3 At the Back and Manchester United
We have seen the resurgence of 3 at the back over the last couple of years. Examples of this is most prominent in the Serie A, where a majority of teams have seen benefits in playing that way since Walter Mazzari found great success with it at Napoli a few years ago. Since, the now departed, Antonio Conte took over at Juventus and switched to a similar 3-5-2, the Old Lady have claimed a couple of Scudettos; going through an entire season unbeaten on the way to one of them. The formation has slowly crept into the English Premier League with reasonable success too. Roberto Martinez’s Wigan switched to another variation of 3 at the back, in the form of a 3-4-3, a decision which has to gain some credit for delaying their inevitable relegation till the very last day of that season. And while Aston Villa occasionally experimented with the formation last season, it was Hull City that persisted with it and, arguably, turned out to be the season’s surprise package; as they sat mid-table all year and even have a shot in Europe next season thanks to their FA Cup run.
If you hadn’t taken the formation seriously during its gradual comeback, it certainly should have grabbed your attention at the biggest stage of them all: The World Cup. Netherlands and Mexico used it reasonably well; but it was Chile and Costa Rica that surpassed everyone’s expectation with their performances and results, owing hugely to how they were set-up tactically. Argentina played their opening 45mins of the tournament with 3 at the back before, swiftly and understandably so, switching to a 4-3-1-2 for the 2nd half and subsequent matches on their way to the final. It is also interesting to note that all 4 teams who used the formation consistently made it to the last 16 despite being in tough groups.
Now with Louis Van Gaal looking set to play a 3-4-1-2 at Manchester United, after an emphatic 7-0 drubbing of LA Galaxy, the formation is surely going to be one of the most talked about topics next season. The purpose of this article is to evaluate the formation in relation to the modern game. There are reasons why playing in this manner works for some teams and not for others; and we will be looking at what those factors are. In the process we can figure out the chances of Manchester United making it work to reclaim the title next season.
Just as a side note; I have a bit of experience with the 3-4-1-2 and 3-5-2 as it was the preferred formation for the youth team that I coached last season. So while I will be analysing the formation from the perspective of a Premier League club, some of the anticipated challenges and successes may stem from personal experiences and factors that are universal in football.
The difference between 3-5-2 and 3-4-1-2
To understand the 3-5-2, we only have to look the team that does it the best. The layout shown above is how Juventus set themselves up in attacking and defending phases. The key piece of information we take from this is how the 3 in central midfield operate. Rather than having a holding midfielder, Pirlo is preferred in a deep-lying playmaker role; and Marchisio or Vidal and Pogba ( deployed in box to box roles) make forward runs and add numbers in attack. Lichtsteiner and Asamoah, meanwhile, provide width high up. Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli are trusted to nullify any counter-attacks or at least hold on till they can get numbers back. When defending in their own half, Juventus drop quickly, and sit compact with a back 5. Machisio, Pirlo and Pogba form a crescent in front of the defense, shifting from side to side with respect to the ball, giving added protection by blocking off any channels in the process.
There are a lot of examples of this formation, the Dutch and Chileans at the world cup to name a couple. But we will look at how Manchester United set-up in their friendly against LA Galaxy.
Once again, if we look at the 3 central midfielders we can see that there are very different priorities here to what the 3-5-2 offers. Herrera was more of a play-maker and Fletcher sat deeper to break up play in central areas; resulting in less options in numbers in front of Herrera when compared to Pirlo at Juventus. Rooney and Welbeck split into wide areas often with Mata piercing through the middle, looking a lot like a false nine at times. This was very similar to how Arturo Vidal operated for Chile against Spain, with Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez splitting away looking like wingers. Pressing high-up is an added advantage in this formation over the 3-5-2. Rooney and Welbeck were encouraged to press the opposition full-backs, while the centre-backs were allowed more time. It seemed like Mata, in the middle, was also instructed to close down Galaxy’s deepest midfielder throughout, which quite effectively resulted in a goal on one occasion. This pressing with 3 men is why many thought the formation was a 3-4-3, but make no mistake about it; it was a 3-4-1-2.
The underlining differences are that the 3-5-2 gives added numbers in organised attack and defence. The 3-4-1-2, on the other hand, allows higher pressing and better protection against counter-attacks from central areas.
Is this an Attacking or Defensive formation?
There is a fine line between a 3-4-1-2/3-5-2 and a 5-3-2; that line is the mentality of the wing-backs. We all know how hard-working and intelligent the players in this position need to be, but their mentality is heavily influenced by the context of the game. This is where Juventus established themselves as one of the better attacking teams in their league and why Manchester United might struggle in the premier league with this formation. Juventus are overwhelming favourites in almost every game in the Serie A. They are expected to dominate possession, have better physical attributes, better one-on-one attacking and defending; they are in complete control from the first whistle till the last. This has a lot to do with the quality and generally slower, more patient and elaborate attacking style of the Serie A. With this kind of a stable ‘environment’, their wing-backs have the confidence to push high-up and cause problems in wide areas; as they play a genuine attacking 3-5-2.
This is in stark contrast to their performances in Europe, where the opposition are more aggressive in their pressing and attacking, which causes the wing-backs to spend more time defending; and in turn, takes away from their productivity in attack as they look more like a 5-3-2. This is where I think Manchester United are going to have some trouble against at least 12 of the teams in the Premier league. The English league is full of pacey wide-men, and goals from crosses to big target men from wide areas are a common occurrence. High pressing and early recovery of the ball is also common strategy for most teams in the league.
There are 2 problems here. The first being that their wing-backs will have definite job of defending; Shaw and Valencia have to track back their respective wingers immediately when United lose the ball or they will be left exposed in wide areas. The second problem is that, when United win the ball back they must hold onto possession for long enough to get the wing-backs forward again from very deep positions to be effective in an attacking sense. The fear here is that, if they cannot have a great amount of control of the ball in midfield then they will be stuck with a 5-3-2, struggling to produce the kind of attacking performances their fans expect of them.
There is an argument that defensive vulnerability in wide areas can be taken care of if only 1 wing-back goes forward at a time, leaving an organised 4 at the back; the problem here is that you lose width on one flank, narrowing the field and once again making attacking more difficult. Then again, you could also say that one of the strikers can come wide to provide width on that flank and open up the pitch, but this means that you lose an attacking player in central areas.
The answer to the sub-question “is this an attacking or defensive formation?” is: It depends. This formation should be used only by overwhelming favourites or by underdogs with little chance of a result. It is effective for teams that genuinely feel that they will dominate the game and send the wing-backs forward with greater freedom. Conversely, it is an approach for teams that are happy to take a draw or sneak a win, and feel defending in more of a 5-3-2 is a better option to achieve the result.
Is this the right formation for United?
As with all formations, you need certain types of players and tactical solutions to get desirable results. Some may argue that formations should be tailored to the players that are at your disposal. While I agree with this, I also think there are other factors such as the balance of the squad and the type of opposition in the league. The thinking behind Van Gaal’s decision is understandable from a squad management perspective. This is one of the few options he has to play his 3 best players (Van Persie, Mata and Rooney) in their preferred positions. I still feel, however, that if Shaw and Valencia are pre occupied with the opposition wingers then too much of the attacking responsibility will be on the shoulders of the front 3. Anyone who watched Netherlands at the world cup will have realised that relying on 3 players to come up with the goods on a consistent basis is a bit of a stretch. This was apparent in the game against Australia where Sneijder was not at his best and the Dutch switched to a 4-3-3 to get more numbers forward to help him out. This was a consistent theme with the Oranje at the world cup, switching to a 4-3-3 when chasing games or trying to score goals.
You may ask why the Dutch didn’t play 4-3-3 from the start? The fact is that the Netherlands national team don’t boast world class defenders, and there is little they can do about that as they can only select from a pool of Dutch defenders. This is what prompted Van Gaal to include an extra central defender on the team sheet: to help the other 2 center backs out and ensure defensive solidity. That is why I am surprised that the Dutchman has chosen to implement this system at United. With financial backing of the board, he has the power to pick up any defender in the world he wants. The aim of Manchester United football club for decades has been to attack, score goals and entertain their fans. While they may thump LA Galaxy by 7 playing this way, I feel their attacking power will suffer against better and more energetic footballers in the Premier League. Regardless of what anyone may say, if the wing-backs are not consistently pushed well forward, then having an extra center back makes this a very defensive style; a formation that will not yield the attacking force required of prospective premier league champions.
As an added note, while Rooney, Van Persie and Mata will be playing in their preferred positions they may not be a suitable trio to make this system work from a strategically point of view. There are specific types of players required for each of the 3 positions up front for it to work effectively:
1st Striker: Needs to be either a traditional Target Man or a Pacey striker. The target man can be used to get a long ball forward and relieve pressure. He would then be expected to use his strength to hold play up allowing the wing-backs time to get forward. Alternatively, a Pacey striker can be released into space quickly in a counter-attack.
2nd Striker: This man needs to be a Tricky/Mobile striker or yet another Pacey striker. A player with the ability to take on a few defenders to keep the ball and invite support is ideal for this formation. Alternatively, having another Pacey striker offer threat in behind can’t possibly do any harm.
Center Attacking Midfielder: The ideal player for this position is a natural playmaker who can link-up with quick exchanges of passes and provide a killer final ball. Additionally, because much of the attacking responsibility is on the front 3, this player needs to chip in with goals on a regular basis. Mata fits the mould.
Every team that has made the formation work have had this combination of 3 up front; Napoli’s famous “Trinity” with Cavani/Lavezzi/Hamsik; Juventus’ Llorente/Tevez/(Pirlo-Vidal-Marchisio-Pogba); Chile’s Vargas/Sanchez/Vidal; Netherlands with Robben/Van Persie/Sneijder and so on. Once again the effectiveness of the 3 up front will depend on how well they can get the wing-backs up to support; which is why the Dutch were not as threatening as the 3 other examples. This may be a similar problem for United.
Rooney/Van Persie/Mata do not offer the same balance of attributes to go with effective strategies for this formation. Having Javier Hernandez’s pace and clinical finishing would be a step forward; but that would mean dropping either Rooney or Van Persie, rendering the formation switch pointless.
In one of my other articles I have mentioned how I think the system of 2 strikers is on it’s way back, but 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 is not the way to accommodate this if you want to be title challengers in the English Premier League. I personally feel, against almost 2 thirds of the opposition in the Premier League, Manchester United’s wing-backs will struggle to have a significant impact in attack; this will mean they will struggle to score goals in a 3-4-1-2 which will end up looking like a 5-3-2. If they do decide to push the wing-backs on, early balls into pacey wingers in wide areas by the opposition upon recovery will leave the United defense vulnerable. Premier League clubs are specialists at counter-attacking and wing-play, so it is a problem they can expect to face frequently.They will most likely switch back to 4 at the back in games where they really need to get a goal. I expect them to abandon the 3-4-1-2 altogether when they realise that it does not allow them to show the attacking initiative that is required to be champions of this league. With a few more defensive signings, I do see them getting back into the top 4 and possibly challenging for the title, but not if they play 3-4-1-2 for too long. Please feel free to leave a comment! Let me know what you think of the 3-4-1-2 and how you think United will fair with it!