Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.
The part of the English heart that really loves football isn’t stirred by tactics as much as pure expressions of Victorian manhood — a debilitating tackle in the January mud, or tossing off a defender in the withering rain to lash a goal home.
Tactics, then, is for the effete, cerebral, nerdy, eggheady, or worse, Italian.With the 2000s witnessing an evolutionary rise of the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations, it has been over a decade in the tactical wilderness for formations featuring three defenders at the back. There are numerous ways to describe this tactical set up, be it 3-4-3, 3-5-2, 3-4-2-1, and so on. But regardless of the designation, these formations feature three central defenders and two wing-backs to protect the flanks, pushed higher up the pitch than a traditional fullback in a four-man defense. And while the 3-man defense has yet to make its return to the EPL, it seems that Manchester City’s Roberto Mancini may be toying with this very idea.
Three-defender formations are coming back in Italy, Spain, and Germany, where games are now frequently featuring both teams playing three at the back. Mancini’s men got a first-hand taste in the Champions League this year, where Napoli took four points from the Blues in two games using a dynamic, counter-attacking 3-4-3. Napoli’s squad features aggressive, multi-faceted wingbacks, functional and energetic midfield “runners”, and three explosive forwards in Cavani, Lavezzi, and Hamsik. Sound like any Manchester sides you know?
With Zabaleta, Clichy and Kolorov (don’t worry, we’ll touch on Micah Richards below), City have three top-choice wingbacks who fly up and down the pitch in attack and defense. In the midfield, Gareth Barry, James Milner, and Yaya Toure provide tackling, ball distribution, and a willingness to get forward. De Jong is a more limited, defensive-minded player, but he could fit in a side where the other central midfielder takes up the offensive responsibilities. And Mancini, of course, has assembled such a dizzying array of attackers — Dzeko, Balotelli, Nasri, Silva, Kun Aguero, Adam Johnson — that it was an easy decision cutting Carlos Tevez loose. This afford him the luxury of shuffling his lineup to find the perfect trident in attack that would allow him to use the 3-4-3.
Mancini has already begun experimenting with such a formation, but has yet to break it out in an EPL match. City first tried it this year out of necessity, in the FA Cup against Manchester City on January 8th, following
centre center-back Vincent Kompany’s controversial sending off. Down a man and three goals behind, Mancini took off Adam Johnson and David Silva, moving Micah Richards inside as the third central defender, and City outplayed the Red Devils in the second half, scoring twice and almost completing a famous comeback. Then in the Carling Cup last week, Mancini brought in Kolorov in the second half, switching to a 3-4-2-1. City’s inability to score likely had as much to do with the fact that Liverpool parked the bus in front of goal as it did with any tactical deficiencies on City’s part. In both games, Micah Richards’ ability to play as a fullback or a centreback in a three man defense has allowed Mancini to switch easily in the middle of the game.
As with so many football trends in the 2000s, the rise of the 3-man defense, at the club level at least, can be attributed to the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. For the last three years, Barcelona developed a system whereby the defending 4-3-3 would convert to a 3-4-3 when on the attack, as Sergio Busquets would drop into the middle of defense, the centre backs pushed wide, allowing Barca’s fullbacks to push high up the pitch. The approach spilled over to the Spanish national team as well. This season, Guardiola has shown confidence in switching mid-game from a four-man backfield to three, notably in December’s El Clasico, which saw Barca turn a 1-0 deficit into a comfortable 3-1 victory after switching to three at the back.
It’s the nature of the modern game that where Barca goes, others will follow. Will Mancini be the first in England to do so? This weekend’s battle with Tottenham could prove an excellent time to spring a tactical shift, but with Spurs’ ferocious pace on the wings and strength in midfield, Mancini may choose to wait for a softer opponent.
Make no mistake about it, Clough was right. Without great players, tactics mean nothing. No smaller sides are playing a 3-4-3 right now, because they would be eviscerated every week. But Mancini has the players. So don’t be surprised if he doesn’t keep the 3-4-3 under wraps for much longer.