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Three at the back is the new black

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25th February, 2020

The A-League now has a majority – six of 11 – of teams whose usual formation involves three centre backs and two wing-backs.

The sudden shift to a back three in Australia is strikingly similar to what happened in the 2016-17 English Premier League season when Antonio Conte’s Chelsea won the league.

Following a 3-0 hammering by the hands of Arsenal, Conte decided to shift to a three at the back defence and found great success. The best way to counter the Blues’ formation, other Premier League teams found, was to replicate it.

By the end of that season, 17 of the 20 clubs had started the game with a three-man defence at least once.

Australian football is now going down a parallel route.

Chelsea's manager Antonio Conte follows the action during the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Everton at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017.

Antonio Conte’s tactics caught on quickly when he was at Chelsea. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

The main reason teams mirror the formation is because the roles are more clearly defined. Wing-backs can cause mayhem if the defenders are not sure whose responsibility it is to track him between the wide midfielder, the winger, and the fullback.

Bruce Kamau proved exactly that against Adelaide United’s four-man defence where he ran amok, with Gertjan Verbeek failing to provide a solution to halt the winger-cum-wing-back.


Take a look at the space Kamau enjoys in both these moments, which directly led to two goals. There’s no way that if Kamau was playing as a traditional winger, as he has previously, he would have been given the opportunity to run down the centre of the pitch like he did for that first goal in the video.

To counteract being exposed like Adelaide were, most teams have realised that they need to match them man for man.

The back three has other benefits too, especially when playing against two strikers, something which Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix have incorporated into their own structure.

With a three-man defence, you will always contain a numbers advantage against the strikers, meaning that there should be enough support to prevent forwards from creating opportunities – theoretically at least.

As you can see from the clips above, strikers are generally starved of service in these types of games and, try as they may, eventually lose the ball to the defensive pressure.

That same advantage helps in possession as well, where teams looking to play out from the back can do so comfortably as even if they are pressed with three opposition forwards, there will always be an option because of the goalkeeper.

It’s important to remember that although it’s called a back three, without possession the formation essentially becomes a five-strong defence. Even if both sides’ wingers get involved in attack, there is still a numerical advantage for the defending side.


There is an assumption that the defensive advantages mean the formation is inherently anti-attacking. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

More and more, formations are being played in two very different segments. There is the defensive formation – which is also generally what people refer to when they use examples like 4-4-2 or 3-4-3 – and also the offensive one.

On the attacking end, movement is key to disrupt and penetrate opposition defences, so these formations sometimes have no resemblance to what they look like defensively. A 3-4-3 might look like a 2-3-5 in attack.

So to attribute defensive football to a back three/five is misleading at best and outright wrong at worst.

Having said that, there are examples of Australians teams playing with the back three who are happy to control space and attack on the counter, such as Perth Glory and Western United.

Tony Popovic issues instructions

Glory coach Tony Popovic. (AAP Image/Gary Day)

While the style of football might not be attractive on the eye, Perth’s success in particular shows the very clear advantages it has, especially in contrast to earlier in the season when they started with a back four.

While playing with a three-man defence might be a solution to some problems, it still has its own weaknesses. The major issue is it makes it hard to control the middle of the park, where oppositions can have a numerical advantage and have freedom to control play with the ball at their feet.


This is why most teams with three at the back play with deep defences, as they are fearful of balls from midfield attacking the area behind them. Three-man defences are unstuck if the ball is not always in front of them.

The deviation to this formation shows how Australian football’s understanding towards tactics has grown in the past few years.

There was once a time when many in the Australian football community were outraged that the Socceroos were playing with a back three as it was apparently an insult to our own footballing culture.

Times have changed, and the A-League continues to adapt and provide solutions for the everchanging tactics within the league.

Maybe we aren’t too far from the Socceroos returning to a back three of their own.