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For years, use of a three-man defence has been limited to just a few isolated cases and primarily connected to opposing views. Strictly defensive football like that which is typical of the Italian school (and therefore, the use of formations similar to 3-5-2/5-3-2) or a diametrically opposite set-up is associated more with the total football strategy in the Dutch view (3-4-3). Over the first few months of this season, however, there has been an increased use of the three-man defence, although with different applications and intentions than in the past. Let’s try to understand the reason behind this rediscovery by analysing some of the teams that use this tactical strategy.
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Tottenham defensive phase – Wyscout Playlist and Draw

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Tottenham formation – Wyscout Report

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With the arrival of Conte and Guardiola, the Premier League is seeing a widespread use of the three-man defence for the first time. But if the two coaches mentioned above propose two strategies that are already well-known, something new is coming from the latest experiments conducted by Pocettino’s Tottenham. Experiments that have determined a turning point in the season, changing the basic 4-2-3-1 formation into a 3-4-2-1 in phases of ball possession. The midfielder, Dier, joins the line of defenders, coming alongside Vertonghen and Alderweireld in the build-up phase. This is not even a conventional “salida lavolpiana”, since the midfielder lines up as a right halfback and not as a central defender. By doing this, however, Tottenham avoids the pressing without making long passes.
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Fiorentina formation – Wyscout Report

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Fiorentina defensive phase – Wyscout Playlist and Draw

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Something very similar to Pocettino’s strategy was seen in the Fiorentina-Juventus match, when Paulo Sousa consistently dropped Sanchez back in line with the defenders. The team did not lose anything in terms of protection, but it gained in unpredictability. On the contrary, a traditional three-man line like Allegri’s suffered greatly against the Viola’s pressing. From last season, Paulo Sousa has alternated a 4-4-2 formation in the defensive phase with a 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation in the phases with ball possession. But in recent matches he has shuffled the deck, adding not a fullback, but a halfback to the rear guard.
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Milan defensive phase – Wyscout Playlist and Draw

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Milan formation – Wyscout Report

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One of the most interesting solutions comes out of Milan, which embodies this type of new philosophy very well. Montella lines up a 4-3-3 base formation that, in the build-up phase, becomes a 3-4-2-1. The two central defenders are joined by a midfielder (the left halfback) who stays put, while the right fullback spreads out in line with the halfbacks. Guaranteeing the breadth on the left side is a player, alternating between the inside left forward and outside left forward, while the right forward moves toward the centre in order to play among the midfielder lines. The playmaker drops back and joins the build-up. This way, Montella has averted the Montolivo’s absence, providing greater coverage for the team in the build-up phase and making Locatelli and Sosa’s dry runs less serious.
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Roma formation – Wyscout Report

 

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Roma defensive phase – Wyscout Playlist and Draw

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Recently, Spalletti has provided stability to Roma, solidifying the defence with a more traditional three-man rear guard, generally lined up with three pure centres (Manolas, Fazio and either Rudiger or Juan Jesus). In the build-up phase, this keeps the two midfielders from being overloaded and it allows the two outside defenders (Bruno Peres and Emerson) to move up quickly.
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Roma offensive phase – Wyscout Playlist and Draw

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In the defensive phase, however, the formation often takes on a 4-4-1-1 layout. Nainggolan presses the ball carrier with Dzeko’s help whereas, of the two outside midfielders, only Bruno Peres stays on the line. Emerson drops back to defence to form a four-man line. This way, Spalletti is able to set up a fluid, yet compact formation, disguising the shortcomings of his team (not very dynamic defenders and defensive deficiencies of the wings).
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Sevilla-Real Madrid – Wyscout Playlist and Draw

 

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Sevilla-Real Madrid formation – Wyscout Report

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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.

CONCLUSION:
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.
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Mattia Fontana
Mattia Fontana, Eurosport Italia editor.
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