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Should Premier League teams abandon the back three?
Should Premier League teams abandon the back three?
Sonny Black | 06/11/18 | 11:32 AM EDT 0 Comments
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In future decades, historians hoping to get an insight into English cultural change will simply have to dig out football highlights from their chosen era.
From the hairy excesses of the 1970s to the mullets of the 1980s and the shaved heads, mohicans and beards of the 21st century, the evolution of fashion has been played out on the football pitches of England.
Just as players are not immune to fashion, so it is with managers. The process through which football tactics are introduced successfully on the big stage of the Premier League before filtering down to the lower leagues mirrors the way that new fashion trends are showcased in Paris, Milan or London only to end up on provincial high streets months later.
The latest example of this tactical trend-following is the back three. Having employed it with success with Juventus and the Italian national team, Antonio Conte brought it to Chelsea last season. He didn’t employ it immediately, but when the Blues were beaten 3-0 by Arsenal in September, he went back to the system that had worked before and the rest is history.
Chelsea went on a 13-game winning streak, during which time they conceded just four goals, and went on to win the Premier League by a seven-point margin. This is the type of form that sends pundits, statiticians and football bettors alike into a frenzy, and anyone placing a wager on Stakers would have been gifted with a sure bet. Such was the success of the system that within a year, everyone from Arsenal to Walsall was lining up with a back three, though no team was able to employ it as effectively as Chelsea.
The merits of the back three are well-understood. Firstly, it provides more defensive solidity in the crucial goal-scoring (and goal-conceding) area of the pitch. A well-organised three-man defence can handle one, two or even three opposing forwards, and the risk of gaps opening up at the heart of the back-line are greatly reduced with an extra centre-half.
The other advantage is that it enables a team’s full-backs to become wing-backs, pushing forward and operating essentially as wide midfielders, which in turn allows a manager to field three central midfielders and two strikers or any combination of those positions, dominating the central areas of the pitch. If the back three is complemented with a hard-working midfield, the formation can become almost impossible to break down.
This is how it worked with Chelsea. The defence was covered by the industrious N'Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić, while Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso pressed forward in the wing-back positions, creating unusual angles for the likes of Eden Hazard, Willian and Diego Costa to exploit. For a few months, the system was unbeatable.
However, like all systems, it has weaknesses. The most obvious weakness is the space behind the wing-backs. If this can be exploited, it forces the widest of the three centre-halves to come over and act as a full-back and keeps the wing-backs from pressing forwards, which in turn isolates the attacking players, making them easier to contain.
The formation also depends on having gifted centre-halves who are positionally sound and comfortable on the ball and two tactically aware wing-backs. This may not be a problem for the likes of Chelsea, but the further you go down the football scale, the less comfortable defenders are in a back three, and the less effective the system becomes.  
Back in the early 1990s, there was a rash of back-three tinkering in English football, but it rarely worked. Typically, teams would employ three lumbering centre-halves who had spent their entire lives in a back four and a couple of converted wingers in the wing-back role. Chaos often ensued; indeed, in bad or mediocre teams, the most obvious result of introducing a back three is that the central defence begins to look less, rather than more, secure.
Having first adopted the three-man defence to nullify Chelsea, teams then began to find ways to counteract it. Tottenham were the first to do so. When they met Chelsea on 4th January 2017, they matched the formation of their opponents, and added a degree of pressing that Chelsea couldn’t cope with.
By the time the new campaign started, everyone had a plan to counteract the three-man defence. It didn’t always work, but by early February Chelsea had already lost six times. and Conte had been forced to shuffle his formation, shifting from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2. The three-man defence seemed to have more effect in Europe where it hasn’t caught on to the same extent in the major European leagues, which may mean that anyone looking to bet on Chelsea this season should look to European tournaments rather than domestic trophies.
The question of whether Premier League teams should abandon the back three is probably academic. When it no longer gives them an edge, coaches will move on. That is the nature – and the fascination – of football, particularly in the modern era when there is intense scrutiny of opposing teams’ tactics. No tactic is perfect; sooner or later someone will find a way to defeat it, everyone will copy that method, and the cycle will begin once more. In ten years, we may be debating the three-man defence all over again!

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