FIFA 2014

Resurgence of the back three

At the turn of the century, the system of playing with three centre-backs had become unpopular in almost every major football nation except Brazil. Hence, the resurgence of the back three at the ongoing World Cup perhaps shouldn’t surprise us much.

But Brazil has contributed hardly anything to this development. Indeed, it continues to play with four defenders like a host of other teams at the tournament. Nevertheless, it’s noteworthy that no less than seven sides — Mexico, Netherlands, Chile, Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Argentina — have employed the back three at some point over the past fortnight or so.

Six of those teams have found a place in the round of 16; it would be silly to suggest, though, that their success is a result of the tactical variation alone.

In fact, due to the system, these teams have confounded opponents and themselves too. Sample Argentina. It struggled conspicuously when Alejandro Sabella set the team up in a 3-5-2 formation for the first half against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Understandably, Argentina hasn’t used the system since.

In recent years, as witnessed at this World Cup, the back three has been employed for mainly three reasons – one, for greater defensive security; two, for a high pressing approach that seeks to recover possession instantly; and third, to achieve greater width without sacrificing numbers in central midfield.

Defensive solidity

Costa Rica, for example, has chosen the system to establish defensive solidity. Faced with technically superior sides in Italy, Uruguay and England, it chose to sit deep and absorb the pressure with an extra centre-back. Under the self-professed Marcelo Bielsa disciple, Jorge Sampaoli, Chile prefers the back three to implement its high-pressing style. It helps that two of the three central defenders are natural defensive midfielders – Gary Medel and Francisco Silva. This ensures attacking moves can be initiated by defenders too; Rafael Marquez has done the same for Mexico.

The Mexicans have also gained from the presence of Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun as wing-backs. The duo’s crossing ability helps Mexico to pose an aerial threat, in addition to stretching the opposition.

Netherlands’ Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat have been similarly menacing on the wings while Uruguay chose to exploit the flanks against Italy when Claudio Marchisio was sent off. It’s noteworthy that Italy had won only four out of 15 aerial duels before the red card.

Not perfect

Yet, like any other system, the back three isn’t perfect. One of the major reasons for its original unpopularity was that as teams began to play with only one centre-forward, it left two spare men at the back and one of them was redundant. For sides with emphasis on defensive solidity, it’s a major weakness as it creates a shortfall in attacking areas.

Also, even though sides like the Netherlands and Chile cause discomfort through their high-pressing and quick offensive transitions, they are primarily reactive and often struggle when the opposition concedes possession. As witnessed in their group match, the Chileans failed to force the issue when the Dutch allowed them to have the ball.

Chile’s lack of height in defence makes it susceptible to crosses as well and wide areas, in general, are a problem for all sides that field a back three.

As the wing-backs are the only ones patrolling the flanks, opponents can always create an overload by pushing their full-back and wide midfielder or winger forward.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 3:17:14 AM |

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