In England, the back three (or the use of three center-backs, as opposed to a back four of two center-backs and two full-backs) is still a novelty. Perhaps the most famous recent example are Wigan Athletic in 2011–12, when their switch to a 3-4-3 was the catalyst for a remarkable comeback in the relegation dogfight. With the 4-3-3, Wigan won 16 points in 24 games. After the formation switch, Wigan won 27 points in 14 games. During that run, Wigan defeated Liverpool and Arsenal away, Manchester United at home, and were harshly denied victory away at Chelsea. Having been bottom of the table, Wigan ended up in 15th, seven points clear of the relegation zone.
Wigan aren’t the only bottom-half club to have recently found success with a back three. Steve Bruce’s Hull City, in their first season back from the Championship, used a 3-5-2 to comfortably avoid relegation. But the sense remains that the two men were trying a back three more to try something different, rather than because of its inherent qualities. In Wigan’s next season, with other teams more acquainted with the challenge of a back three, the Latics suffered relegation. And Steve Bruce evidently felt that his 3-5-2 was not sustainable, as he switched to a back four for the following season.
Lineups for Southamption v Watford; Southamption on the left, Watford on the right; graphic courtesy of WhoScored
Unlike these two men, Walter Mazzarri is a dogmatic believer in a back three. When asked whether he would continue with 3-5-2 at Inter – where Massimo Moratti, the club’s then-president, had advocated for his managers to use a back four – Mazzarri pointed out, “Juventus have won two Scudetti with the 3-5-2.” And so it was no surprise that Watford lined up in a 3-5-2 this past weekend. In basic terms, the back three involves sticking a third center-back in defense and pushing the full-backs up to become wing-backs. The wing-backs take more attacking responsibility. Compare the heat-maps of Watford’s wing-backs against Southamption this past weekend and Watford’s full-backs in their last game of last season against Norwich:
Heat-map of Watford’s full-backs in a back four against Norwich last season; direction of play from right to left
The wing-backs are generally given more attacking responsibility and more positional freedom, while the full-backs largely stick to the touchline. But as the graphic indicates, Watford’s was a lopsided formation; José Holebas, the left wing-back, plays in a much more advanced position than Nordin Amrabat on the opposite side.
Consequently, Miguel Britos, the left-sided center-back and the defender closest to Holebas, had the busiest game of the three center-backs, with more interceptions and clearances than his two colleagues in defense. Craig Cathcart, the right-sided center-back, had closer support from Amrabat and less defensive work to do.
Everton were the other club debuting a back three at the weekend. Ronald Koeman does not have a long history with the back three. Although Koeman’s use of a back three at Feyenoord provided inspiration for Louis van Gaal to do the same with the Netherlands and (unsuccessfully) with Manchester United, the Dutchman has favored a back four throughout his career. He only used the back three at Feyenoord as an end-of-the-season experiment and stuck with a back four at Southampton.
Indeed, from the names on the team-sheet, a back four seemed more likely – Koeman named four defenders, and it would have been no surprise to see Leighton Baines and Mason Holgate at full-back. But Baines was pushed up to left wing-back, Holgate tucked in at right center-back, and James McCarthy – a central midfielder by trade – was pulled out wide to play right wing-back.
But their passing chalkboards are not dissimilar – while Baines is more involved, McCarthy takes up similarly wide positions, rather than making passes from a more central position, as one might expect a natural central midfielder to do.
Baines’s chalkboard on the left, McCarthy’s on the right; direction of play from left to right; chalkboards from FourFourTwo
Do Mazzarri and Koeman herald the reemergence of the back three in the Premier League? Among the new managers, there are quite a few who have dabbled with it. Pep Guardiola used it frequently in his final year at Barcelona and throughout his reign at Bayern. Antonio Conte’s first-choice formation was 3-5-2 at Juventus and the Italian national team. But neither of these men is wedded to it. Guardiola used the back three to give his players a challenge and alternative option, while Conte adopted it only after deciding that it worked better than the other formations he had initially tried. For now, Mazzarri and Koeman are two of a kind in the Premier League.