A common misconception surrounding a back three is the idea that it is a defensive strategy. When we consider that a ball-playing team like Manchester City used it to devastating effect, we realise that a back three has the potential to help teams dominate the ball. The way a back three is used depends on the team’s objectives for the game. This is true for every other shape as well. However, with a back three, there is a tactical element that stands out. This is the potential to create central overloads in all phases of play.
In this analysis, we examine how teams use central overloads, to not only keep possession of the ball but also advance the play. This tactical analysis provides a tactical theory concerning the role of central overloads in a back three.
Playing from the back
For teams that want to play from the back, three defender systems offer more width than with four defenders. Upon analysis, I’ve recognised two dynamics that justify this statement.
The first is that three defenders playing in front of the defender can obviously cover more ground than two defenders. In a four defender system, the two full-backs often push higher up the pitch, so as to progress the play. This often means that the two centre backs have to cover the whole width of the defensive third by themselves. Sometimes, both centre-backs get support from the midfielders. But this would mean sacrificing men in other areas of the pitch. Pep Guardiola’s solution is often to use an inverted full-back to cover the space left behind by the midfielder who goes to support the build-up.
As illustrated above, the path of the ball goes from the centre-back to the midfielder, then to the winger. Alternatively, the ball travels from the centre-back to the winger, and then to the midfielder. But the aim is to progress with the ball. Either way, it’s a lot of movement for bringing the ball out of the back.
Three defenders offer more men for involvement in the buildup and make things more simple. First, the goalie has more options in front of him. Also, three men can more effectively cover the width of this part of the pitch because, well, they are three.
With three defenders spread across the defensive third, it becomes easier to move the ball around. This process is optimised when the wingers, and midfielders join the build-up. The consideration here is that a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 offers the use of seven men in the build-up. That is one more man for the opposition to rack their brains over. As a result, Manchester City recorded 22 passes per minute when they used a 3-4-3 against Everton. It was their highest in the English Premier League at the time.
As illustrated, Manchester City are using a back three. Two midfielders have linked up with the wingers, giving the centre-backs four options up front. Also, there are now five central men in this build-up: three central defenders and two midfielders. This effectively opens space for the two wingers to get the ball and progress the play. We will soon address how these tactics contribute to the grand scheme of things.
To win the ball in an advanced area, the opposition would have to commit more men to high press. This tactic throws caution to the wind, as it could lead to a depleted midfield or defensive line. Opponents would be unwilling to expose themselves to such a risk. Hence, enough men, space, and time are afforded for the build-up. It also distorts the shape of the high press. This creates opportunities to play the vertical pass that progresses the ball forward.
This middle overload means that an opposition high press must deal with five central men, hence why the opposition press is forced to the middle. This frees the wingers up. Going by this logic, the path of the ball from the centre to the flank is an important task in the build-up. This can be achieved by playing the ball to a defensive midfielder, who then plays it to the winger. This is a fine way of achieving progression into the middle third. While City used two deep-lying playmakers in our earlier example, Chelsea shows that just one organising midfielder could get the job done as well.
As illustrated, above, the central overload created by Chelsea in their final third gives the A.S. Roma press a lot to think about. There are five Chelsea men in the centre and five Roma players. However, Chelsea’s Davide Zappacosta is hugging the touchline, not far from the action, but not actively involved. Under current circumstances, he’s not an active threat, which is the objective of Chelsea’s overload, but that may soon change.
For the Roma players to cover Zappacosta more closely, they would have to commit more men to the press, which could be dangerous. This sequence of causality makes the winger the logical choice for a successful transition into the middle third. Roma’s high press, currently focused on the middle of the park, frees up space on the flank for Zappacosta to receive a pass, and progress with the ball.
Now, in this case, one Roma player is not too far from Zappacosta, so the prospect of a breakaway is not too imminent. Yet an advantage has been created here, given that Zappacosta, when in possession, would have to beat only one man to progress. The distance between Zappacosta and the nearest Roma player is not much. But sometimes two seconds or a moment’s loss of focus is all that’s needed for a successful breakaway.
The gist here is simple. Three defenders at the back, afford the build-up of enough men to relieve the pressure off whoever is with the ball, and the receiver of the ball. Thus, the team can move the ball around, until they find an opportunity to advance. The tactical principles which create the perfect environment for this play are similar to how the team plays once the ball is in the middle third, which brings us to the next point.
The attacking phase
Similar to the tactics used in the defensive third, three defender systems afford a lot of width, and central focus in the middle and final third. In a 4-3-3 system, two of the three forwards often act as wide men, isolating the striker in the middle. One way for a 4-3-3 to achieve the overload is for the central midfielders to push into the half-spaces between the central striker and the two wingers. In this case, the cautious move would be for the full-backs to take an inverted role in midfield, taking the place of the advancing midfielders.
This system has been used by Manchester City under Pep Guardiola, with Kyle Walker often moving into midfield. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool uses an alternative version of an overload in a 4-3-3 system. Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson are important to this because Mane and Salah would often move into the inside forward positions, allowing the full-backs to take control of the flanks, and the midfielders to retain their positions.
With good positional play and movement, a 4-3-3 offers innovative pathways to creating an overload in the attacking phase. Three defender systems, however, simplify central overloads in the attacking phase simply because a three defender shape is by nature, focused on central domination. For example, in a 3-4-3 or any of its variations, the three forwards are often central. In fact, the whole point of using only one winger per flank is to allow the other players to focus on functioning in central positions. The disadvantage of this though, is that the attack may be too predictable – unlike in a 4-3-3, for example, where opponents don’t know when the winger might become an inside winger. Still, with a little bit of shuffling, a 3-4-3 could create the same effect.
Similar to the play made in the build-up phase, the attacking phase may feature a lot of passing. A team playing in a 3-4-3 certainly have the numbers to pass the ball around. The central forward could even function as a false 9, creating a 3-5-2. As seen in our next illustration, Guardiola’s men form an overload in the middle, instantly putting the opposition on the back foot.
Many options arise in the above scenarios. From the perspective of the defenders, the three men in blue pose some questions: “Is he going to try to run in behind the defensive line, or drop a little bit deep to receive a pass, and hold the ball up?”. The team could continue to move around, play short passes, and eventually disorientate the defensive line. Or, they could instantly take advantage of the environment that the overload has created by playing a through pass into the path of the advancing Benjamin Mendy.
When a team is in this position, the midfielder could take instant advantage of the central overload by playing the through ball. However, the team will not always be in such a good position instantly. In this case, they would have to play a few passes around the midfield, or outside the 18-yard box. This would buy the team some time, and disrupt the defensive shape of opposition. This would also create chances for a cross. Given the concentration of men in the middle, there are more men to get on the end of a potential cross. To put this in perspective, Manchester City one-off 3-4-3 game provided six crosses, 100% completion. Not a coincidence, as central overload puts more men in the position to get on the cross.
As illustrated above, the options here are to use short passes to fashion a breakaway. The overload in the middle gives the attack a couple of options. One option is for the playmaker to channel the ball to either of the men to his left, and his right. The other option is to funnel the pass to the central forward, who then passes to the men on the left and right. This fast exchange of passes in the central, before a sudden switch of play to the flank, can unlock a defence. Similar to Manchester City’s impressive passing statistics, Chelsea in the English Premier League season 2016/17 recorded an average of 16.75 passes per minute. This was in a season where they played the majority of their games with a back three.
This tactical structure creates certain advantages, but also demerits of its own. In this position, the midfielders, wingers and forwards are aware of the fact that they’ve got three defenders between the ball and their goal. This inspires confidence, as the creative players can do their thing without inhibition, or fear. On one hand, the freedom which accompanies the awareness that the back is well covered allows attackers to dribble, and attempt risky passes. On the other hand, the team could commit too many men forward and get caught on a counter-attack. Three defenders may be available, but there is only one winger guarding the flank. This means that the sole winger has to shuttle between attacking, and defensive duties. In the case of a counter-attack, he may not have enough time to get back and support the defence.
In summary, Central overloads are a key part of playing with a back three. Three centre-backs stretch the width on the play during the build-up, stretching the opposition press. whenever the midfielders join the build-up, there are lots of men in the centre. This opens space for the wingers.
In midfield, the forwards are central as well, allowing them to work closely with the midfielders. In attack, there are enough men in the middle to free space on the flanks and latch onto a cross. In the build-up, midfield, and the final third, two things are constant. The middle overload gives the team enough cover to pass the ball around in central areas. The middle overload allows the wingers to get enough space to use. This tactical theory demonstrates that the shape’s capacity to get half the job done. As for the other half, the team’s execution is all that matter.