3-man defences are a growing trend in modern football, especially in Italy, where even the national team are advocates of the system on occasion. 3 at the back was popular in the 90s when the 4-4-2 was at its peak but recently it has undergone a resurgence, with proponents like Marcelo Bielsa, Cesare Prandelli and Roberto Martinez using it at the top level. It is a great setup to have against the 4-4-2 as it offers that vital spare man at the back and allows the manager to add another midfielder or striker to overload the midfield or opposition defence.
I have recently added a 3-man defence formation to my 2nd slot for playing against 2 striker formations (usually the 4-4-2) and it has worked fantastically. A lot of what I do is simple logic and common sense but the theory plays out well in practice. At the top level, the teams who play 2 up front tend to be lesser, defensive teams – Stoke, Southampton, Norwich and Sunderland are just four of these sides that I’ve come across. It is rare that title challengers use 4-4-2 as they are more open and usually prefer to defend with a midfield triangle as in a 4-1-2-2-1 or 4-2-3-1; therefore we can infer that at any point when we use our 3-man defence tactic that we will be playing teams who care less about the midfield battle than keeping tight with two banks of four, at the risk of sounding like an overpaid TV pundit.
We can use this to our advantage, when designing our tactic, then. Firstly, we can more than survive without a DMC, whereas it would be risky not to include a DMC against a 4-1-2-2-1 where the wingers cut inside, or, even worse, the 4-2-3-1 where the AMC is surrounded by options. No-one wants to waste players in positions where they will do a small job, so I’ve saved a man here and I can push this man elsewhere where they will be more helpful.
So, we don’t need a DMC. We have 7 positions left to fill after the goalie and the three man defence, and these are totally up to you based on your personal preference and the players at your disposal. But we can make a few more general assumptions about 2-striker formations:
- 4-4-2 is by far the most common variant
- All variants are lateral and flat or longitudinal and narrow
- The two MCs will invariably be more defensively solid than those in a 3-man midfield
- Wingers in all variants are less likely to cut inside and dribble than in 4-3-3s
- Full-backs tend to be more less attacking and therefore have more time to play out from the back
Most teams that play 2 strikers will adhere to these ‘rules’ and therefore you can design a ‘one size fits all’ tactic to play against these formations to exploit the 4-4-2 (and variants)- this is what I came up with:
In a nutshell, this is a quietly aggressive tactic that gets at the 4-4-2 and screams loudly in its face.
The spare man
From the back, we have 3 CBs which is absolutely brilliant against 2 strikers; the two wider CBs can cover the strikers with the middle able to sweep behind or clear the ball before it even reaches the other two.
This screenshot demonstrates perfectly how the back three works against a 4-4-2. The 8 midfielders have each other covered pretty much, but we have the dominance at the back as the two strikers are effectively ‘trapped’ by the triangle of CBs; Vidic finds it easy to come forward and anticipate the goal kick to get it clear before there’s any real danger, and the two strikers don’t try and track him because they’re covered by the two other defenders. Easy peasy!
Four man midfield
As I mentioned earlier, there really is no need to play a DMC unless they have two great attacking threats in midfield, though it’s very rare that a team will play a 4-4-2 like that. They tend to follow a Creator/Destroyer combo (a la Pirlo/Gattuso) and I tried to match that in my midfield so we can negate those threats. I could easily have played a 3 man midfield but I felt that it wasn’t really necessary to pack the midfield like that as the 4-4-2 can be forced into submission without wasting another player.
‘Rigid’ is one word that has become synonymous with the 4-4-2 in recent years, and though it’s perhaps a little naive to tar it with that brush, it is by all means quite easy to attack and drag around. I didn’t go for a 3/5 man midfield because the Pressing and Tackling is good enough to stretch and push the 2 opposition MCs out of position.
Here you can see that the central midfielders are really struggling to stay compact. When you consider this is a weak QPR team coming to Old Trafford with a probable game plan of staying deep, tight and hard to beat, we’ve really done a good job of stretching the midfield and making space through the middle. The left side MC (Faurlin) managed to keep well positioned and you could draw a slightly curved line through him and the two wingers, but the right sided MC (Derry) is incredibly deep and his position effectively leaves Faurlin, a rather attacking MC at best, to win the midfield battle with Fletcher and Giggs. It’s really not necessary to put 3 or 4 midfielders in the middle against the 4-4-2 because it is so flat and lateral.
3 men up front might be a bit controversial within the FM community and many may see it as an exploit, but after a number of Italian teams playing with 3 against me, it’s sort of won me round. I don’t set the outer STs to mark full-backs or any of that, I see that as firmly exploitative as it is unnatural but I do find that the 3-4-3 is really good for pressing high up the pitch and stopping the ball getting out of the opposition defence. As I said earlier, the MCs in the 4-4-2 tend to be relatively defensive and most times don’t have the intelligence to spread wide or find space in front of my midfield, and if the defence hit it long then I have a spare man to sweep behind.
Another threat I have from this strikeforce is that the outer STs are deep lying forwards who can drop into that much-documented space behind the 4-4-2’s midfield. I wouldn’t usually have two players with the same role but I couldn’t resist using Berbatov and Rooney in the same line up!
The 3-4-3 is not always the best way to deal with 2 strikers or the 4-4-2, but it does show how the 3-man defence allows you to add to other areas. The moral of the story is that you can really reap the rewards of using your Match Preparation slots to the maximum; all it needs is a bit of preparation, a smattering of logic and a sprinkle of guesswork.