specialist Toby Alderweireld in the center of defense to give him more space and time to look around.

All of this is to say that the idea of a three-back system is intriguing, and even compelling. And it can meet many of the same needs as Philly’s current 4-2-3-1. Wingbacks provide width in attack, inside forwards can attack the center of a defense, and two holding midfielders protect the back line.

But like the high press system that both propelled Philly up the 2016 Eastern Conference table and was somewhat responsible for their late season freefall, it requires just the right combination of players and excellent coaching to succeed with regularity (those managers who selectively deploy three-back systems, like Andre Schubert (formerly) of Borussia Monchengladbach, tend to possess extremely intelligent, dynamic holding midfielders who can effectively drop into the back and create a four-back look in defense (without Granit Xhaka to play this role, Gladbach have sssstruggled)).

So should Philly look at a three-back system this year?

Likely no, though there are certain aspects of it that seem to fit the Union roster. First, placing Joshua Yaro as the central defender could allow the young technician additional space to spread play and help the Union bypass high pressure. However, Yaro’s height would be a liability, whereas blending technique and aerial dominance has been something of a requirement for the middle defender in these shapes.

Additionally, the Union would be relying heavily on Richie Marquez and either Ken Tribbett or a new, veteran signing to handle the complex responsibilities of the right- and left- center backs. These responsibilities include stepping forward to close down counters, carrying the ball toward midfield to disrupt defensive shapes, and selectively joining offensive sets to provide a short, quick outlet when a center midfielder moves wide to create triangles near the edge of the box. If you think learning those skills will be easy, just look at the US men’s national team’s recent three-back faceplant against Mexico that ended the Dos-A-Cero run.

Further upfield, Philly can run with Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll. Combining Creavalle’s mobility with Carroll’s positioning would be nice, but impossible. The Union also had major issues supporting wide areas with Creavalle and Carroll last season, and such support would be crucial for the success of a system built to dominate the areas of the pitch many modern systems treat as secondary. Additionally, Philly’s coaching staff has had issues imparting good transition-defense principles in the holding midfielders. Below, you can see the start of two transitions. First, Bedoya wins a header in his own box, but Felipe is shadowing the lane to Fabian Herbers and keeps play in the Union final third. Note also that Dax McCarty is positioned up the heart of the pitch, shadowing the lane to the Union striker. Thus, it is very difficult for Philly to make a clean, quick transition from defense to attack.

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Next, New Jersey attempts to transition out of their box against the Union. First, kudos to Fabian Herbers for executing a quick counterpress on Felipe after a turnover. However, the Brazilian is untroubled by this pressure because he has a (pause. breath.) unbelievably simple connection to Sacha Kljestan available up the center of the pitch. Wha??

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The most blame falls on Tranquillo Barnetta’s shoulders. Unlike a Guardiola side, the Union do not pull their fullbacks narrow to prevent dangerous transition starters, so the midfield must shadow lanes to the attackers; Barnetta is far from where he should be.

This is not a Barnetta problem, though. Throughout the latter half of the 2016 season, the Union consistently allowed teams to play easy balls into the feet of dangerous attackers in transition. Perhaps the most complete failure to control transitions came in Portland, where the Timbers found Fanendo Adi a simple and reliable outlet.

In Alejandro Bedoya and Roland Alberg, the Union have two players capable of playing as inside forwards, though neither possesses the skill set to create their own space or consistently turn a man with their back to goal. This means Philly would be almost entirely reliant on these players collecting the ball and connecting with a wide runner to generate forward momentum.

Finally, even with Jay Simpson added to the roster, the Union cannot yet say they boast a striker who can consistently occupy two central defenders with quick, diagonal movements and hold-up play.

In short, the Union’s roster as currently constructed, and as it could reasonably be expected to be constructed in March, is likely not amenable to an effective three-back system that is both defensively solid and offensively capable. At best, Philly could put out a high pressing team that leaves gaps in back while hoping to coordinate an effective closing-down in the opponent’s half. Sounds… eerily similar to the latter half of 2016.

There is one last issue that was noted in yesterday’s article and pointed at earlier in this one. Effective three-back systems that allow a team to punch above their weight (and that was both what drew attention to Conte’s Italy and what the Union need in order to compete with teams that, quite frankly, will be loaded with more talent) are managed by elite, or at the very least excellent managers. This is not a knock on Jim Curtin. But it is a clear-eyed recognition that the Union are led by a young coach who, while admiring the high pressure systems of those like Pochettino, comes from a MLS tradition that is far different. Even Jesse Marsch, a talented high press advocate, requires a certain type of player in midfield and up top to succeed. If Curtin wanted to implement a three-back shape, he would need both different players and the ability to impart on those players the automatic decision-making skills they need to play as an eleven-man machine. For all the praise Curtin should receive for his ability to make the postseason with a roster that was, subtracting Mo Edu and Vincent Nogueira, in no way more talented (except in goal, perhaps) than the clubs that missed the playoffs, the Union head man has yet to show he can grow players into a system such that they make each role their own.

Thus, three in the back should be far from the minds of Union fans in 2017 and likely the foreseeable future.

Next, we’ll look at whether a two-striker system could aid the Union’s chances in the upcoming season.


  1. Great post! What’s really unusual about Conte is he was essentially able to take the existing dsyfunctional Chelsea team and mold it into this well-drilled machine without having to go out to buy a bunch of new players. It will be interesting to see how many Prem teams try to do something similar to what Tottenham did.

    The three man backline is just so tough to pull off without the right pieces (and tons of tactical training ground work that many players hate) so I’m glad that you decided to put this issue to bed as far as it being an option for the Union.

    That said, I need to ask…could a healthy Edu be that effective middle centerback option if you had a manager that was comfortable with that formation?

    • “getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries…”
      Managed the same thing with Italian team at Euros which was supposed to be a flame out….save His Wall along the back which were very familiar with him…”no paranoia…no killing moths or boiling water on ants”
      Speaks to his control. Pragmatism. Speaks to his communication. “fond but not in love. charity standing orders.”
      Conte bought every member and associate with Chelsea from the administrators to the laundry team a bottle of fine wine with a personalized hand written note for Christmas— genius comes in many forms…”fitter. healthier and more productive.”
      Science of football….Art of coaching.
      Chelsea can “eat frozen winter (pig) shit…” I Am Citizen Insane.

    • The Union wanted to play as a 3-4-3 in attack (and 4-2-3-1 in D) last year with the outside backs pushing up and Edu dropping between the CBs. We even did it a little with Carroll in the beginning of the year. Not getting Edu back at all killed those plans though.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Both Curtin and Stewart have at different times this offseason mentioned a center back addition. Assuming that the comments are not coordinated, KGB-style disinformation for some purpose unknown, might the emphasis suggest interest in three backs?
    They do regularly switch to three in the back when a late game equalizer is needed. That has been the one time when they have consistently moved out of their1. 4-2-3-1
    Do you have any seen how Wijnaldum would fit into the role playing with three in the back?

    • I think a 3 -4 -3 for the union would look to spread centerbacks along the back line. Something like Tribbett, Yaro, Marquez. In front of them would be Rosenbury, Bedoya, Edu, Wjinaldum. Top three: Herbers, Simpson Pontius.

      I don’t see that or a 3-5-2 formation in Union’s future (any more than I see a 4-4-2). Curtin seems committed to live or die by the 4-2-3-1.

  3. Adam is right a 3-4-3 just doesn’t work for the Union and we shouldn’t try to fit it as it is only likely to result in disaster of any set organization this team might have. I don’t think many MLS teams could pull off a 3-4-3. Sure I know Toronto played with three in the back but it was set up more as 5 in the back since both their wingbacks were talented outside backs in Morrow and Beitashour. I also honestly think the person that would struggle the most in a 3 CB setup would be Marquez as he is not strong on the ball and organizationally I think he would be lost. While Tribbett struggled at times I think he often looked to a better distributor he often just didn’t think quick enough and play quick enough with the ball leading to turnovers. The only 3 on the Union I could see pulling it off as 3CBs and we would still need a coach to implement it would be Edu flanked by Yaro and Trusty and even that is a stretch.

  4. Forget the Union and 3 back system. The coaching is critical here. You need one who kicks you in the butt, then gives you a kiss on the cheek and says how much he loves you, true or not. Very difficult because ALL 11 must buy in to the system. The discipline and workrate is very high. (forget about Ilsinho here).The difference between Chelsea last year and this year is Konte. The difference between Leicester last year and this may be Konte. The Chelsea weakness is the Mitic/Cahill combo on the left side, which can be exposed by tying and beating up Hazzard. This forces konte to slide central, Which he is more comfortable anyway. A wonderful player, a small guy among giants , but so smart. Never holds the ball for more than a few seconds, Is happy to make a safe pass. Seems egoless. Will almost never drift out of the center area. Against Tottenham , he was forced to cover more side to side, with a slight drop in passing and tackling effectiveness. Lets see what happens when other teams mirror Chelsea, like Tottenham, and have a central striker that plays on the offside line, like Inzaghi, to make Luiz pay defensive attention first. The union is so far from 3-4-3- capability that lets not even think of it.

  5. I 1/2 hope that the Union trade Marquez to demonstrate to all the Marquez-haters out there that he was the glue that held the back line together (til poor roster management – losing Nogueira and counting all season on Edu’s return – resulted in a miserable 2nd half of the season defensively). And though he’s not great on the ball Marquez is a fearless tough and surprisingly fast defender. He was clearly the best defender on the team, and also helped organize the defense. If he doesn’t start – or is not with the team for any reason – I would expect the Union to surrender 60 or even 70 goals this year.

  6. The 3-4-3 would not work for the Union with its existing personnel, but one signing is all it would take to change that. Oh, and moving a healthy Mo Edu to Center Back. Hear me out. If you sign the “Controlling Midfielder” that Earnie and co. seem to be searching so strenuously for then you could pair him with Bedoya in front of Yaro, Marquez and Edu. Keegan and Fabihno are both suited to play wing back. This also allows both Roland and Ilsihno to play more narrowly and cut inside. This is how each likes to play and it balances the offensive fulcrum leaving Sapong free to operate centrally.
    Alberg Sapong Ilsinho
    Fabinho Player X Bedoya Keegan
    Edu Marquez Yaro

    This leaves out Pontius. I’m just playing devils advocate.

  7. Atomic Spartan says:

    Why on this green earth is anyone assuming Edu in any starting lineup? If he really is healed, he could be a pleasant midsummer surprise (and I’ll eat my metaphors) but it is sheer folly to base your vision, philosophy or personnel plan around him.

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