Three at the back:The Formation of the future?

The 4-4-2 formation was highly prominent over the 1990’s to mid-2000’s until the age of the 4-3-3 and later, the 4-2-3-1 came along. Nowadays there are a variety of systems being played all over Europe, from Diego Simeone’s 4-4-2 to Barcelona’s 4-3-3; but recently systems with 3 players at the back have appeared all the rage across the continent. From Sampaoli’s 3-3-3-1 at Sevilla or Guardiola’s 3-4-3 or even Conte’s more pragmatic 3-4-3.

Well, playing with a 3 at the back isn’t such a new thing, even in this decade. Louis Van Gaal used a counter-attacking 5-3-2 system at the 2014 World cup. Also, Antonio Conte brought Juventus back to the top of Serie A in 2012 with a 5-3-2 system. However, newer systems involving 3 centre backs appear to be more possession orientated and more attacking in general.

Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla


Jorge Sampaoli achieved success with Chile, after winning the 2015 Copa America. He was famed for his use of a 3-4-3 system, in which he implemented high pressing and a quick transition between winning the back in the attacking third and creating a chance.  The front three, contain Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez leading the line with Vidal behind, creating a triangle.

When building out from the back, the back three split and stretch as wide as they can in order to break the press as the pressing team has a greater distance to cover. Gary Medel was used as the middle centre Back more as an adaptable CDM when on the ball. The two wing backs would position themselves high up the pitch to create more space for the back three. In some cases, Mauricio Isla would be further forward then the opposite wing back, in order to retain some defensive balance but still push one of the full backs back.


If the opposition decided to press high on the three centre-backs then the Left or right centre back would move more into a conventional left back position, shown by the number 5. This broke the first line of possession as the middle centre back moved further left and dropping deeper, in order to create passing options for the sweeper keeper Claudio Bravo.

Sampaoli has also adopted a similar style at Sevilla, using Steven N’Zonzi as a Regista, in order to take the ball forward from the defensive line. Another element Sampaoli is famed for is his high pressing.


Sampaoli’s Sevilla have six players at some points, in advanced areas of the pitch. Vietto is the out and out striker, with Vazquez, Vitollo and Nasri behind him are all located ion central positions, which enables Sevilla to press the opposition as soon as they lose possession. Against Atletico, this was evident with the three attacking midfielders pressing Godin and Gabi while N’Zonzi pushes up and Mariano and Vietto cut off passing lanes.

Guardiola’s Manchester City

Guardiola first started using a three at the back system at Barcelona, but it was more experimenting rather than an outright use of the system. At Barcelona, Lahm and Alaba were adaptable players which enabled them to play a number of positions, including as an Inverted wing back and as ball playing defenders. At City, the three at the back has also been used. Usually, the three are Otamendi, Stones and Kolarov, with Fernandinho playing a similar role to both Busquets and N’Zonzi as a Regista linking defence and midfield.


Playing with three at the back allows Guardiola to use four in the centre of midfield. This allows Fernandinho and Gundogan to be deep-lying players, while De Bruyne and Silva act as number 10’s trying to get in between the lines. Guardiola also favours conventional wingers, rather than the traditional wing backs that are most commonly associated with a three at the back. Sterling and Sane/Nolito are advanced and stay wide in order to stretch the compact defensive shape of the opposition, to create space for the two number 10’s.

Both Guardiola and Sampaoli use very similar systems. Guardiola’s is more structured positioning, while Sampaoli’s can appear chaotic, and can sometimes lead to a number of different systems being used in one game.  The right and left centre backs are more efficient at recycling and playing forward balls. This is because, in a two-man centre back pairing, both centre backs are more central, making it easier for the striker or attacking midfielders to press them. However, with a three-man defence, the outside centre-backs can receive the ball after a quick switch of play and have significantly more space and more angled balls available.

Conte’s Chelsea

After starting out with a 4-2-3-1 system, Antonio Conte recently switched to a 3-4-3 system. Whereas Sampaoli and Guardiola play a more possession orientated and attacking style of 3-4-3 or 3-3-3-1, Conte’s Chelsea play a more conventional three at the back. Conte played a 3-5-2 system at Juventus, where he has great success. Something that may have triggered this change of approach maybe Chelsea’s lack of quality centre backs. Cahill and David Luiz have both struggled defensively while in a four at the back, and Chelsea had recently signed wing back Marcos Alonso.


Against Manchester United, Conte used Moses and Alonso as the wingbacks, while Kante and Matic sat in front. This extra defensive solidity allowed Hazard and Pedro less defensive responsibility and also meant they weren’t responsible for keeping the width. This allowed Hazard and Pedro to drift further inside and make runs in behind from a more advanced starting point.

Conte’s system reverts back to Juventus and the back three of Bazargli, Bonucci and Chiellini, with Asamoah and Lichtsteiner as wingbacks. However, Conte uses a three at the back system for different reasons to Sampaoli and Guardiola. Conte wants the two attacking midfielders, which was Pedro and Hazard against Manchester United, to move into more central positions. The wingbacks’ keeping the width allows this. Another difference is the way they defend. Guardiola and especially Sampaoli want players in advanced central positions to press the ball high and quickly, while Conte wants to play a 5-4-1 in defence, structured and hard to exploit gaps in.

So why is the three at the back system becoming increasingly popular?

Mainly because managers are more possession orientated now. A 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 used to be a more defensive formation. However as opposition teams now only play one up front, the side centre backs can be used to find angled balls and allow a team to get into the attacking third quicker. This is shown with Kolarov being played in a back three. Managers use full backs as the side centre backs to give wingers more freedom. Guardiola played Sane and Sterling on the wing rather than conventional wingbacks or even full backs. With the three at the back becoming more popular in La Liga and around the continent, it is only a matter of time before it seeps into the premier league as the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-3-3 once did.

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