While the English Premier League offers an exhilarating spectacle filled with goals and moments of greatness and calamity in equal measure, it has historically been relatively conservative from a tactical perspective. Particularly when it comes to systems, superfluous as coaches and analysts will say they are, one set shape has tended to dominate. First it was the 4-4-2, then it was the 4-2-3-1. The latter curiously continues to pervade the league, though it appears a change could be on the horizon.
This season will be the year of the manager, with experienced coaches arriving in droves from abroad ready to permeate English football with their ideas. On the basis of the campaign’s opening weekend, one consequence of this grand importation will be an increased tactical variety. Going forward, the 4-2-3-1 may not be the dominant shape, primarily because there may no longer be any one dominant shape. Amid the fluctuation, 2016-17 could see the rise of the back three.
Traditionally, the defensive trio has been viewed with mistrust in English football. Nominally, the notion of having one less defender has been equated with risk-taking, an unnecessary act of self-exposure that simply couldn’t work in a country with such set tactical tendencies. As a result, the back three has appeared infrequently; several teams have made use of it without ever genuinely relying upon it. But, while its practise may continue to be rooted in circumstance, circumstantial change may encourage greater usage.
Ronald Koeman took charge of his first competitive game as Everton manager last Saturday, leading his new charges to a 1-1 draw with Tottenham at Goodison Park. Underpinning the result was a positive performance built on a back three. Elsewhere on the same day, Walter Mazzarri made his debut in the Watford dugout, utilising a 3-5-2 in a 1-1 draw away to Southampton.
Both Koeman and Mazzarri began their campaigns with a back three in place, and others could incorporate the same defensive shape, namely Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, who have used it in the past.
There are several potential benefits to opting for a three-man defence. One is that it allows for numerical superiority in the centre, reducing the space through which opposition play in the final third can move. This central overload can continue into the midfield, where the ditching of full-backs and wingers for wing-backs allows not only one extra centre-back, but an additional central midfielder, too. And the back three can, and often does, become an oscillating back four, with one wing-back situationally tucking into the defensive line.
The theoretical opportunities of a back three may beguile, but ultimately, just like any other systematic change, it has to make practical sense. In this respect, there are two reasons behind a possible rise of the three-man defence in the Premier League.
Firstly, it could help in neutralising the increasingly intensive pressing schemes seen in English football’s top tier from teams such as Tottenham and Liverpool. With the central defender playing slightly deeper than the right and left-sided defenders and the defensive midfielder dropping back, a diamond shape is created, enabling multiple diagonal passing lanes which are difficult to cut off simultaneously. This shape, along with the presence of the wing-backs closer to the flanks as wide out-balls, can improve ball circulation against the high press which is seen more often in the Premier League nowadays.
Secondly, and arguably most importantly, the strike duet is back in vogue. The back three went out of fashion as a viable option due to the death of the front two; with just one striker to mark, there was less need for three centre-backs. However, more Premier League teams have been using, or are set to use, a strike partnership.
Last season, Leicester City won the league with a front two of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, while Watford survived while deploying Troy Deeney alongside Odion Ighalo. Both teams will most likely continue to wield two up front this season, and they could be joined by others. Sean Dyche’s Burnley operate in a 4-4-2 and Antonio Conte’s Chelsea will do the same at certain points if pre-season is anything to go by. Furthermore, Tony Pulis paired Salomon Rondon together with Saido Berahino on the opening day of the season and may well continue in this vein, while Claude Puel appears determined to implement a 4-1-2-1-2 shape at Southampton.
In 2015-16 only two teams made frequent use of a two-man frontline; in 2016-17, it already appears likely that at least six teams will do so. And the strike partnership’s return could encourage more managers to use a back three in order to ensure their centre-backs aren’t left in dangerous one-on-one situations.
Of course, a three-man defensive shape can also be implemented for team-specific purposes. Everton, for instance, particularly given their attack-minded full-backs, may seek to cover a qualitative shortfall in the centre of defence with a quantitative solution. Defence in numbers, you might say. Watford, beyond Mazzarri’s ideological desires, actually possess the players necessary to undertake a 3-5-2. And, with the level of personnel available to them, Guardiola and Conte may utilise a defensive trio at some stage this season.
However, irrespective of individual preferences of a chosen few, the Premier League’s changing tactical vista means the back three is beginning to make more sense than ever before. Before long, it could be the pragmatic choice.