What happened in mid-January in Seville is an excellent example of the phenomenon in question. To take on Sampaoli’s team in the best possible way (one of the best in changing tactical layout and in pressing), Zidane set up Real Madrid with a brand new 3-5-2 formation. The starting centres (Varane and Sergio Ramos) were joined by fullback, Nacho, lined up as a left halfback. All without leaving out the two halfbacks (Carvajal and Marcelo), positioned on the midfield line. Real Madrid’s build-up develops with the three defenders and the addition of Casemiro, whereas Kroos and Modric were free to look for spaces between the lines. The solution did not keep Real Madrid from suffering their first loss of the season, but it is a good description of the reasons why many coaches are choosing the three-man defence as a tactical variation.
The return of the three-man defence goes hand in hand with the use of several formations depending on the play situation and it is primarily connected to the ball possession and build-up phases.
Coaches choose this strategy to provide more passing options and to avoid pressing from the opposing team more easily, a tactical tool that has by now been adopted by most managers.
Some choose to add a man by using one of the midfielder, others by using a fullback, depending on the tactical characteristics of the defensive centres. If speed is lacking, a lateral player is used to compensate. If quality is lacking, a midfielder drops back to compensate.
In perspective, the return of the three-man defence associated with pressing could lead to the complete antithesis of football of the last decade. The midfield department risks becoming less and less crucial in the formation, but a deciding factor in the balance. And instead of pure quality halfbacks, we are by now seeing a trend of using highly physical players. This, however, does not weaken ball possession as a cornerstone of modern football.