Why Chelsea Play so Good? | An Analysis of the 3-at-the-back

In a dialectical switch away from our normal discussion on philosophy, I would like to share an analysis about football, a discussion of the three-at-the-back system which has served coaches like Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte so well. I hope you enjoy.

“Why do Chelsea play so good? Because they have three central defenders close and two holding midfielders moving close, the pockets closer, the structure,  the five and two players are so so close, and the distances are so close and at the same time, they are so wide with the wing backs and so depth with the Werner moving behind.”

“Rio Ferdinand Meets Pep Guardiola | Man City boss on UCL final, facing Tuchel and Foden’s potential!.” YouTube, uploaded by BT Sport, 28 May 2021, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSoFINoudcU.

In recent years, football has seen a resurgence of coaches turning to a three/five at the back system. Most notable of these being Tuchel’s Champions League winning side and Conte’s Scudetto winning side in the last season. In this essay, we would analyse how they normally function, their strengths and weaknesses, and how it can be one of the most versatile formations accessible to football teams playing at all levels. 

What is it?

As with all football formations, their shape is quite self-explanatory. Just as a 4-4-2 indicates that there will be four defenders, four midfielders, and two forwards, a three at the back system, normally a 3-4-3 (Tuchel) or a 3-5-2 (Conte) would contain three in the defense, two wing backs (considered as midfielders), two or three central midfielders and three or two forwards, depending on how the individual coach wants to set their team up. By doing so, they aim to create the potential for overloads in every area of the pitch. Normally facing against 4-3-3 teams (arguably the most common formation these days), having three at the back facilitates building up from the back. Instead of only having two central defenders, an extra man, normally a libero (a role typified by Beckenbauer) would drop back to allow for more passing options in the defensive third. This overload is theoretically applicable to the midfield as well. While on paper, it appears that a 4-3-3 should be able to overload the two central midfielders, managers have been able to find ways around this problem. Traditionally, one of these solutions being the usage of wide center backs who carry the ball into the midfield (Rudiger at Chelsea does this frequently) and function temporarily as an extra man; another option that is commonly used is that one of the forwards would also drop deep into the midfield to provide more options (Mount or Havertz does this), effectively creating at least a 3 v 3 or, in the best case scenario, a 4 v 3 overload. More recently, however, Tuchel has experimented with the usage of inverted wing backs. Instead of relying on the wing backs solely for overlaps and to provide width, by making Reece James and Ben Chilwell make more underlapping runs and also sit more narrow, Tuchel has found further ways, apart from the previous two, to create midfield overloads as well. Finally, the back three also has the potential to be very effective in the final third as well. With the usage of the wing backs to create width, at times, we saw Chelsea morph into somewhat of a 3-2-5 against teams which set up with four-at-the-back. With both the wing backs pushing forward, the full backs of the opposition are forced to either pressure the wing back, leaving space for a forward to make an underlapping run behind him, or stay more narrow and open up space for the wing backs to push into. 

Now that we have a brief overview of what a team which sets up with a three at the back aims to achieve, we can now examine the strengths and weaknesses of this formation. 

Strengths:

Evidently, one of the greatest strengths of this formation is, as suggested before, its theoretical ability to maintain and create overloads in almost every part of the pitch. As seen in the quote above by Pep, the three-at-the-back system is able to maintain its width whilst also allowing many “close” passes and small pockets of space all around the pitch. This is greatly important for a team wanting to dominate possession, increasing touches all around the pitch, but more importantly, in the final third. Furthermore, another strength of playing with three at the back is its defensive cover. By having three central defenders instead of two, teams which play this way are more immune to counter attacks, with the libero or one of the wide center backs sitting behind to deal with any dangerous through balls. Furthermore, the usage of two wide center backs allows the defensive team to have more cover in wider areas. Instead of being worried about one of the two defenders being dragged to the side, opening a potential 2 v 1 situation against the remaining defender, in a back three, even if a wide center back covers on the side, there would still be two defenders who can stay more central to prevent overloads in the final third. 

Weaknesses:

However, moving on to some of the weaknesses of this formation is its susceptibility to a high press. Even though it can maintain width and shorter passing distances, against more pressing opponents like Manchester City or Liverpool, Chelsea have faced more difficulties this season. Being more skillful opposition, it becomes more difficult to play out of the press and without players who can dribble and bring the ball out of the press or play a long ball to someone like Werner, it is very easy for a team to be pinned in their own third. This raises a further problem of playing with a back-three instead of a more classic back-four, that of having the correct personnel. In this essay, we have discussed a lot of specialist roles, the wing backs, the wide center backs, and as Pep likes to call it “the Werner”. Without the players adept to playing these roles, it becomes very difficult for this system to work. This is perhaps best seen with Chelsea’s recent decline in form after both Chilwell and James have been sidelined by serious long-term injury, without wing backs who were so good at providing both width in attack and defensive cover as well, Chelsea have had more problems with playing out of the press and providing offensive threat. Furthermore, many coaches and pundits have made the observation that Chelsea with Werner were arguably more deadly going forward than with Lukaku. While Lukaku could provide individual class and power, Werner’s ability to run in behind made it difficult for opposition teams to play a high line against Chelsea. This difference is perhaps best seen when comparing how City set up in the Champions League final in contrast to how they set up both times they beat Chelsea this season. This season, with Lukaku on the pitch, they played a higher line and pressed Chelsea tighter, however, with Werner in Porto, they were afraid of the ball in behind, and as a result, it eased off the pressing significantly. Therefore, we can see that the personnel in a back three is absolutely vital for it to work, especially against top tier opposition. You have to have wide center backs who are skillful with bringing the ball out of the back, wing backs who can provide both defensive and offensive output and, in an ideal world, a forward who is skillful at playing in behind. 

Applicability:

Now that we have observed the strengths and weaknesses of this formation, we can discuss its applicability. There is no doubt that a back-three has a place amongst the most successful tactics of the modern game, it won Chelsea the Champions League and Inter the Scudetto. However, a case can be made that it can also be used for weaker teams as well. Yes, we have developed before that it can be used very effectively to control possession and provide offensive width for stronger sides, but we have also seen weaker teams also turn to a back three with great success. Recently promoted side Brentford has had a stellar start to the season, and while they have slowed down over the season, they have been able to hold their own against some of the biggest teams, and even when they lose, they rarely do so by a margin more than one or two, which is impressive, given the recent demolition jobs we have seen carried out by Manchester City and Chelsea on weaker teams like Norwich. This can be due to the fact that instead of using the formation as a way to provide good attacking opportunities, the wing backs play more like traditional full backs who sit deeper, effectively creating a low-block of five. This makes it very difficult for any opposition to play through them or get any clear cut chances in the final third as they always have men back to defend very well, relying solely on counter attacks to score their goals. As such, we can see that the back-three, or in some cases the back-five, is greatly adaptable across all levels of the game.  

In conclusion, while it is clear that a back-three does have its weaknesses, it does provide a lot of advantages for any team which wants to use them, regardless of quality and division. Not only does it allow for a solid defensive foundation upon which one can build upon, it allows for a variety of different combinations in attack, making it one of the most balanced and successful formations in modern football. 

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