The Modern “3 At The Back” Analysis
Looking primarily at the Premier League this season
Not bad as far as Creative Commons images go, even if it is 2014.
The 3-back phenomenon is being adopted faster than the short back & sides in the Premier League. Adopted by Thomas Tuchel for Chelsea, who had tried it with Paris Saint-Germain, it just seemed to reappear among clubs of any league position.
The most common application of 3 at the back is 343, sacrificing numbers in the middle in favour of width. Therefore, the two in the middle must be industrious, all-rounders that have no problem being alert for 90 minutes. Chelsea’s two against Liverpool (2nd February 2022) featured Kovacic and Kante.
The attack is less fixed structure-wise, but generally with wingers have it in them to become inside forwards in possession, as the wing-backs get up the pitch and the overload begins. This is an easier transition for most wingers now, with 433s and 4231s dominating top-flight football, and wingers are used to being a goal threat. This is opposed to the 442 days when wingers primary mastered the crossing and take-on aspect of their game a little bit more. Think Beckham and Giggs for Manchester United in 1999.
That role just mentioned is reserved for the wing-backs now (often considered midfielders). However, their need to be adept at taking players on is slightly less important. This is because the full-backs defending them are usually pulled in towards the box by the forwards, and the space becomes either free or defended by their midfielder who may be less adept at this defensive side of their game.
However, sometimes they find themselves in inverted positions depending on the match up (more on that later).
When some teams adapted to this playstyle, many didn't have the first team personnel to change up seamlessly, and therefore full-backs who are strong defensively convert as one of the wider centre backs. Perhaps this has defined the role? This is because what traditionally set out as a flat back three, tends to morph into a 1–2 in possession, especially in teams who have the lion’s share of it.
Usually, the middle of the three will be the most skilled defender, or with the most experience. This is partly so they can be involved more often when defending an attack, but also because it requires less pace to play there. The wide centre backs now play in positions not far off from the traditional full-back ‘supporting’ the attack with safe passing options and drawing out a reluctant press.
Of course, it is the midfield’s job to be alert to the break should such an overload backfire. To slow the counter by staying with the runner, or by recognising a losing battle and taking a yellow. However, in a possession heavy phase of play, most teams will have very few forward to rebel with a real counter, and it dies most times without as much risk as you might predict.
Chelsea and Wolverhampton
Aside from Manchester City, a whole other conversation, these two sides have conceded the least goals this season. Both are long term adopters of the three at the back system.
As a Liverpool supporter, I was distraught at how difficult Wolves were to break down when we met them. With 42% possession played in their defensive third, many fans were arrogant enough to simply expect a chink to appear in their armour. What this game showed, was how solid this set-up can be when totally organised.
Some might call it a work of art. Many know that a teams formation usually defines its structure out of possession, which is where symmetry is most important. The attacker’s eye will look for obvious openings and find none, at this point match adrenaline dwindles and so does creativity. Liverpool had 17 shots that game, only 5 made it on target, with the other either blocked, shut down or speculative. In a game too when Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson were far from off the pace with the dangerous balls in.
The image above is a touch map and shows absolute discipline and no area for exploitation. Max Kilman, Romain Saiss and captain Conor Coady dealt with almost everything, and Rayan Ait Nouri had the game of his life against Salah until he was forced off injured. Mo Salah then immediately set up the goal. Turns out nothing is Origi-proof.
As far as the eye test goes, I would put Wolves top as the best defensive teams. Manchester City just don't give anyone the ball.
The main event. Perhaps a hybrid of Wolves and Man City in that they want to be the possession hog in every game. In these games, Tuchel’s side introduces players to the attack one by one like hot coals on a back, turning the screw methodically.
Much like Spurs under Conte, the preference is to be quick and get the ball to the front three immediately. Space is the oxygen of an attack and the enemy of a defence, even when it’s all behind them. They will risk this more if their chances in a game are scarce, but less so if they need a breather or if they wish to hold possession.
The 2nd option, which is decided in seconds, is the already running wing-backs. For many teams, this is to exploit the space, but for teams whose aim is to simply suppress the opposition team, the wing-backs will get chalk on the boots and earn the team a breather, allowing teams to fall back into formation in those seconds.
When Chelsea played Manchester City they will have wanted to recharge, when they faced Leicester they would have risked more with their attacks. Here are the touch maps of both games:
Rudiger is highlighted against Leicester (left) because it demonstrates the overlapping nature or the role of the ‘traditional’ full-back. Rudiger and Chalobah are essentially pushing every one of their teammates into advanced positions and providing an option too. Now, Chilwell (21) and James (24) are practically wingers, often they'll even be watching their runs for offside.
The aim is they should be allowed to get constant crosses into the box. Sound too simple? Well, the defending team may go out to meet them, but a wide defence is easy to get through the middle of. The midfield could come back and mark them, but then you are relinquishing your ability to launch a counterattack. Even if you can, these top teams are running you around, full-backs moving inverted, midfielders overlapping, constant runs from the inside forwards… teams above your paygrade who have better fitness will snatch the spirit to respond upon (finally) getting the ball back.
On the right is the Man City game. Desperation to close the natural gaps. What did they give up by doing that? The space between the attack and the midfield was gargantuan! Werner would drop to receive the ball and be hounded. The difference between this diagram and Wolves’ is that the shape isn't complete by the strikers, affording City more patience to use their number 6 to pick and choose each pass.
Chelsea 2–2 Liverpool
What a game by the way. 80 long ball attempts in that first half. Both teams were refusing to give up their high line. There was almost no need for wing backs, as in Chelsea’s case, they just played it right in between the scrambling Liverpool centre half. With Tsimikas and Trent keeping their advanced roles, both teams were playing ping pong. 2–2 sounds exciting until you hear it could have been 4–4 with sharper finishing.
Here Havertz, Mount and Pulisic find themselves running straight down the middle. The usually reserved central midfielders see Henderson and Milner committing and stride through the middle instead (the same for Liverpool’s attacking). Poor 36-year-old Milner’s heat map was basically on that clump of attackers, trying desperately to even the odds.
An unusual game though, for most games the wingbacks advance because that’s where the space is. Against teams like Liverpool who want to play in your face, playing the patient game would have played in their favour, hence the extreme concentration down the middle in the last third.
As far as this matchup went, Chelsea should have had this one. Taking individual errors and moments of magic out of it, Chelsea had Liverpool sprawling too often to be happy with a draw at their ground. Perhaps missing the homesick Romelu Lukaku?
Thanks for reading!