Tactical review of 2014: three at the back is back in fashion - The Guardian (blog)

The rise, fall and rise again of three at the back

The reaction to the back three showed how fickle the representation and reception of tactical phenomena can be. At the World Cup, the back three, as used most eye-catchingly by Holland and Chile, but also by Mexico and Costa Rica, was presented as something exciting and new. And in a sense it was, or at least the return of a formation that had largely fallen out of fashion at international level. But really three at the back, in its reincarnated form, was never a single tactical movement in its own right; rather it was the result of other tactical decisions.

Chile, under Jorge Sampaoli, used a back three because playing an extra midfielder allowed them to press with greater urgency high up the pitch. In a sense defenders were there only to be used in extremis; ideally the ball would be won long before they were engaged. Costa Rica used a back three because it gave them extra cover at the back: they sat deep when they needed to, played a well-executed offside trap, and attacked on the break.

Louis van Gaal switched to a back three in part because of the injury to Kevin Strootman, but also because the friendly defeat to France in which the Roma midfielder had damaged knee ligaments showed his defenders were vulnerable in on-on-one situations. He saw how Ronald Koeman’s Feyenoord successfully deployed a back three against PSV and decided to do likewise with many of the same players at the World Cup, and benefited as Chile did (particularly against Spain) from the way having one player higher up the pitch enhanced their pressing.

Three at the back was fashionable again – something that must have come as quite a surprise in Italy where Juventus had dominated for three years with a back three. There it seems to prosper because of the relative dearth of gifted wingers: 3-5-2 gives a side width high up the pitch, still permitting a team to deploy three central midfielders.

At the start of the season, three Premier League sides were playing with a back three. There was Hull, who had used it often last season, largely as a defensive tool. There was Queens Park Rangers who, Harry Redknapp explained, needed to use it because Loïc Rémy was at his best playing in a front two and 3-5-2 represented a means of playing with a strike duo without sacrificing a man in the middle of midfield. And there was Manchester United, largely because Van Gaal felt like it.

None started the season well, and the back three was derided. But now it’s back at United and, over the past fortnight, at Liverpool. Van Gaal’s reasoning, curiously given the diversity of their tactical backgrounds, seems not far removed from Redknapp’s (whose own experiment ended when Rémy was sold and it turned out Rio Ferdinand, bought to play at sweeper, had aged badly and Richard Dunne’s lack of mobility meant he couldn’t cover behind his full-back). In Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Juan Mata, Ángel di María, James Wilson and Adnan Januzaj, Van Gaal has a glut of gifted forwards and a 3-4-1-2 allows him to squeeze in as many as four at once, without leaving his side too open in midfield.

Liverpool’s shape, 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3, is a little different. It relieves some of the defensive pressure on the back of midfield, which has been a problem all season and means Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho are operating in unusual positions, making it harder for opponents to pick them up. Neither wing-back is especially defensive and the result – for now, although opposing sides haven’t had much time to prepare a counter-system – has been a mode of play that is capable both of controlling possession and offering something resembling the attacking dynamism of last season. They still can’t defend though.

The return of the diamond

There is one other way to play with a front two and still maintain three men in midfield, which is to deploy a diamond. The risks of the system are twofold: attacking becomes focused through the player at the tip and a team is thus rendered predictable, and the narrowness of the midfield allows the opposing full-backs to attack with impunity (think, for instance, of how Hans Sarpei and Atsuto Uchida rampaged on the flanks for Schalke 04 against Inter’s diamond in the Champions League quarter-final in 2011). Brendan Rodgers has complained a little peevishly about the lack of credit he’s received for devising the 3-4-2-1 shape at Liverpool, but he does deserve credit for re-energising the diamond.

When two quick, mobile modern forwards are paired, as Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge were last season, they can pull wide and prevent the full-backs having the freedom Sarpei and Uchida were granted. That creates space for the player at the tip of the diamond, in this case Raheem Sterling. That in turn creates a dilemma for the central defenders: do they track the centre–forwards and risk leaving a gap Sterling could exploit? Do they hold their positions and risk Sterling getting a run at them? Or does one advance to Sterling, leaving a space that one of the centre-forwards could attack on the diagonal? The player at the tip of the diamond comes to take on many of the characteristics of the false 9.

It was hugely successful for Liverpool last season, Van Gaal employed it with United for a while this when he ran out of fit defenders and England used it with Sterling behind Rooney and Danny Welbeck. Perhaps the most successful use of the shape this season, though, has been West Ham, initially with Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia backed up by Stewart Downing, and with the introduction of Andy Carroll, less mobile than Valencia, but a terrifying force in the air.

On Tuesday part two: The strange exile of tiki-taka and the new galácticos

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