Football tactics can be very cyclical in nature. The fall and rise of the passing midfielder in the 2000s is a great example of not only this nature, but the speed it can happen. Pep Guardiola was an unwanted player by the age of 33 in 2004 because clubs only were interested in holding midfielders and traditional 10s. Six years later Guardiola was leading Barcelona as manager behind three midfielders that would be neither destroyers nor the classic playmaker working behind the striker. In just a decade, Pep saw his playstyle quickly becoming and resurrecting again under his command.
Similarly the three man defense is slowly making its way back into favor. They were quickly being ditched in the first decade of the 2000s due to clubs opting to go away from two striker systems. Against two strikers, three in the back works flawlessly. Two of the centerbacks mark each of the striker leaving one as a spare man to play freely. Yet dropping a striker results in confusion. Either a team is faced with three men marking a lone striker, or they’re faced with being bent on every whim of the opposing wingers in a 4-3-3. Bring back the wingbacks against a 4-3-3 and you’re left with the same problem of having too many players containing what the opposition is attacking with, leave the wingbacks high up the pitch and run the risk of the wide centerbacks being pulled to far away from the middle of the field.
Yet, the three man defense and some of the concepts it holds are creeping back into the forefront. It was highly popular at the World Cup, with Holland, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Chile being the prime examples. And a lot of concepts were being dragged slowly into club play before that.
Take Pep Guardiola’s latest project at Bayern Munich: Philipp Lahm has been moved into a CDM role this past season, yet he plays farther back on consistent basis than David Alaba or Rafinha. It may not be a three man defense on the line-up sheet, but at times it certainly looks like one.
The “at times” part of that last sentence is certainly the key to this evolving philosophy. Real Madrid’s trio of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema can provide a match-up nightmare for whatever defensive look the opposition throws at them. All three are players that can change their roles at the drop of a hat. Real has the ability to give an opponent an attack that shifts between a 4-5-1 to a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-2 to a false nine 4-3-3 seamlessly in the middle of matches depending on what they’re given. This kind of adaptability is one of the many reasons why Real Madrid are the champions of Europe. Modern attacking play has become such a versatile beast to plan against that defenses are shuffling to become equally flexible.
Further pushing the need for a more liquid defense is the increasing offensive responsibilities of the fullback. With many teams deploying four man defenses with some form of winger — whether it be in a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 capacity — there is constantly space out wide that can be exploited by both teams fullbacks. This has pushed the position higher up the field on a consistent basis, yet this is another strategy that can have holed poked through it swiftly. Real Madrid was arguably the fastest team in Europe last season, and the way they picked apart Bayern Munich’s defense on the counter is a prime example of why having fullbacks be such an integral part of the attack can be a double edged sword.
However it is illogical to say that nothing good comes from the fullbacks pressing up the field. The players that field these positions are becoming more and more talented each and every season. Football is becoming such a fluid game from a tactical standpoint that teams are needing to be able to switch looks constantly, both offensive and defensively.
This is precisely why the rise of the modified three man defense makes so much sense. Louis Van Gaal’s Dutch side this World Cup wasn’t as talented as Germany, or even Brazil for that matter, but he was able to get the most of the talent he had through his three man defense that found players like Ron Vlaar and Daley Blind playing long passes to the attackers up front on a regular basis. Van Gaal’s defense wasn’t as flexible as I’m sure he wanted, lacking the DM presence he had with Ajax in 1995 with Frank Rijkaard but he found a way to make it work.
Yet at United, Van Gaal has the opportunity to mold the team carefully into what he desires. Also detailed over at Grantland, the formation can alternate between a 5-3-2 to 3-4-3 to even a 4-3-3 depending on the flow of the game. Not only is flexibility key, but so is the role of the third “center back.” This player manning a “false three” role needs to be almost omnipresent. He has to be aware at all times where the other four players of the defense are, dictating the shape the defense takes like the conductor of a symphonic band. A great player who currently does this is Roma’s Danielle De Rossi. Roma’s base formation is a 4-3-3 featuring Francesco Totti as a false nine. At face value it’s a four man defense, but with how offensively oriented Maicon on is. De Rossi finds himself often acting as if he’s the third centerback. He plays between the midfield and defensive line effortlessly, almost rarely finding himself deep in the attacking third. It’s a large reason why Roma went on to give up a miniscule 0.658 goals a game in Serie A, finishing only second to Juventus’s 0.605.
As this team adapt this form, the false three may become a more prominent position. Benefitting many defensively focused holding midfielders who can pass with great precision and defend like a third centerback, such as William Carvalho. If the formation is spreads the way many believe it can, this type of player could be the most important in football in the latter half of this decade.