Three at the back is not a panacea.
In the World Cup, teams playing three center backs massively outperformed expectations. Fan favorites Chile played fantastic soccer in their high-pressing 3-4-3 formation. Underdogs Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals using a peculiar system featuring a high defensive line and three CBs. An atypically thin Dutch side beat both Spain and Chile on route to a third-place finish in great part because of a tactical shift by Manager Louis van Gaal. With few elite defenders available, Van Gaal switched to a 3-4-1-2 formation shortly before the World Cup, and the results were excellent.
Would 2014 be the year of the back three? Last season, Steve Bruce’s Hull City surprised observers with a clean march to safety driven by very defensive 3-5-2 system that often played as a 5-3-1-1. Coming into the season, Van Gaal, now the new manager at Manchester United, installed a 3-4-1-2 very similar what he used in the World Cup. And at recently promoted Queens Park Rangers, Manager Harry Redknapp brought in Glenn Hoddle to teach his side to play a 3-5-2. While Hull City has started well with four points from two matches, QPR and United have only a single point between them. There is no inherent magic to the three-back system.
Redknapp doesn’t get it.
The weekend’s most lopsided result came at White Hart Lane, where Redknapp’s QPR was soundly beaten 4-0 by Tottenham Hotspur. The back three is supposed to prevent big chances, as you have an extra center back to sweep up when an attacker gets into a dangerous area. Instead, on Spurs’ third goal, QPR left both Emmanuel Adebayor and Nacer Chadli free at the edge of the six-yard box for an easy finish.
The problem for Redknapp is personnel. His back line featured 34-year-old Richard Dunne, 35-year-old Rio Ferdinand along with the young but nonetheless quite slow Steven Caulker. All three might be capable of playing well in the central defensive position in a back three but are far too slow to cover the wide areas where a right or left-sided center back has responsibilities in such a system. The back three can cover for the defensive frailties of more mobile, passing central defenders, but it actually magnifies the weaknesses of players like Caulker and Dunne.
The expected goals map for Spurs-QPR shows how Spurs consistently found space to shoot from the danger zone, which is precisely what QPR’s defensive plan should have prevented.
The back three remains, usually, a weapon of the weak.
The back three was previously en vogue in international soccer in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when it emerged as a response to a bevy of two-striker systems. Three central defenders give you a man advantage against two center forwards. It emerged then as a reactive strategy to enable teams to stop more high-powered opposition attacks.
In the contemporary English Premier League, true two-striker formations are rare. So the back three tends to be a way to cover for further defensive weaknesses. Top sides in the EPL rarely play an extra defender because they are already strong in central defense and midfield, and they do not need more cover. Van Gaal instituted his back three at United because he saw few elite central defenders and no top-quality defensive midfielders. He can hide the weaknesses of Chris Smalling and Darren Fletcher by adding more bodies at the back, but it comes at a cost.
Indeed, despite allowing three goals in two matches, United’s defensive performances have been capable. Swansea City won with some excellent finishing, and Sunderland could not create big chances despite a bevy of attempts. I have United’s expected goals conceded at about 1.7 over two matches.
The problem for the Red Devils has been in the attack. They created just one good chance against an unimpressive Sunderland side, and little more against Swansea City.
This is the trade-off made in running the back three. Van Gaal has protected his back line, but at a cost of running a three-man attack that even Swansea and Sunderland can blunt effectively. The addition of Real Madrid superstar Angel di Maria should help the attack, but he will have to be added at the expense of a more defensive player. How Van Gaal manages these trade-offs will determine his team’s chances in the Premier League this season.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.