An example of why three-man defences struggle against three-man attacks

August 9, 2010

Who to pick up the wingers with?

ZM rarely covers anything other than top-flight football, but with 2010/11’s Premier League action not starting until next weekend, here’s an opportunity to focus on a lower league game.

The match? Exeter City v Colchester United, and it provided with a brilliant example of how three-man defences struggle when up against the 4-3-3 system. This has been covered at length before on ZM, but a case study on the subject is overdue.

First, a quick summary of the game. Exeter went 1-0 up in the seventh minute with a penalty, but found themselves 1-2 down just five minutes later after two fine Anthony Wordsworth goals. It stayed that way for the next 79 minutes, before Richard Logan poached an equaliser three minutes from time. Full highlights here.

The most fascinating aspect of the game, however, was what happened in that goalless 79 minutes. Colchester lined up with a beefy central striker, Kayode Odejayi, and he was supported by two quick outside forwards in Wordsworth and Ian Henderson. It was a fairly typical 4-3-3 – like the system favoured by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, for example.

However, Exeter were playing with a 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 system, rather than the four-man defence we’ve become accustomed to, which made for an interesting tactical battle.┬áThe problem here is that it’s difficult for that system to deal with wingers in a 4-3-3.

If the wingers are broadly picked up by the outside centre-backs, the back three can be easily stretched across the pitch, not to mention the fact that it’s quite risky in terms of pure numbers – almost all managers favour having a one-man numerical advantage at the back. If the wingers are instead dealt with by the wing-backs, that leaves the defending side 5 v 3 at the back – fine defensively, but creating a shortfall somewhere else on the pitch.

The traditional problems arose in this contest.

The basic situation at the back

Firstly, here’s Exeter’s three-man defence (in red and white) lining up towards the end of the first half, with Exeter kicking to the left. Fairly standard given the formations – three centre-backs marking the one lone Colchester striker.

The system as a whole

There was no change at half-time – here’s a more detailed look at how their side lined up defensively for the second half. The three centre-backs in yellow, the two wing-backs in light blue, and the three central midfielders in green, with the two strikers on the halfway line.

Scenario one: 5 v 3

Towards the start of the second period, the Colchester wide players were tracked by Exeter’s wing-backs, as shown below. This meant that it was a 5 v 3 at the back, and Exeter had two spare players in the centre of their defence doing little. Fine defensively, but with Exeter 1-2 down and needing a goal, this wasn’t particularly useful for their goalscoring ambitions.

Scenario two: 3 v 3

When the wing-backs pushed forward, the Exeter centre-backs moved to pick up the Colchester wide men. Colchester were happy enough with this, as it meant they were in a good position to break quickly and run at the Exeter defence. With no spare man to sweep up, as soon as one of their forwards beat an Exeter defender, they were (in theory) in on goal straight away.

Scenario three: 3 v 1

When the Colchester wingers dropped back in the defensive phase of play, this left 3 v 1 at the back. Again, we essentially have one more defender than we need – ideally we’d have one picking up the striker, and one acting as cover. Three defenders are not needed to deal with one striker, and meant that when attacking to try and find an equaliser, Exeter had 7 v 9.

The temporary solution

Eventually, Exeter realised they needed another defender dropping in to help when the situation was 3 v3 at the back, and therefore the right wing-back started to get back more quickly when Exeter lost the ball, creating a more preferable 4 v 3 when defending.

The permanent solution

The right-sided wing-back dropping in to help out worked quite well, so what was the natural outcome? A permanent four-man defence after some substitutions, with the full-backs responsible for the wingers, and 2 v 1 against the central striker. This freed up a player to get forward into a full-time attacking role, and sure enough, Exeter grabbed an equaliser.


A great example of the dilemma for managers who want to play a three-man defence. That system can work well, but generally only against a two-man strikeforce. Against three forwards, you either have a surplus (with the wing-backs dropping back) or a shortfall (with the wing-backs moving forward) in defence.

The situation is summed up by this game but is also evident at the highest level of football. Some managers have started to shift between three- and four- man defences depending upon how many forwards they are facing. Both Otto Rehhagel and Marcelo Bielsa both insist on a spare man at the back – that is to say, they want 4 v 3, or 3 v 2. Never 4 v 2, or 3 v 3. Check out Rahhagel’s shifts throughout Euro 2004, or Bielsa’s switch midway through this summer’s Honduras v Chile game for a more direct example.

Defensive tactics overall are still largely based around having one spare man at the back, whether in a three- or four-man defence* – if shifting between the two systems becomes desirable, then it is another reason why we may see the rise of the ‘modern centre-half’, quite possibly resulting in something approaching Mexico’s fluid system.

*With the slight caveat that when facing a system without wide forwards in a three-man attack, full-backs in a four-man defence count as ‘half’ a defender each.

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