Seemingly, three-man defences still have a place in International football

by Tim Hill

So in 2010, we expect football has moved towards a favoured line of four in defence, but this World Cup has not moved far from the systems teams played in 2006. In the 2006 World Cup, Japan, Costa Rica, Argentina, South Korea and Mexico played a system that had three at the back. This year, the same amounts of teams have played a three man defence.

This could be seen as a dangerous system to play given the prevalence of a one-man striker system that has a huge advantage over the somewhat antiquated three-man defence.

The explanation is given succintly by the Brazilian coach, Nelsinho Baptista:

“Imagine Team A is playing 3-5-2 against Team B with a 4-5-1 that becomes 4-3-3,” he said. “So Team A has to commit the wing-backs to deal with Team B’s wingers. That means Team A is using five men to deal with three forwards. In midfield Team A has three central midfielders against three, so the usual advantage of 3-5-2 against 4-4-2 is lost. Then at the front it is two forwards against four defenders, but the spare defenders are full-backs. One can push into midfield to create an extra man there, while still leaving three v two at the back. So Team B can dominate possession, and also has greater width.”

The weakness in the system have been noted by the innovative Chile manager ‘Loco’ Bielsa, who was expected to line his team up with a 3-3-1-3 system that he used in the World Cup qualifiers. Against Honduras, Bielsa changed his system in accordance with Honduras’ 4-5-1 system, starting the game with a very attacking 4-2-3-1 system.

In the second half, however, Honduras put on another striker and went to two up-front, allowing Bielsa to change the system to their preferred 3-3-1-3.

Both systems allowed Chile arguably the most attractive football of this World Cup so far with each player having many options available to him when a player receives this ball. This offers the opportunity for Chile to play a short, sharp passing game that produced aesthetically alluring football.

An interesting revelation was without striker Humberto Suazo, Jorge Valdivia played as a striker but without showing any of the usual striker characteristics. Valdivia dropped very deep, leaving the Honduran defence picking up nobody, causing confusion and disorganisation within the back four and supporting midfield.

As well as entertaining us in the case of Chile, three-player defences can also be effective in defence too. As illustrated by Oscar Tabárez with Uruguay and his defensive 5-3-2 system used against France where both wing-backs tucked in next to Uruguay’s underrated defensive trio. It stifled the French attacks and they could find little space in the attacking third, but this defensive take on the system reduced the chance of a fluid attack, with Diego Forlán coming deep to find the ball and with little support, had little chance of creating anything.

Against South Africa, Uruguay opted for a back-four, which was entirely down to the problems of playing three at the back against one-striker, in this game, Katlego Mphela. Tabárez opted for a 4-3-3 in this game and this change drastically improved their performance up-front. The player who came in, Edinson Cavani was strong and able to link up with Forlán and Suárez.

For Mexico, their use of a three man defence is dependent on whether they have possession or not. When Mexico do not have the ball, they drop into a conventional four-man defence with the impressive Rafael Marquez just sitting in-front, making them very difficult to break down. The strength of this system is that it can easily be converted into a 3-4-3 and they can flood the attacking third and control the game.

Mexico are capable of doing this because they have physically superb full-backs who are able to maraud down the flanks and then have the discipline and control to drop back into defence when possession is lost. Both Carlos Salcido and Paul Aguilar are full-backs who are extremely comfortable with possession and understand the importance of space creation in the attacking third. By staying on the touchline, they both create space in the middle for the effective Giovani Dos Santos to move in.

Mexico without the ball

Mexico with the ball

The similarities between each of the systems mentioned here is that both recognise the need for a back-four system in certain situations and whilst against an attack consisting of two attackers, a consistent 3-5-2 like the system played at Napoli may be suitable, when up against a fluid 4-3-3 and variations of that system, a flexible response is needed to deal with the weaknesses of a 3-5-2.

In the case of Uruguay, Chile and Mexico, these systems have led to a successful first week for them with all teams looking likely to qualify (if Chile can get a result against Switzerland). All managers recognise the benefit of playing three at the back, as well as understanding the deficiencies, necessitating the need for a good understanding of when to change systems and a well-drilled team to understand what roles to play when moved. The three-man defence may not be dead just yet and it provides viewers and managers with tactical variation when it just seems that a 4-2-3-1 is seemingly becoming the new paradigm.

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