Welcome to the first edition of the brand new Tactics Talk series. Today I’ll kick it off by taking a closer look at different three at the back systems and its tactical variations in Football Manager.
Talking points will be how to set up back three tactics in Football Manager with its use of player roles and duties, as well as giving you a better insight to the strength and weaknesses of utilizing three at the back, whether employing a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 tactics.
Three at the back systems has seen a major resurrection the past seasons, primarily in the likes of Bielsa’s innovative system at Leeds 2019-2020, which ultimately secured Leeds’ promotion to Premier League for the first time since 2003-04. I will come back to Bielsa’s 3-3-3-1 system later on.
But it’s not only Leeds who uses a variant of three at the back systems, either as their primary or secondary home or away tactic recently.
About Tactics Talk
Tactics Talk delves into the conundrums of tactics creation in Football Manager. Apart from talking about tactics, player roles and duties I’ll be discussing tactical issues and its instructions as well as delving into tactical analysis by looking at how to counter shapes and specific threats.
Tactics Talk will also be my chance to showcase how I approach certain areas of tactical implementation and give you a closer look at my Football Manager 2021 tactics.
Last season, especially after Christmas, a number of teams modified their tactics adopting a variant of 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. Borussia Dortmund (Lucien Favre), Olympique Lyonnais (Rudi Garcia), Inter Milan (Antonio Conte), RB Leipzig (Julian Nagelsmann) and Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder side are just some of the managers and teams who have employed either 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 variants in the past months.
Even Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has gone for a back three at various occasions – depending on the opponent. And that’s the key here! But more on that later.
The fairy tale story of Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta, who somehow surprisingly grabbed a top 3 finish in Serie A – scoring the most goals within the league (98) and reaching the Quarter finals of Champions League, or Nuno Espirito Santos’ Wolverhampton, who missed out of top 5 finish in Premier League, but who won both encounters against Manchester City and lost narrowly in the Europa League quarter-finals battle against Sevilla, endorses the recent back three trends.
So what is it with three-man defences that makes managers favour it these days, and how shall you set up three at the back in Football Manager?‘
Brief History of the three at the back systems
Employing three at the back has been around for ages, more specifically since the early years of football when Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal side dazzled the world in the 1930s. His tactical preference was based on an effective counter-attacking approach, relying on a strong defence, quick short passing and pacy wingers who delivered low crosses into the box.
With his W-M system Arsenal scored 127 goals in the League – a club record that still stands today(!), whilst also being the prominent figure for securing Arsenal’s first-ever silverware by winning the FA Cup 1929-30.
The W-M, who was an adapted version of the 2-3-5 formation aka The Pyramid, removed one midfielder and employed him as a third defender letting the shape become something like a 3-2-2-3.
Basically, it was the early invention of the 3-4-3 formation we see used today.
Throughout the history of football tactics, the evolution has come through the interpretation of dominating one of the lines of the opposition, either defensively by withdrawing one forward to employ an extra midfielder or adding an extra defender instead of an attacker.
More recently, the major tactical evolution have gone on to dominate in the middle of the park as managers has increased the focus on spatial awareness and tactical superiority – denying and creating spaces, in relationship with players technical and physical abilities vastly improving within the last 50 years.
This is how the 3-5-2 formation came about, at least from my perspective.
In reality, the 3-5-2 has many fathers. This system was brought to life in the 1980s, mainly through the use of a sweeper or libero. The main aim was to combat 4-3-3 dominance, inspired by the Dutch Total Football and the attacking wingbacks 4-2-4 system, that was successful for Brazil in the 70s.
For some managers, the reasoning behind adopting a 3-5-2 formation was to pack the middle; why use fullbacks if there are no wingers within the opposition’s setup.
Others wanted an extra playmaker behind two strikers in the number 10 spot, whilst stretching the opposition and utilizing the flanks to deliver crosses into the box.
The 3-5-2 formation is a system I tend to relate to Italian football and their defensive pragmatism – implemented in Football Manager through the Catenaccio tactical style and their use of sweepers.
But it is not only Italian managers who have favoured the defensive solidity of adding an extra defender. Also, the German national team of the 1990s opted for a sweeper behind two stoppers, changing directions from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2, or a back five when defending.
Under the tutelage of Franz Beckenbauer, he guided West Germany to their third World Cup trophy, their last before Germany was finally reunited.
A former midfielder converted into central defence famed for using his sublime vision and passing abilities to unlock the opposite defence my making long penetrating passes from deep, effectively opted for a similar role within his tactics as the style of play he himself got renown for.
Using a sweeper behind two designated markers, Der Kaiser laid the foundation for the modern libero we see today.
The 1990 World Cup goes into the history books as a drab affair. Teams shutting up shop and hoping to win on penalty shoot-outs (which is what happened in the final), tight ill-tempered battles and fairly cynical football, where focus was on stopping the opposition of playing their game – utilizing man-marking and hard tackles, forced the football government to make a change.
Since then, attacking football has prevailed, mainly through the extreme possession football by Barcelona and its use of positional play.
Changes in rules, change the game and how it is played and we have seen this happen many times. For example, the changes to the offside rule in the 1920s saw the resurrection of the W-M (3-2-2-3) formation at the expense of the pyramid (2-3-5). The same happened in 1990 with the back pass law and even as recent as this year with the goal kick rule. All these changes, including the revolutionsing ones in 2008, helped us get to the game we often see today – a game dominated by quick, short passing and the importance of movements and positioning unique for the 21st century.
As always when a playing style receives success, opposite managers looks how to counter it. Whilst it is easy for big clubs (with better players) to be proactive, lesser opponents have to play a bit more reactive.
The question was how to defend against attacking wingbacks and teams playing through the middle by taking advantage of zone 14 (the area in front of the penalty box) by creating chances and goals from through balls and movements between the centre backs and fullbacks.
And it is here the return to the modern 3-4-3 / 3-5-2 systems comes into play.
So what’s the advantages of playing with a back three and what does it got to offer? Let’s examine it a bit closer.
About the three at the back systems
NOTE! In Football Manager 2020 is the 3-5-2 formation with wingbacks labelled as a 5-2-1-2 WB, 5-3-2 WB or 5-1-2-2 DM WB despite I will refer to them as 3-5-2 in this article.
Basically, we can break down the three at the back systems into two primary shapes: the traditional 3-5-2 formation and the 3-4-3 – with all their tactical variants.
No matter if the manager opts for a 3-1-4-2 DM, 3-4-1-2, 5-2-1-2 WB or a 3-2-3-2, they are all using three primary defenders, which the phrase three at the back refers too.
Utilizing a back three system is a rather reactive approach, either the manager worries about the opposite attacking line-up or simply feels more comfortable using three at the back. But it is as proactive as any other formation – all depending on the tactical instructions and your reasoning behind going for a back three.
To fully understand why teams opt for a back three system, it is important to look deeper at the strengths and weaknesses of using three-man defence formations particularly within 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 formations and the differences between them.
What are the benefits of playing with a back three? Strengths & Advantages Explained
In Defensive Phase
The sole purpose of using three defenders is to get an extra defender in the defensive line to cover the spaces on the field more efficiently.
Traditionally, it is the most valid response against two forwards, as you can employ man to man marking on both and still have a spare man tasked to cover the zones left behind the stoppers.
This will ensure numerical superiority at the back, creating a 2 vs 1 on the paper, which ultimately limits the opposite forwards room to manoeuvre in.
And that is the key here!
The defensive solidity of a three-man defence does not only create several overloads but also restrict the opponent’s options with the ball.
By using three at the back you lessen the requirements of the central defenders to possess high levels of acceleration and pace, despite that’s important treats for the modern defenders.
Instead of asking your defenders to go one-on-one against two pacy forwards and having to rely on qualitative superiority, you can rely on the covering from the third defender if one of the forwards get past his marker (think CD-cover).
3-5-2 is solid against teams playing through the middle as it denies moves into the channels and looks to prevent through balls played diagonally within zone 14.
The outer centre backs will cover the vulnerable area some teams look to take advantage of when using overlaps and creating 2 vs 1 down the flanks, which basically aims to move players out of position and let midfielders exploit the increased space between fullbacks and centre backs.
A three-man defence ensures outer defenders perfectly defends the half space channels from through balls and runs.
The positioning of the outer defenders, which defends the half space channels, means the system removes the vulnerable area between the DC and FB, and limits the counter-attacking threats in the middle of the park.
In order to make a back three work must the outer defenders possess high levels of awareness. This is something that’s rather non-existing in FM at times.
Their positioning in relationship to the other defenders, their body angle and vision to have control of the area behind them, the ball path and movements of opposing forwards in front as crosses are floated in from the other flank shows you some of the important skills required to make back three systems work.
The key in all back three systems are compactness – making it more difficult for the opposition to break down their defensive lines and come to goal-scoring opportunities from the middle area.
It’s important that the three defenders are positioned close and that the midfield line isn’t too high. Ideally, you’d like to restrict the abilities of the opposition to play between the lines, either by employing a holding midfielder in the centre of midfield 5 or an asymmetric shape within the 3-4-3 (e.g the 5-1-2-2 DM WB which Wolverhampton often deploys in FM – which seems impenetrable, as all players cover zones and lines perfectly).
The reason for adding an extra midfielder to retain a 5 man midfield, either it’s 4+1, 3+2 WB or 5+1 WB, is the battle of midfield superiority. By opting for such a system you admit that in order to dominate the centre and control that area of the pitch, you give the opposition permission to take advantage of the wide areas.
By congesting the centre of the pitch and utilizing a deep block which removes the possibilities of playing in behind the stoppers, the opposition must rely on long shots or crosses as the area in front of the penalty box is congested.
Here will the defensive width settings be highly important in relation to your shape. It’s utterly important that you find a balance where the players are positioned a few metres between each line and between each player. Having a compact shape ensures the opponent will have a hard time penetrating your defensive block.
If compactness are combined with intense pressing at specific positions, specific man-marking and instructing players to push the ball onto the opposite players weaker foot – preferably inwards where you are 6 vs 4 (3-4-2-1 vs 4-4-2), you’re able to deny passing options and intercept the ball path in the middle of the pitch and on to the wings.
With wingbacks or wide midfielders tasked to mark the wingers, it requires more from the central midfielders. It’s utterly important that the entire team can move quickly from side to side and the outer mids in a three-man midfield will help cover up the flanks aiding the wingbacks to restrict opposite wingers’ chances of beating him one-on-one.
More on that in the section looking closer at the disadvantages!
In defensive transition or when opponents is playing out from the back, the two forwards can immediately put pressure on the centre backs, while defensive wingers in a 3-5-2 (flat) or 3-4-1-2 can take up position alongside opposite fullbacks. If using an attacking midfielder (3-4-1-2) you can take out the passing lanes for the goalkeeper in the centre of the pitch as well. By man-marking the defensive midfielder, the high press can force the goalkeeper to play long – increasing the chances of regaining possession in the opponent’s half.
For a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 formation to work in an attacking essence – managing to create overloads against the opposition, it is important it is fluid. Here the duties of the wingbacks or wide midfielders and their responsibilities in both, transitions, defensive and attacking phase will be important for the tactics to succeed.
The wingbacks or wide midfielders are the only ones who primarily provides the width. In addition to stretching the playing surface they are also required to move forward when entering the final third. As they go forward the shape will transit from 5-3-2 / 5-4-1 in defensive phase to 3-2-5 or 3-3-4 – depending on the players’ duties.
As the wingbacks go forward it’s important that the outer defenders stay wider – covering the half space channel from counter-attacking initiatives in case the attack breaks down. This can be sorted by clicking the player instruction Stay Winder as seen on the illustration below.
The reason for asking the outer defenders to stay wider is to cover for the forward runs of the wingbacks / wide midfielders providing a better passing angle for them in case they are forced to retain possession. Their angle will also ensure the play can be shifted from the flank to the central areas of the pitch if the wide players are closed down and a backpass is needed to get out of trouble.
Positioned in the half space channel, the wide central defenders perfectly connects with the central midfielders, the holding centre back and the wingbacks. Their body position and angle ensure they got a diagonal vision on almost the entire playing surface.
This little trick is something Atalanta has used at great effect this year.
With an increased space between the central defenders and wide players moving further forward it will be difficult for a two-man forward line to close them down and isolate them. They are forced to work in relationship to each other with assistance of the wingers or attacking midfielders to break the ball path.
What are the disadvantages with three at the back systems?
Out of possession
One of the most prominent weaknesses with a three-man defence, especially in a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2 flat is the huge space behind the wide midfielders / attacking wingbacks.
By removing the vulnerabilities between the DC’s and FB’s means you are practically moving the vulnerability to another area – this time to the flanks.
This means that you are more comfortable letting the opposition come to crossing opportunities from wide areas rather than through balls and shots taken from a better angle closer to, or in front of the goal.
Facing a 4-2-4, 4-1-4-1 DM Wide, 4-4-1-1 or any system that relies on wing play can tear your system apart due to their ability to easily create overloads and overlaps down the flank as they got two wide players who can support each other.
Personally, I believe it may be more favourable to let the opposition come to more crossing opportunities rather than shots, especially if your defenders lack mobility and quickness.
Effectively, it means the defenders requires better physic (strength), aerial prowess (height, jumping reach and heading), anticipation and positioning – basically being better in the air than the opposition.
As always with a system that creates a vast amount of space in an area, the opposition will look to take advantage of it.
The 3-5-2 formation, in particular, is highly vulnerable to quick shifts of play to the opposite flank when defending. The 3-4-2-1, even more!
The constant shifting across the pitch to cover spaces that materializes on the opposite flank is one of the major weaknesses with three-man defence formations, and it requires a lot of your players, both in terms of workload, teamwork and stamina.
The role of the central midfielders, especially in the 3-4-3 system becomes highly important in order to combat overloads and overlaps down the flanks. Required to move out wide to help the wide midfielders and the outer defenders from becoming outnumbered and easily played through the central midfielders has to shuttle between the channels; central – half space – wide and back again!
It’s here the Carrilero comes into its fullest effect!
Shuttling between the channels, the Carrilero will be perfect for systems that rely on two-men midfield, especially in front of a back three (3-4-3) or a back four (4-2-4), as he will be tasked to cover the wide areas when the ball is there and the centre of the pitch if the ball is there.
In difference to the 4-3-3 or any flat back four, a back three system puts more requirements towards the wingbacks or wide midfielder’s responsibilities.
Forced to cover the entire flanks, the wide players will have to run up and down the wings. Basically, contribute to all phases of play – supporting the forwards in the final third and defending in a back five together with the three primary defenders.
What’s Borussia Dortmund have done magnificently last season was to use inverted wingers who start deep, but who cuts inside and becomes a highly effective weapon with their intelligent movements from wide positions and into the centre of the penalty box. Starting out as wingbacks in a 3-4-3 system, they becomes the fourth and sometimes fifth forward!
Last season, Raphael Guerreiro scored 8 goals and 2 assists, while the opposite wide player Achraf Hakimi made 10 assists and scored 5 goals.
Not only proves this that using wide midfielders or wingbacks can be an attacking weapon within three-man defences, but also about their role and responsibilities, both in terms of defensive and attacking capabilities (think support / attack duty).
What you have to take into account is that it’s difficult for a 3-5-2 to create any forms of overlaps, as you aren’t capable of doubling up on the flanks. Still, you got options to create overloads through the half spaces, either through mezzala’s that makes diagonal runs towards the wide areas and can overlap inverting wingers / wide midfielders.
To make it work, it is important that the forwards are mobile and at least one drops deep aiming to draw a defender out of position. If one of the forwards move wide, the Mezzala can also overlap him.
Another option which can be effective are by utilizing underlaps. It is easiest to setup in a 3-4-3 formation having both wide midfielders, wingers or inverting wingers and attacking midfielders (3-4-2-1), as you can let the wide players hug the touchline while runs come from deeper positions as central midfielders move into channels or attack the space between the opponents.
In these situations, the wide forward can stay wider, holding a position close to the sideline, while an attacking midfielder / inverted winger initiate runs down the half space channel. A quick one-two or an underlap here can quickly get you into a goal-scoring position.
The last major weakness within 3-4-3 systems or counter-attacking 3-5-2 tactics is that the game can turn into a tactical battle where the opponent tries to replicate your formation. Take Wolverhampton in Premier League 2019-20 season for example. 14 draws and the joint most together with Arsenal and Brighton speaks for itself.
Matches between two teams employing a 3-4-3 can turn into a boring affair where teams magnificently neglect spaces for the opposition to lavish in.
If we look closer at the statistics from Wolverhampton’s 2019-20 season they almost concede as much as they score. 51 against 40. The weaknesses with being easily overloaded on the flanks might see you concede goals often…
But if you find the right balance within your system, the 3-4-3 especially can turn into a highly attacking fluid powerhouse. Simply look at Atalanta and what they managed in 2019-20 season! 98 goals!
But like Wolverhampton, they conceded over 40 goals!
But this article is not about the attacking aspects of 3-4-3 systems or playing with five midfielders. So let’s look at how to use three at the back in Football Manager and its tactical variants.
How to Setup Back Three Systems in Football Manager? Tactical Variants Explained
There are a number of ways you can set up a three-man defence in Football Manager.
The roles and duties you intend using depend on your tactical style, your players capabilities and which team instructions you applies relating to offside traps, defensive line and how you want your team to behave in attacking transitions or in possession of the ball, such as when building out from the back.
Following I will discuss five different tactical variants of how to setup a back three system in Football Manager. The aim is to make it easier for you to decide on the roles and duties for your future tactics, and perhaps help you better the defensive solidity of your current tactic with a better balance of duties and roles for your defenders.
I’ll discuss the four types of centre back roles in Football Manager, looking a bit closer at the ball playing defender, central defender, no-nonsense defender and the libero along with the three duties; stopper, cover and defend.
Following statements are all my views and opinions about the matter and should not be treated as the only solutions. Basically, I’m only talking about how I am or would approach the matter according to my experience and visions.
Variant 1: DC-D – DC-D – DC-D
Opting for three central defenders with defend duty is one of the most basic solutions in Football Manager. By going for three central defenders with defend duty you will ensure they hold the line and retain the shape in all situations. Here they will balance the risk and reward by holding position and simply engage with the opponent when required.
Using three defend duties is not only reactive but a solid solution for a deep compact block.
It’s primarily used in a setup with two wingbacks with attacking duties as they will defend the spaces left by the more advanced players, making it difficult to be penetrated.
Selecting three defend duties, forces you to opt for a ball winner higher up the pitch who can close down runs and force creative players playing between the lines to make rushed decisions.
My preferences would be to opt for a supporting defensive midfielder, such as a regista, defensive midfielder or a ball-winning midfielder in front of the defensive back three.
It aims to regain possession higher in the pitch as the back three will be some sort of a security net in case the opponent breaks through the midfield line.
It would be my definitive solutions in more fluid systems where you have to rely on more players contributing to the build-up phase and transition phases.
Their rather standard approach to pressing (relating to your team instructions) will make them reluctant to quickly push out to close down the opposite player with the ball, unless using more urgent pressing intensity. It will give the opposite player more time on the ball to pick out passes, come to goal-scoring opportunities or simply get time to get control of the ball.
Nevertheless, it’s no reason for not opting for three players at defend duty.
Apart from fewer requirements of the player in terms of defensive capabilities compared to a ball-playing defender, their ability to hold the line is perfect for any sides wanting to apply the offside trap!
They will move in cooperation with each other and once they have build up partnership with the other defenders they are able to push up and move as one unit.
Their focus on retaining possession and play short simple passes to the sides or closest player nearby is suitable for possession-based systems or sides wanting to hold possession to lower the tempo of the match.
But with less progressive passes and less adventurous passing game, their passes will quickly become repetitive – meaning it’s easy for the opponents to snuff out passes and set up a pressing trap that limits the passing options.
Variant 2 A: CD-D – CD-C – CD-D
Another of the main solutions when looking to use three at the back in Football Manager is using three central defenders; defend duty towards the flank and a cover duty in the middle. The defend – cover – defend setup replicates the traditional setup where you got two markers and one sweeper.
Playing with three central defenders is all about not letting your central defenders take any unnecessary risks both in terms of marking and pressing or in possession of the ball. Their cautious (lower mentality) aims to first and foremost retain possession of the ball when in-possession of it, approach to regain possession only when it’s appropriate or limit the opponent’s goal-scoring opportunities by standing close next to each other.
As the two defenders stay in line, the covering defender will drop off looking to defend the area behind in case the opponent manages to break through, either he has to sweep up through balls or engage with a breaking player.
With the sweeper role removed in Football Manager, the covering duty will basically act similar to how the sweeper would have positioned himself in the defensive third.
He’s the spare man in the middle of the field – tasked to read the game well and anticipate if, where and when the opposition can break through. While the others tracks runs, intercept the ball path or closes down forwards and inverted wingers as they come at them, the positioning of the covering defender ensures security at the back.
If the opponent manages to get through the defensive line the extra layer of security with the covering defender limits the opponent to a clear shot on goal or coming through at the goalkeeper in one on one situations.
By covering the space behind the defensive line in the defensive third, the player requires high levels of anticipation, decisions, positioning and concentration.
Since he drops between the central defenders and goalkeeper, immediately when the ball is in dangerous areas and the opponent can break through, applying an offside trap is nearly useless, due to his tendency to drop deeper.
It’s important the covering defender got the pace to track runs and get into the right positioning.
If utilizing the off side trap with a covering defender, it’s important that not only the partnerships are strong, but also that he is fast at pushing out of his deep positioning at the right time!
The defend/cover/defend variant with central defenders can be applied no matter the defensive line or whether or not you’re using a holding midfielder in front of him or not.
Using a holding midfielder (e.g. DM-D, anchor man or deep-lying playmaker) in front of the back three creates a 3+1 which is efficient against 4-2-3-1 formations, as the holding midfielder can track the space in front of the defensive line as well as having control of the creative outlet in AM position.
By using a holding midfielder in front of the back three you are almost playing with four defenders, which means you can give both of or one of your wide midfielders or wingbacks more attacking duties, as the defensive midfielder (DM-D) can cover the entire area in front of the defenders.
Without a defensive-minded midfielder or holding midfielder in front of the back line, it may leave a huge gap in front of the covering defender which the opponent can exploit.
It might even cause a problem for a 3-4-3 formation with two supporting midfielders, as the opponent can more easily take advantage of the space between lines.
Using two covering duties next to each other is definitely not recommended due to their lower pressing intensity. It will frankly leaves too much space and too much time for the attackers on the ball to be effective.
Whilst it’s most commonly used in tactics with lower defensive lines, it could be advantageous for tactics who aims at regaining possession high up the pitch to select a covering duty at the back. As the players in front of him hunt to regain possession quickly, the ‘sweeper’ can control the space behind the defensive line for opposite counter-attacking opportunities if such quest fails.
It’s important that the player understands when it’s favourable to drop off and not using his decision-making and abilities to read the game to decide on dropping off or closing down the player.
What I like about the covering role is his abilities to limit the attacking threats of moves into channels and teams looking to take advantage of runs between the central defenders. And if the opponent relies on crosses from deep, the covering defender will enhance security at the back already in a position to battle in the air against the opposing forward.
In possession of the ball, will the three central defenders look to retain possession and feed the more advanced players, who got more creative privileges, with the ball? They will all be tasked to play shorter passes and be reliable in their play.
In a basic 5-3-2 system, it’s not uncommon to use a central defender defend + cover + defend alongside supporting wingbacks on the flank, something that creates a compact shape that’s difficult to penetrate as there are few metres between each player and the back five perfectly covers each of the 5 channels.
Variant 2 B: BPD-D – CD-C – BPD-D
A similar variant to the above, but instead of using central defenders you’re using ball-playing defenders. The players will still hold the line and move quite similar to a chain.
How they behave in defensive phase will be identical to playing with a central defender as their main task is to stop the opposing attackers from entering the box, come to shot opportunities and play through balls into more dangerous areas of the pitch.
The only difference is that instead of asking your outer defenders to play a sensible passing game, their higher mentality will let them be more adventurous in their passing game.
With an increased mentality, level comes more creativity and risk-taking, especially in possession of the ball.
Using a ball-playing defender / central defender partnership can be highly advantageous no matter the tactical style you’re aiming for. With one tasked to retain possession, the other can initiate defensive splitting through balls that aim to penetrate the lines of the opposition and advance play quicker and earlier.
The setup of opting for ball-playing defenders on the outer positions is a smart way for gegenpressing or possession-based systems that relies on short passing style to better connect with the creative midfielders up front.
Due to a higher ambitious level with his passing approach, it’s utterly important he possesses the skills for it. A ball-playing defender requires better vision, passing and technique compared to the traditional defender.
Capable of building up play by retaining the possession despite making more diagonal and vertical passes than a traditional central defender, the ball-playing defender will be an important outlet in your way to opening up the defensive block.
As this illustration shows, the ball-playing defender has multiple passing options, but instead of retaining possession that central defenders most often favours, the BPD will build-up play by seeking to get the ball into more dangerous positions; whether out wide or in front of himself.
It’s important that any ball-playing defenders got the composure and the first touch to not only get in control of the ball quickly but also be calm in possession – not getting stressed if closed down.
Using pass into space and two ball-playing defenders might let you see too many misplaced passes as the player looks to make direct passes fairly early – skipping the midfield line entirely.
In the above screenshot, I’ve asked them to stay wider, ensuring they better connect with the wide midfielders and central midfielders. With his position, he can turn play either directly towards the forward or get the ball to the central midfielder who better connects with the wide midfielder as he’s in passing shadow.
The reason for asking the BPD to stay wider has also the benefit of making it more difficult for the opposition to close them down. If one presses high, it will create an open space in behind or to the side of the first defender. This means that the forwards have to split wide making it easier to bypass the press.
Variant 3 A: CD-D – BPD-ST – CD-D
What do you do if you’re lacking a holding playmaker at the base of your midfield?
One solution is to go for a setup of two outer central defenders at defend duty and one ball-playing defender at stopper duty. Another is to use a libero, which we will talk about in the next chapter.
The central defender defend and ball-playing defender stopper trio is a setup I would prefer to use in 3-4-3 systems where you need supporting midfielders that must contribute to all phases of play (e.g B2B, Carrilero, Mezzala or Central Midfielder).
The basic idea behind this setup is that the ball-playing defender will in defensive phase push out of the line to close down the opposite player with the ball as quickly and early as possible, whilst becoming some kind of a deep playmaker who initiates attacks with his more direct passing approach.
Basically, whilst the central defenders hold position and cover the zones on the sides, the BPD-stopper will aggressively look to regain possession or engage with the attacker to reduce his time on the ball.
As the BPD pushes out, he will most likely block the attackers opportunity to shoot straight at goal from central areas. It can catch the opposing forwards off guard as you aims to force him to make a rushed decision.
To make this work, the stopper requires not only aggression, bravery and decision, but also pace and tackling to win back possession. A typical stopper is Carles Puyol, who risked everything at regaining possession as he closed down and used his strength and tackling abilities to reduce the opposite forward’s control of the ball.
I’ve not talked too much about suitable traits, but now I find it appropriate.
My reason for opting for a ball-playing defender in the centre of a standard 3-4-3 formation relies only at what you want from him in possession of the ball.
Coupled with the trait to bring the ball out of defence and asked to play a more expansive passing game, you can turn the BPD stopper into your main deep playmaker!
As he brings the ball out of defence he can overload the midfield line and better connect with the players in front of him. As he moves out with the ball (similar to a libero), he will force the nearest players to make a decision; close him down or let him go?
If they doubt for a few seconds, he’s already advanced further up the pitch and brought the ball into more advanced areas – skipping the entire build-up phase.
NB! Bringing the ball out of defence can also be desired for one of the two BPD-D in variant 2 b.
If they close him down, it will create space behind them which can be taken advantage of. And if the BPD is required to play a back pass, he will have the cover of the central defenders in perfect shape diagonally to either side of him.
This variant is also a decent option if you’re playing with a 3-4-3 facing a 4-2-3-1 AM narrow, as you are more able to pressurize the creative number 10 better.
Variant 3 B: DC-D – L-A – DC-D
The next option in a three back system is using the Libero.
The libero role is closely linked to the Catenaccio style made famous by Helenio Herrera’s La Grande Inter. Within his tactics he deployed a spare man – a sweeper – in the likes of Armando Picchi to cover behind two traditional defenders.
The historical background to the differences between a sweeper and a libero didn’t come from differences in tactical instructions, but a personal interpretation of how the sweeper role was fulfilled. Basically, the personality of the player playing behind the stoppers in the Verrou or the Catenaccio brought us these two distinct roles in Football Manager.
In Italian libero means free – which perfectly illustrates the role in Football Manager.
In the defensive phase will the libero sweep up through balls and drop behind the defensive line similarly to defenders with covering duty. He’ll work tirelessly to block and intercept passes and shots, track attacking runs and cover for any defensive errors.
His objective is to have control of the area behind the defenders, acting as the last line of defence ready to pick up any loose balls, intercepts through balls or head away crosses that’s pointed behind the defensive line.
In order to fulfil his role in the defensive phase, the libero is required to read the game pretty well. His anticipation, concentration and positioning is utterly important.
He has to spot dangerous areas which need to be covered and get in position to cover that area quickly with pace and acceleration.
In contrary to the sweeper, the libero will have full freedom to progress with the ball into the midfield – creating numerical superiority in the centre of the pitch.
While I personally would favour the libero in a fluid 3-5-2 system, it can also be used in a balanced 3-4-3 system with defensive wingers – turning the four men midfield into five in possession of the ball.
At some points, you can describe the libero as a mix of a midfielder and a defender – acting somehow similar to a defensive midfielder. He needs great levels of teamwork as he will become a valuable asset in the build-up phase.
In possession of the ball the libero can spread passes in front or to the wide of himself, acting as some kind of a deep-lying playmaker.
As he gets the ball and runs forward with it into the midfield line he is required to utilize his creativity and vision to get the ball into the final third. In order to bypass press and lavish in one-on-one situations, he requires decent dribbling, agility and balance to overcome his opponent.
His first touch, passing abilities and technique is as important as his flair and decision-making level on when to go forward and not, and where to pass and not.
Either you decide to retrain a defensive midfielder or possesses a suitable ball-playing defender, you need a complete defender or all-round player who are as defensive strong as attacking creative.
As he steps up in midfield in possession of the ball you don’t need a holding midfielder in front of him nor a primary playmaker – meaning you can better balance the attacking outlet of your system with runners, shuttlers and ball winners.
Due to his higher mentality and tendency to take more risks, it’s important to lower the defensive line. Playing with an extremely high line will surely make you fragile for getting overloaded with runs in behind his position.
The Libero in Football Manager is available in support or attack duty, in difference to cover, stopper and defend as the other defenders.
The biggest difference of a supporting libero and an attacking one how far up the player will venture. With an attacking duty he will have the freedom to join the attack by making more forward runs and become a highly threatening attacking asset.
It’s no longer the case about overloading the midfield line by destabilizing the defensive pressing shape of the opponent, but also make him get closer to the opponent’s penalty box – perhaps due to his learned trait to arrive late in the area or by using the attack duty.
By joining the attack and stray outside the penalty box the attacking libero will have the license to take long shots and through balls from zone 14.
It’s really an intriguing role!
Remember! With the libero you’ll have a player who can create numerical superiority at the back in addition to within the midfield line. The only question; do you got the right player for it?
But if you got the right player for it, he can be highly effective; initiating attacks from deep by his sublime passing range and vision.
If going for an libero it’s important to remove the ‘Stay wider’ player instructions, if selected, on your outer defenders as the illustration above reveals the major gap the opponent can counter in, if the build-up from the libero breaks down.
Due to his default movement to drop behind the defensive line it is not necessary to pair him with another covering duty defender.
Additionally, his risk-taking and passing approach will be too similar to the ball-playing defender which means it’s not recommended to pair him with the BPD either.
Variant 4: BPD-ST – DC-D – BPD-ST
This variant is one I experiment with in my latest 3-4-2-1 Space Invader 2.0 Football Manager tactic.
By opting for two ball-playing stoppers on the outer sides of a traditional central defender I aim to compress the space between the lines by letting my stoppers quickly close down inverted wingers or attacking midfielders coming down the half space channel.
It’s a fairly risky choice coming up against a fluid system that relies on intelligent movements and through balls, but instead of letting them get time and space with the ball, I want my wide defenders to push out of defensive line early.
This option can be a valid option if you are not using wingbacks or a holding midfielder in front of the defensive line as in a 5-1-2-2 WB DM.
In order to make this work, as all three-man defences with ball-playing defenders, it is required to get the right player in each position and form a strong partnership between them.
The system focuses on intercepting diagonal passes before they enter the dangerous zone 4 (opponents zone 14). It’s a rather proactive approach to defending as I aim to destabilize the opponents attacking build-up by asking as many players to close down the wide players early on.
This will not work unless the tactic is very balanced in terms of shape and role/duty setup. As they push up you need someone who covers the area behind or to the sides of the stopper.
My thought when setting up this variant was to use it against typical 4-2-3-1 systems.
As my front line presses high and intense, the stoppers aim to win first balls that is cleared long by the back line, by stepping up in the vulnerable area between defenders and midfielders.
Playing such a system can only be done with a fluid or very fluid team mentality where players can support and cover each other in all phases of play. I don’t believe it would be necessary to use two stoppers if I had been using wingbacks.
With a fluid team fluidity, I rely my tactics on having multiple players roam around and interchange positions. If one moves up, another will defend and cover.
I’m yet to find out if the system works perfectly, but two stoppers on outer sides can be a solid solution depending on whom you face and the capabilities of the opposing attacking line.
Variant 5: DC-D – DC-C – NCB-D
Finally, I’d like to talk a bit about the no-nonsense centre-back.
This role is typically used for route one tactics or tactical styles where you aim to play a highly direct passing game at cautious mentalities with a structured or flexible team mentality.
The no-nonsense centre back is a role that is fairly limited in terms of capabilities required of a player to fulfil.
In contrary to the ball-playing defender he will take fewer risks with the ball and is more reliant to make long clearances and get the ball out of dangerous zones rather than trying to look for short passing options to close recipients if coming under pressure.
As the role description reveals, the NCB role is all about efficiency; focused at breaking up attacks, block shots and make interceptions, which reveals in his key attributes; positioning, tackling, marking, heading and strength.
Frankly, it is the perfect option for limited defenders often playing in the lower leagues. If the ball-playing defender is the modern defender, the no-nonsense centre-back is the more outdated player role which was more traditionally used in England twenty or so years ago.
The role is available at all duties, but personally I would simply go for a defend duty and only have one player tasked to fulfil the role.
Since he could be considered as the opposite role of the BPD I would not recommend to pair them together, nor pair him with the libero.
The NCB role is perfect for structured tactics which opt for a deep block and lower defensive lines – often inviting the opponents to come at them before taking advantage of the space behind the opponents d-line.
His more direct passes, clearances and focus on playing way out of trouble can become a highly valuable asset in a teams quest to initiate counter-attacks as he hoof the ball over the opponent’s midfield line and towards wide areas or middle of the pitch where the target man or deep-lying forward are positioned.
The role is better used in partnership with a central defender next to him in a four-man defence rather than a three at the back system. If I should create a 5-4-1 route one / direct counter-attacking tactic I would have opted for a no-nonsense centre-back defend at one of the outer side positions next to a covering defender.
Opting for central defenders or ball-playing defenders comes mainly down to your tactical style and the attributes of your defenders. The variants above can easily be replaced with either a central defender instead of a ball-playing defender or a ball-playing defender instead of a central defender.
It’s favourable to have at least one ball-playing defender for any sides preferring to play out of defence, no matter you employ him in the centre of the park or on the sides.
It’s also worth to remember that the player attributes and their level of aggression, passing and pace will have a huge impact on how they will utilize their role. A player with higher aggression level will most likely close down often at systems with high pressing intensity despite playing with a covering duty.
3-4-3 vs 3-5-2? Which System to opt for?
Opting for 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 comes mainly down to whether the manager finds wingbacks in DM-strata or wide midfielders pushed further up most advantageous.
Here it is important to remember that no team solely defends with three, as both three-man formations can transform into a back five in the defensive phase as wingbacks or wide midfielders drop deep. It all depends on their duty and team fluidity.
A 5-2-1-2 WB or what I have referred to as a 3-5-2 formation in this instance has one major advantage versus the 3-4-3. As wingbacks drops deep to support the back line forming a back five, you ensure defensive solidity in cases where the wingback has to push out of their position to close down opposite wingers. When they push out it means you will still play with a back four!
Utilizing a flat 3-5-2 adds both an extra defender as well as an extra midfielder, but in the expense of an attacker, meaning the shape will ensure numerical superiority both in defence, in midfield as well as in the middle compared to 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 systems.
If we compare the 3-4-3 formation and the 3-5-2 system one important difference becomes visible when comparing the systems passing options and shape.
While a 3-5-2 system has six players covering the middle of the pitch, a 3-4-3 will only have five.
The case with, and somehow disadvantage of, the 3-4-3 is its reliance on finding a balance between width and player positioning to overcome midfield inferiority. It’s utterly important to get the duties right as well as finding a shape that haven’t major issues areas.
By using two central midfielders, the middle can easily be outnumbered against a 4-2-3-1 system. They really need to be mobile and provide passing options for the wide players in the attacking transition phase as well as aiding the build-up play by coming deep as well as supporting the forwards.
But what it provides is total freedom for the attacking players to roam and find space to lavish in.
It is no wonder why Johan Cruyff favoured the 3-4-3 formation, and disciples of Total Football has used it. Like the 4-3-3, the 3-4-3 specifically creates diamonds, both in the middle of the pitch and on the outer flanks. And as you all might know; diamonds ensure there are multiple passing options at all times.
Within the 3-4-3 there are at least three passing options per player. Their connection, positioning and compactness do not only increase possibilities of regaining possession (think gegenpress), but also the chances of retaining it. It’s just sublime for possession-based football!
The 3-4-3 formation in possession is in reality similar to the 4-1-4-1 DM as you opt for the halfback who drops in-between the two central defenders.
Looking closer at the passing map for the 3-5-2, compared to the 3-4-3, one evident truth reveals; the passing options become fewer and fewer the further up the lines we go!
This means that a 3-5-2 system is more inclined to direct play compared to the 3-4-3 as the forwards require more support from the wingbacks and central midfielders to play a short passing combination play.
Basically, the 3-5-2 is more particular opted for teams playing on the counter as you often sit deep and look to utilize long penetrating passes to the forwards up front.
A 3-5-2 flat as in the example above lacks a creative player behind the two forwards. Here it is more normal to use a holding player in the centre of the park. In order to ensure some kind of support to the forwards, you can let one of the outer mids (MCR /MCL) to ‘cut inside with the ball’ – moving diagonally from his half space positioning to the centre of the pitch – becoming some sort of an attacking midfielder with the ball.
This movement will let you benefit from the shape of the 3-4-1-2 by asking a number of players to play between the lines and look to take advantages of the channels between fullbacks and centre backs or central midfielders and wingers.
It is this ability to instruct more players making deep runs and move further forward that makes 3-5-2 more counter-intuitive compared to the 4-3-3 system.
The situations with the inability to create natural overlaps occurring is why some teams prefer to go for a 3-4-3 wide – meaning you are using a lone forward in partnership with (inverted) wingers, somehow similar as Bielsea’s 3-3-3-1 system used most prominently against opponents employing a 5-3-2 system.
Whether opting for a 3-4-3 system or a 3-5-2 formation all depends on the players at your disposal, how you like to counter the opposition according to their strength and weaknesses and your preferences to the tactical style; whether you favour a passing game or a more direct counter-attacking approach.
Hopefully, this guide will give you a better insight to three at the back systems and why or why not you should use it.
Have you ever experimented with a back three in Football Manager? How would you set up your back three in Football Manager? Let me know in the comments on how it went. Please share, retweet and recommend this article to your friends if you enjoyed reading it!
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