It's pretty common these days to see teams lining up with a back 3, but this wasn't always the case. In English football, the 3-man defense has experienced a surge in popularity in the last few years, with Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, and Wolverhampton Wanderers just some of the teams known to regularly use this approach. However, there are several ways a manager can use this foundation to structure their team.
Previously in our series on the most popular soccer formations, we explored the 3-5-2 system and its role within international soccer. But in this piece, we're going to be giving you a guide to another extremely popular shape designed around a 3-man defense. The formation in question is 3-4-3.
The 3-4-3 formation uses 3 central defenders, a double pivot in the center of midfield, two wide midfielders or wing-backs, and a front line of 3 attacking players. This shape offers balance across the pitch and the flexibility for coaches to emphasize various different strategies.
For instance, it's great for possession-oriented teams who want to play out from the back, with the midfield double pivot able to receive the ball from multiple central defenders before starting attacks. Equally, the width provided by the wing-backs and front three means it can also be effective for counter-attacking teams who want to absorb possession and hit teams on the break.
The front three in a 3-4-3 can line up in a few different ways. Many coaches will go for a narrow front three, with two number 10s sitting just behind a center-forward. It's also possible to operate with a flat front three, pushing the two wide forwards onto the wings and in line with the central striker.
One other option is to play with a false nine who drops back into creative areas and allows the two inside forwards behind them to push into more dangerous areas (Liverpool's Roberto Firmino is a good example of this kind of player).
The 3-4-3 formation is thought to have originated in Italy, which was the first country in which teams overwhelmingly played with 3 central defenders. It was adapted from the 3-5-2 shape and viewed as a more attacking option, with the flat midfield 3 being swapped out for a less defensive but equally solid double pivot.
These two players are crucial for connecting different sections of the pitch and moving play between defense and attack, and the extra space in midfield created by having just 2 CDMs allows central defenders to dribble forwards more easily. The center-midfielders in a 3-4-3 also help to switch play between the wing-backs, who have various key responsibilities within this formation.
We've just touched on one of the biggest strengths of the 3-4-3 system — width. Having a 3-man defensive system gives a team's wing-backs freedom to venture forwards and create chances from high, wide positions. These players can combine with wide forwards to create overloads on the wing, pinning opposition full-backs into deep positions and creating more space in the center of the pitch.
At the same time, the 3-4-3 shape can provide plenty of balance between defense and attack. Essentially, you've got 5 players who are committed to attacking the opponents (the full-backs and front 3) while the other 5 outfielders concentrate more on the defensive side of the game (the double pivot and 3 center-backs).
Working together, this back line of 5 can provide excellent defensive security, which is further strengthened when the wing-backs drop back. In this kind of situation, 3-4-3 is perfect for counter-attacking.
Of course, managers can choose to switch players around and keep things fluid, with wing-backs slotting into full-back positions and central midfielders pushing up to support attacks. This fluidity is one of the best qualities of the 3-4-3 formation, and the options available when it comes to supporting the lone striker are extensive.
With two wingers or inside forwards staying close at all times, and central midfielders and wing-backs regularly enjoying the freedom to get forwards into attack, it's unlikely that the lone striker in a 3-4-3 will become isolated in the way that they might under a 4-2-3-1 system, for example.
Another strength of the 3-4-3 is that it's well-suited to ball-playing central defenders who are confident in possession. Not only can they knock it about between each other and link smoothly with the midfield, but they can also push into it themselves and initiate attacks.
This is facilitated by the deeper-lying central defender, traditionally a ball-playing sweeper (referred to by the Italian term libero) who covers the two CBs on either side of him and mops up any danger.
Now, any formation that has the capacity for this kind of fluidity is bound to be demanding, and 3-4-3 is no exception. In particular, the wing-back roles here are super difficult. In these positions, you need players who are speedy, hard-working, and have excellent stamina.
They also need to have high levels of defensive commitment, as well as attacking proficiency, because throughout the 90 minutes of a match they'll be constantly moving up and down the channels.
A lack of defensive cover in the center of the pitch is also a potential risk under this system. With lots of focus placed on width, there aren't many bodies protecting the back line, so if the opposition overloads these areas, it could spell trouble.
Alternatively, if your opponents target the wide areas, this could be where they find success, as the back 3 can't cover as much space as a back 4 would, and therefore aggressive counter-attacks have the potential to rip a defensive line apart.
Many high-profile teams have used the 3-4-3 system to great effect. In this section of the article, we'll go through some of the most successful examples of this formation being utilized at the highest level.
Wherever he goes, the famously intense Italian coach Antonio Conte is known to insist on implementing a back 3 system. It's hardly surprising, considering how much success he's had with it, winning an array of trophies in Italy and England. At Chelsea, Conte's 3-4-3 system led to a dramatic upturn in form that helped the London club to win the 2016-17 Premier League title and FA Cup.
In Conte's 3-4-3, Diego Costa was the perfect lone striker, supported by creative stars Eden Hazard and Oscar/Pedro as the inside forwards. Victor Moses and Marcus Alonso excelled in the wing-back roles, offering pace going forwards, quality crosses, and dogged defensive work. Meanwhile, the combative, energetic double pivot of N'golo Kante and Nemanja Matic was arguably one of the Premier League's greatest defensive midfield partnerships.
3-4-3 was the ideal system for Barcelona's iconic manager throughout the 1980s and 90s, Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman favored this shape because it allowed him to utilize the passing ability and tactical prowess of players like Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman. Due to its highly fluid nature, 3-4-3 was also the perfect starting point for the concept of Total Football, which Cruyff pioneered as both a player and coach.
Cruyff believed that playing 4 at the back was a waste of an attacking player, and that operating with a back 3 solved this issue by creating the opportunity for more overloads in attacking areas. The width generated by the 3-4-3 formation also allowed Cruyff's possession-based teams to stretch the opposition and keep hold of the ball.
Southgate is a big fan of a back three system. As England manager, he has often favored the 3-4-3 shape, partly due to the nation's abundance of full-back talent. The speedy Kyle Walker can slot in at right-sided center-back, while dynamic, versatile players like Kieran Trippier and Reece James are perfect for the wing-back roles.
These wide players are encouraged to push forward into crossing positions and combine smoothly with the two narrow 10s (players like Raheem Sterling and Mason Mount. At times, these inside forwards will become more like wingers, allowing space in the center for other players to progress forwards. It was this system that helped England get to the final of Euro 2020, ultimately losing out to Italy on penalties.
When a team masters the 3-4-3 system in the way that Conte's Chelsea or Cruyff's Barcelona have done in the past, it can be incredibly difficult to stop them. The balance created between defensive solidity, attacking width, and fluid passing makes it one of the most popular formations amongst elite-level coaches. But that doesn't mean it's unstoppable.
The key to beating the 3-4-3 shape is to concentrate on the wings. Overloading the flanks and finding space in wide areas will allow you to take advantage of the space that 3-4-3 seeks to exploit. Doing this can also pin back the wing-backs in defense, negating the impact of two of the most crucial players within this system.
One way to do this is by matching up the opponent's shape and playing wing-backs yourself, although you can also generate width using overlapping full-backs. Crucially, playing against a 3-4-3 takes patience. You'll usually need to accept the fact that your opponents will likely dominate possession, but as long you're well prepared to exploit their weaknesses when you do have the ball, it's possible to beat a 3-4-3. This is particularly true if you take advantage of counter-attacks.
We spend time discussing various other popular tactical systems in our article on 9 of the best soccer formations explained. And if you're after another more specialized deep dive on a system built on a back three, you should check out our article on the uses, strengths, and weaknesses of the 3-5-2 formation.
Playing with a back 3 has numerous advantages. It makes it easier for defenders to control possession and progress the ball into midfield, and creates opportunities for more advanced wing-backs to cause damage in wide areas. Having 3 center-backs also allows for more fluidity, with a sweeper or libero offering cover for the LCB and RCB should they want to join attacks.
Concentrating on wing play is a good way to beat a 3-4-3 shape, because it pins back the opposition wing-backs and prevents them from making crucial offensive moves. It's probably wise to accept that a team playing 3-4-3 will dominate possession, and instead focusing your efforts on mounting effective counter-attacks.
Formations that employ 3 defenders rather than 4 (such as 3-4-3 and 3-5-2) are often seen as particularly attacking. However, other examples of especially attack-minded shapes include the 4-1-3-2 formation, and even 4-4-2 (when employed with directness and purpose), due to the extra offensive power provided by having 2 out-and-out strikers.
Fred Garratt-Stanley is a freelance writer and long-suffering Norwich City fan with experience reporting on football for a number of titles. He also has a background in music and culture journalism, with bylines in NME, The Quietus, Resident Advisor and more. Currently, he's working as a content writer for a variety of online health and fitness publications.