Much like the fashion world, soccer formations continue to change and evolve with certain trends becoming ‘flavour of the moment’. The three man backline is one such tactical ‘taste’ which has been in and out of favour over the past few decades, with varying degrees of success.
Who can forget Argentina’s triumph at the 1986 World Cup or the Brazil side which captured the 2002 World Cup with a 3-5-2 set-up? Cafu and Roberto Carlos were the two wings-backs tasked with both attacking and defending duties. Edmilson brilliantly played a quasi-sweeper role during the tournament alongside Lucio and Juan, who were the strong central backs.
The resurgence of three defenders has been more recently exemplified by Barcelona.They have deployed this formation on numerous occasions against opposition who tend to play with two strikers, as it enables two defenders to mark with one free man in support (sweeper like) and a defensive central midfielder acting as a defensive shield of four.
In Serie A, the first disastrous use of a three man defence this season was Inter under the guidance of Gian Piero Gasperini. After a dismal run of five winless games, including four defeats, Massimo Moratti confirmed that Gasperini had been sacked as head coach of Inter on September 21, 2011.
No fewer than six other Serie A teams have turned to a variation of a back three this year including Parma, Napoli, Udinese, Lecce, Juventus and most recently Fiorentina under Delio Rossi. Unlike Barcelona, who apply high pressure and keep possession of the ball for long periods of time, many of the italian sides use the formation to invite opponents forward and look to play on the counterattack.
Both Udinese and Napoli have been the most successful squads to rely on three defenders, but in totally different style when compared to Barcelona. Napoli who have progressed to the last 16 of the Champions League, held the lowest amount of overall possession in Group A with 43%, compared to 56% by group winners Bayern Munich. While the 3-4-1-2 formation that Walter Mazzarri utilizes appears to put an emphasis on Napoli’s attack, it is the defence that provides the solid foundation which the frontmen can build upon.
The modern game has seen the rise of attacking full-backs, and Mazzarri’s tactics make good use of this position. Implementing a three man defence allows wing-backs Christian Maggio and Juan Zuniga to have more freedom in attack, as well as turning the backline into a stronger five man guard when out of possession
The formation also works best against an opposition using two strikers, as the use of three centre backs allow two of them to man-mark the forwards and the third to pick up any attacking midfielders or act as a support player to the two marking defenders. The 3-5-2 or any variation of it is much weaker against teams using a lone striker, as the third defender almost becomes redundant.
Because lone strikers are becoming more and more common, as well as the increasing pace of modern football which has made it almost impossible to find wing-backs with enough stamina to last a full game, there has been a huge decline in the popularity of this formation as a result, but rather one which teams turn to in response to specific tussles as Antonio Conte and Juventus have done on two occasions this year when playing Udinese.
Whether a fashionable trend or not, the use of three centre-backs in most cases is a tactical option teams cannot ignore as it can be a vital strategic weapon if they have the personnel to suit such a formation.
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