THREE… is it the Magic Number?

Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce greets Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel before the Premier League match at Stamford Bridge, London. Picture date: Monday February 15, 2021.

Over the course of the Premier League many teams have tried using three centre backs as opposed to the generic back four – including Newcastle’s opposition last night – Chelsea

The formations make use of an extra centre back and full backs turn into wing-backs meaning – although they still have defensive duties – they have more freedom in attack.

An example of three at the back.  The two wide players are further forward with the aim of 

being the wide option in the attack as they have an extra man of cover behind them. They 

still have their defensive duties when the opposition are attacking.

Deploying three centre backs has been a tactic used since the very early stages of organised football – notably by Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal side that used counter attacking football to win the 1929/30 FA Cup, the clubs first ever trophy.

Early three at the back formations were a 3-2-2-3 formation based on ‘The Pyramid’ which was a 2-3-5 but managers would swap a midfielder for a defender to make it the three at the back.

This was a very early form of a more modern 3-4-3.

3-5-2 came into fashion hugely in the 80s to counter the Dutch ‘total football’ approach of the 4-3-3 where every player could play any position but the five midfielders of the 3-5-2 overloaded the midfield minimising the space for the opposition.

But does this formation work for EVERY team?

Here are seven times managers made use of this defensive tactic that is being reborn in recent years and whether their efforts to use the risky formations worked in their favour or made them regret their decision.

Sheffield United – 2019/20 – SUCCESS

Chris WIlder had guided the Blades – who were only promoted to the Championship at the end of the 2016/17 season – to the Premier League and now has the task of keeping them there.

With the club being early favourites to be relegated Wilder had to do something special to keep them in the League which he did deploying a 3-5-2 putting them fifth at Christmas.

Already outperforming expectations massively, The Yorkshire side finished the season in the top half of the table in ninth missing out on a chance for European football by five points.

Liverpool – 2014/15 – FAIL

The once European champions Liverpool had started the season terribly and were in need a change to turn the tide in their favour.

Brendan Rodgers idea was to switch to a back three almost midway through the season following a 0-0 bore draw with Sunderland left them ninth in the table.

Although the Reds finished the season in sixth as opposed to ninth, Liverpool fans will have hoped for a lot more than scraping Europa League qualification rounds and finishing the season with a 6-1 loss to Stoke in Steven Gerrard’s last game.

Chelsea – 2016/17 – SUCCESS

Following a 10th place finish behind Stoke, West Ham and Southampton Chelsea fans were low on patience meaning new manager Antonio Conte had to hit the ground running – which losing 3-0 to Arsenal didn’t do.

Six games in, eighth in the table and defensively shocking Conte looked on thin ice before transforming Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses to wing backs and Cesar Azpilicueta into a centre half saw his side fly up the table to somehow win the league in his first season.

Sheffield United – 2020/21 – FAIL

After an incredible first season in the Premier League for Wilder and his men they had high hopes going into their second hoping to top their ninth place finish from the previous season.

At Christmas the Blades were rock bottom of the League with a -18 goal difference and two points on course to beat the record – set by Derby with 11 – of the lowest points tally come the end of the season.

At the time of writing they have begun to pick up points but still sit at the bottom of the League, only difference being they have 11 points as opposed to the two they had before.

Arsenal – 2017/18 – FAIL

Arsenal were coming into this season after their first season since 1995/96 where they did not finish in the top four of the Premier League.

The Gunners’ aim will have been to once again be in the top four and qualify for Europe’s most prestigious competition but Wegner’s idea of three at the back didn’t quite materialise the way he imagined.

The team from North London played the vast majority of the season with three centre backs and finished sixth with it being the first season ‘Saint Totteringham’s Day’ – which is when it is mathematically impossible for Spurs to finish above Arsenal – was cancelled.

Chelsea – 2020/21 – TBD

After an expensive transfer window and a fairly unsuccessful start to the season under club legend Frank Lampard the Ex Derby manager was sacked and experienced German manager Thomas Tuchel was brought in.

The German has already taken the Blues from ninth to fifth in the space of four games drawing one and winning the other three – including a win over Tottenham.

With things already looking good for the German there is the chance Chelsea could fly up the league, particularly if he can get fellow countrymen Kai Havertz and Timo Werner scoring.

Hull City – 2016/17 – FAIL

Coming into the season as a promoted team, Hull aimed to take the league by storm but struggled from the get go where they played with a four at the back.

After a slow start to the season manager Mike Phelan moved to a three at the back which didn’t work out how he hoped it would have.

The Tigers spent half the season with the three centre backs and wing backs before bringing the wing backs into the defence due to their shocking defensive record finishing the season with a -43 goal difference and in 18th position seeing them relegated to the Championship once again.