I understand I’m about to gloss over a ton of soccer strategy, and am purposefully leaving out a number of things for the sake of making this reasonably short.
Years before my playing time, the 3-back fad first died away in the ’50’s and ’60’s, only to make its first resurgence in the ’80’s. I still remember studying defensive breakdowns of Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany team from my father’s childhood.
The original logic with a 3-back was a simple one: a libero (center back) flanked by two man-markers who picked up the opposing centre-forwards, wing-backs to drive the opposing wide men back and, against a 4-4-2, an extra man in midfield to help control possession (it was this approach, rather than the use of a back three per se, that Johan Cruyff described as being the “death of football”). The problem came as teams stopped playing two centre-forwards. Leave a libero (center back) and two markers against one striker and that means one of the markers is redundant (and, as a marker, probably not that adept at stepping into midfield), which in turns means a side will be a player short elsewhere on the pitch.
When I began caring about soccer at a strategic and practical level, using only 3 defenders was only when you needed a last second goal, and threw another attacker forward. It wasn’t even a thing. But in general, when I was playing in the early 2000’s, there were a few main formations that nearly every middle school team would teach, and almost all were a rendition of a 4-4-2.
To anyone who doesn’t understand the syntax of soccer, 4-4-2 denotes the formation of a team, from defense to offense. So 4-4-2 just means 4 defenders, 4 midfielders (typically, this was a holding center midfielder and an attacking central midfielder, with two outside midfielders), and 2 strikers/forwards.
This is easy to teach kids, because it isn’t hard to conceptualize this even distribution of positions: two center backs, two outside backs, two wing midfielders, two center midfielders, and two forwards. It isn’t a risky formation, but is easy to adjust for what occurs throughout a game (move wingers forward if pushing for a late goal).
But I stated there were a few main formations that every middle school team was taught, and each were a 4-4-2. I also stated in the last paragraph that there were two center backs, and two outside backs at defense. That’s one of the 4-4-2 formations.
Another is a stopper-sweeper formation. If any of you remember from your rec league days, your coach would probably take the biggest, strongest kid on your team and make him the sweeper – the last line of defense before the goalie. The stopper served as a hybrid of a center back and holding midfielder. They would be stacked, rather than side-to-site.
Once players became more skilled and understood the game, this formation started to fall by the wayside.
In the midfield, a coach could also make his 4 players into a few formations, like a diamond (meaning an attacking and defensive center midfielder), or a straight line (both “box-to-box” center midfielders).
The 4-4-2 is one of the most direct and versatile formations a team can use: wingers can have some freedom up top, with the comfort of a fullback helping out behind, and don’t need to worry too often about supplementing an attacking center midfielder or moving in behind a striker.
Defense’s can shift evenly across as a unit, and generally have a nice balance on the inside of strength and defensive skill, with balanced outside backs (in terms of attacking and defensive skill). If you want the poster child of what the 21st century outside back should look like, look at Philipp Lahm.
But this formation started to shift, and we saw the likes of the 4-2-3-1 (or the 4-5-1 depending on the coach) in the years that followed.
A stronger emphasis was put on a “target forward,” that one man up top. Everything else was a supplemental buildup to this target. Giving more attacking power to a winger became a fad, with strikers turning into finishers rather than creators.
Again, these are generalizations – I realize that. Obviously, you have strikers like Benzema and Suarez who are good for 15 assists/year as well as 25/30 goals.
In the past few years, I believe we’re seeing the second resurgence of the 3-back for a number of teams. That includes the likes of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Juventus, as well as Chelsea FC.
I’ll keep my thoughts short on this ending, because if you’re still here I’m impressed.
I’m absolutely here for the 3-back formation. Good teams can do the 3-back and crush terrible teams, but will get crushed by other good teams. It takes a very special and disciplined team to be great, and great teams who can execute the 3-back generally have fantastic seasons.
It can be much more risky in the defense, especially against good counter-attacking teams like Bayern Munich. But if you’re able to keep possession, the goals will come. And many more will with a comfortable 3-back.
I think if great teams all hopped on the 3-back train, we’d see a massive increase in team goal totals. There is good and bad in that, though.
Antonio Conte has done well with Chelsea, that goes without saying. But as English teams get more comfortable with playing against the 3-back, I’m interested to see how this shifts the culture of the game. Will we see $100 million center backs in the near future, as smarter, more versatile defenders become more valuable?
We could also see the likes of strong defensive responses, like Brazil (who plays a 4-3-3), and the systematic nature of teams like Germany, who are rock solid in the back with insane speed and classic finishers. The 3-back is most vulnerable to counters and multiple forwards.
Or this could just be another niche fad that’s going to die in 5 years, who knows. I’ll cut myself off here, but it’s food for thought as we watch the game evolve.
Last thought: I hope the 3-back resurgence is here to stay, and I hope that it does it’s job of risking smarter defenders and proper building of attack, for the sake of more goals/game, which means more highlights, which means there’s more cool stuff for us to talk about in the soccer world.