Is the three-man defense coming back?

Introducing 3manDefense: The name of this blog comes from my favorite formation and personal conviction that the best football is played in the midfield possession game. As a formation that takes a man from defense and adds one to the midfield, the three-man defense makes a lot of sense. Yet given recent trends that have seen the three-man defense decline in popularity, as well as the difficulty of its reintroduction by ambitious tacticians like Mancini, it is quite rare to see the managers of top sides field this formation.

A decade ago, Marcelo Bielsa used two wing-backs in the midfield for Argentina in Zanetti and SorĂ­n, who would dutifully drop back depending on which side was being attacked. More recently, the current Athletic Bilbao coach has switched to a back four but uses midfielders in the back line, a move mimicked by Barcelona under Guardiola and currently under Tito. Van Gaal’s storied Ajax from the mid 90s used no wingbacks, but rather played Frank Rijkaard as an advanced central defender. The flexibility of the three-man defensive formation is adjustable to the personnel and takes advantage of dynamic players.

One recent example was seen in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 between hosts Barcelona and AC Milan. It was one of the most compelling matches in this edition of the tournament because Barcelona had played predictably in the first leg and lost 0-2 in Milan. With their backs against the wall after an elimination at the hands of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey as well as a league loss at the Bernabeu, many asked if Barcelona’s season was unravelling incredibly after an undefeated first half. Barcelona have been less tactically ambitious under Tito Vilanova/Roura (more on that in a future post) but fielded a formation nearly identical to the three-man defense Pep Guardiola played against the same team last year and won emphatically with a one-sided score of 4-0.

Barcelona’s recent 3-4-3 against Milan

It’s debatable whether this is actually a three-man defense or just an admission that Alves is not a defender, but either case supports my point that more sides can play it, and many already do. Moving a wing-back forward in a tactical drawing is one way to start, but the idea that the wing-back is a flexible position that already spends most of his time attacking and defending in his opponents half shows that sides in need of goals can opt for the three-man defensive line if they can utilize the talents of wide or central defenders that feel comfortable in multiple positions on the pitch.

Barcelona’s victory last month was not directly due to the back line of the formation, but rather to the inclusion of the criminally underused David Villa and the phenomenal high pressure Barcelona applied in Milan’s half after losing the ball. Yet, it’s nice to see the good old three-man defense in action.

My idea with this blog is not to solely cover my favorite formation, but rather to pay tribute to the beautiful game and its protagonists. I closely follow several domestic leagues, continental leagues, and international tournaments and will use this site as an outlet for my thoughts. I am also a big fan of football history and will on occasion blog about great players, coaches, and plays from the history of the game. I hope you enjoy.