Why is Playing Three at the Back Popular Again?

The tactical side of football has become increasingly evolved over the course of the last decade, particularly with the renewed focus on positional play and structured, organised pressing.

This has also seen a sustained evolution in the range and application of formations, with teams often transitioning between two distinct shapes when in and out of possession.

In more recent times, the notion of playing with a back three has also become increasingly popular once again. But how is this tactical trend playing out, and why has it become so popular at elite level?

A Brief History of Back Three Formations

Back three formations (which are essentially subtle variants of the classic 3-5-2), first became popular during the 1970s and 1980s.

The main reason for this was the frequency with which teams deployed two central strikers during these times, prompting managers to utilise a back three with a spare man (or ‘libero’) to cover for his partners and potentially break the lines when in possession of the ball.

The formation achieved international focus in 1986, when Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo guided his countrymen to a famous World Cup win with a back three.

Rinus Michels’ Netherlands (with Ronald Koeman adopting a sweeper role) also claimed European Championship success in 1988 with a similar system, with the popularity of back three systems enduring until the end of the 1990s in Europe.

The Modern Three-Man Back Line and Why it’s in Vogue

Spurs manager Antonio Conte has done much to reimagine and revitalise the three man defence, leading Chelsea and Inter Milan to relatively recent national titles with distinct 3-4-3 and 3-5-2 systems respectively.

Conte’s various interpretations of the classic 3-5-2 formation certainly helped to make the tactic relevant once again following a prolonged hiatus throughout the noughties.

For example, he largely deploys attacking wide players and former wingers (such as Victor Moses at Chelsea) to create a more dynamic and attack-oriented system, while capitalising on the fact that contemporary footballing formations typically leave open space to attack in the wide areas.

What’s more, Conte’s system creates flexibility when in possession, enabling teams to flood the middle of the park and dominate possession.

For example, you can deploy three central midfielders when playing the 3-5-2, while using the spare defensive player to step out from the back and create an additional option in possession. David Luiz was an expert exponent of this at Chelsea, using his passing range and comfort on the ball to help build attacks.

Similarly, the 3-4-3 or in-vogue 3-4-2-1 enables the two wider or deeper attacking players behind the centre forward to supplement the midfield during offensive and defensive phases, creating overloads and effective counter-pressing in the process.

With most sides now having eschewed traditional wingers or central strikers in favour of inverted wingers and deep-lying forwards, having strength and numbers in central areas is key if teams are to dominate possession and gain a semblance of control in matches.

The Last Word

With these points in mind, it’s clear why back-three formations are once again becoming popular in Europe and across the globe.

The back three is also an excellent formation when transitioning between attacking and defensive shapes, as teams can adopt a de facto 3-2-5 when in possession of the ball and fall back into a more compact 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 when defending.

The granular attention to detail afforded to tactics has also helped usher in the return of the 3-5-2 and its numerous variations. After all, even teams that play a flat-back four often transition to three at the back when attacking, as their full backs push higher up the park and the deepest lying midfielder drops deeper to dictate play.

This often creates the 3-2-5 or 3-2-3-2 shapes that modern sides use when in possession of the ball, which are usually designed to sustain attacks and counter-press high up the pitch when the ball has been lost.

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