Many moons ago, back during Louis van Gaal’s first season at Manchester United, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher debated the suitability of three-man defences in the Premier League amid a predictably insightful edition of Monday Night Football.
Neville argued such formations require specialists for most positions, making them incompatible with the 4-2-3-1-dominant English top flight. Carragher, whether simply playing devil’s advocate for the sake of intellectual discussion or genuinely declaring his beliefs, protested otherwise.
Neville later backed up his theory by showing a clip of himself and Carragher struggling in Steve McClaren’s 3-5-2 setup as England suffered a shock 2-0 defeat at the hands of Croatia, highlighting right-footed Carragher’s discomfort on the ball in the left centre-back role and his own inability to jink past opposing defenders as the right wing-back.
The majority view Neville as English football’s top pundit, albeit Carragher not too far behind, as the jewel in the Sky Sports crown and the reigning king of whiteboard analysis. His ability to not only insightfully dissect performances but also articulate his point effectively keeps the Manchester United icon a level above his contemporaries. On this occasion, however, all those moons ago, Neville got it wrong – something the 2016/17 Premier League campaign has proved in abundance.
Neville’s theory was certainly understandable; wing-back is a difficult position to get your head around tactically, largely because of the many potential two-on-one scenarios, and demanding physically, requiring the energy to marshal a whole flank single-handed. Likewise, one of the advantages of having three centre-backs is that they’re given more time and space on the ball – but that’s of little consequence if certain defenders are made to play on their weaker foot.
Yet, subliminally attached to Neville’s logic was the old adage of three-man defences being alien to the English game. Glenn Hoddle was vilified for it when serving as Tottenham manager, Terry Venables flirted with it and endured mixed results at Euro 96.
Overall, it was seen as a foreign idea from more fanciful top flights, the strengths of which were rarely looked into or discussed. Neville, like the rest of us, was naïve. It has even been argued that English footballers struggled in the formation because they’d rarely been taught it at academy level – almost as if the systematic issue traces back to the crux of the English game’s DNA.
It’s a vast contraction to Neville’s thinking, then, that 2016/17 has been the season of 3-4-3, the formation rather tellingly used most frequently by the two teams at the top of the Premier League table and perhaps even more tellingly, introduced by the manager of the club, Chelsea, who are just two wins away from being anointed as champions.
Indeed, Antonio Conte’s implementation of 3-4-3 in September has transformed the Blues back in the Premier League’ most dominant force and largely defined their campaign. Before that, following defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool, they looked top-four worthy at absolute best. Since then, Chelsea have lost just three Premier League games, winning 23, and the formation has been adopted by almost the entirety of the rest of the division.
All but three of the top flight’s twenty sides have used the system or a three-at-the-back variation at least once this season, albeit with varying degrees of success and for varying time periods, including every side in the top seven. Even Arsene Wenger buckled to the trend last month, fielding Arsenal’s first three-man defence since 1997 following a 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace. Arsenal have since won four of their last five.
But perhaps more important than the system’s utilisation is the players who’ve been involved. Of course, 17 teams didn’t start the season with ‘specialist’ wide centre-backs and wing-backs; in fact, even Conte has relied on somewhat of a square peg in a round hole in the form of Victor Moses – Chelsea’s ad hoc right wing-back who has missed just two games since the switch to 3-4-3.
Looking around the rest of the division, we’ve seen a wide variety of players deployed in the wing-back role; Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Jesus Navas at Manchester City, Michail Antonio and Edimilson Fernandes at Wes Ham, Nathaniel Clyne at Liverpool, Ashley Young at Manchester United, Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman and even James McCarthy at Everton, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal at Arsenal. The list goes on.
All are very different kinds of players, diverse in terms of strengths and weaknesses whilst offering their own unique balances of defence and attack. Some score goals, some dribble their way past the opposition, some offer expert delivery from out wide and some keep it water-tight at the back. In stark contrast to Neville’s theory, it’s almost proved a universal role, open to anybody physically capable of providing the energy to go from box-to-box for the majority of ninety minutes. Whether they’re as defensively switched on as a natural full-back or as effective going forward as an orthodox winger seemingly comes a distant second to pure industriousness.
The same too, can be said for the wide centre-backs, with Gary Cahill providing perhaps the most obvious example. He’s spent the entire of his Chelsea career in the right channel alongside John Terry, yet has switched to the left centre-back role this season with immaculate ease. Likewise, Jose Fonte and Winston Reid are hardly what you’d describe as ‘outside defenders’, but their partnership with James Collins has lead to four clean sheets in five, including one over the Premier League’s joint-second most potent attack in Tottenham Hotspur last Friday.
Of course, whether three-at-the-back systems make deeper inroads into Premier League philosophies next season remains to be seen. It could certainly be argued that the real difference in this season’s title race was simply Conte finding a balanced, effective system first whilst the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho were still scratching their heads and assessing their squads. Even Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, three years on from getting the job, felt compelled to change things up after an underwhelming first few months in the Premier League. Things could be very different next season.
But 2016/17 has shown that elite players are much more adaptable than many in the Premier League gave them credit for previously, that three-man defences can be successful in the English game and perhaps most importantly of all, that even Gary Neville isn’t right 100% of the time. Carragher comes out on top in this instance.