Pressing variations within a three at the back system
Depending on the shape of a team, there are a number of different ways of pressing the opposition. Each shape has its own advantages and disadvantages, and is itself effective against other build-up systems, depending on their shape. Following on from a previous analysis focused on pressing variations with four at the back systems, in this tactical analysis, I’ll look at the pressing variations in three at the back systems.
As this analysis goes on, you will probably notice that in terms of structure, there is a huge amount of overlapping and as a result, there aren’t actually too many pressing variations in terms of structure. The difference comes in the roles of specific players within these systems, and we’ll explore this by looking at the tactics of various teams using a back three.
What’s the difference?
There is one subtle advantage to playing a back three, which is based around pressing in wide areas. Below I have compared a 4-3-3 press in a wide area, to a 3-4-3 press in a wide area.
Now, it’s very easy to point out that you have less numbers on the back line, therefore you can commit more players to the press. This is partly true. We can see below a 4-3-3 press. The key difference lies in the role of the full-back, who may have to press the opposition full-back if the ball the winger cannot. The full-back is conscious of leaving this space behind, and within a back four, it’s more difficult to shuffle across and cover this space, as there is less coverage unless the full-back tucks in a lot.
In a back three, the full-back/wing-back can press higher and more aggressively, as the coverage along the back line is greater and it is more natural for the centre-backs to occupy the central areas and tuck across. Therefore, the subtle advantage is that you can press slightly higher in wide areas by having more bodies in that midfield area, but the difference between the two really is quite minimal if you have a full-back who will tuck in very narrow, as Kyle Walker does for Manchester City. If you have full-backs who want to get ready to receive the ball in a wide area, dropping a player into a back three is useful to increase the coverage on the backline, as Liverpool do with Jordan Henderson at times.
3-4-3 with emphasis on central areas
The first system we will start with is the 3-4-3, with the wide players within the front three protecting the passing lane to the wing-backs. We can see this system here, with the wide forwards pressing the centre-backs while keeping the full-back in their cover shadow and the striker covering the pivot while also having the ability to jump to press the goalkeeper, while keeping the pivot in their cover shadow. If the ball makes its way wide, the wingers in the midfield four are in good starting positions to pressing. The passing lane to the centre is the most open, hence the opposition is partly guided into this space to be pressed.
We can see Wolves employ this press below against Manchester City. The wide forwards cover the centre-backs, forcing them to play back the goalkeeper who is then pressed by Raúl Jiménez aggressively, actually nearly blocking the goalkeeper’s pass.
The ball is launched towards Kyle Walker the right full-back, and the Wolves winger has a good starting position and can press the ball, and Wolves recover possession.
3-4-3 protecting the centre/3-4-1-2
Another way of pressing in a 3-4-3 is to protect the central areas, thereby encouraging the opposition to play in the wide areas. Encouraging the opposition to play in wide areas has obvious advantages, in that it’s further away from the net which is in the centre of the pitch. Another advantage is that it can be easier to press players in wide areas due to the number of passing options they have, and the fact that the touchline limits this for you. In central areas, players have more passing options/lanes, but the quality of turnover is much higher.
We can see the 3-4-3 pressing system here below, with this time the passing lane to the full-back left open, with the full-back ready to be pressed by the wing-back. The wide forward drops in front of one of the central midfielders and keeps them in their cover shadow, and can also press towards the full-back when they receive, but again would cover inside passing lanes. This opportunity for a 2v1 pressing situation high up the pitch makes this an interesting press, but it does require the wing-back to push very high to press, which can cause some issues down the line if your number four in this scenario can’t defend 1v1. If the number eleven moves across to press the other central defender when they receive, then suddenly we are in a different kind of 3-4-1-2 formation
We can see Borussia Mönchengladbach employing a similar pressing scheme here below in their game against RB Leipzig. Here, the passing lane from centre-back to full-back is left open, with one of the forwards pressing the centre-back and covering the centre. The wing-back Oscar Wendt can then press the Leipzig full-back.
We can see that when the ball is played inside the receiver is surrounded immediately and able to be pressed from all directions, and if the ball is played wide again Wendt is ready to press.
Roma here press in a 3-4-3, which effectively becomes a 3-4-1-2 due to the striker dropping deeper to mark the pivot, while the two wider forwards press the centre-backs.
3-5-2 isn’t really a pressing scheme which works effectively simply because of how flat it is, as we can see below. As soon as the opposition drops or pushes higher, the system changes into either a 3-1-4-2 or a 3-4-1-2. We can see an example below, where if the opposition drops a pivot in front of the back four, then a midfielder has to push up, which momentarily creates a 3-4-1-2. As a result, I’ll focus on the variations of a 3-5-2.
An alternative would be using a zonal pressing scheme, where whichever zone the pivot drops into, they are pressed by that player. We can see an example of this here where the wing-back pushes in to press the pivot, however, this can cause some issues with shuffling as the whole midfield has to come across to cover the wide space left by the pressing wing-back. In deeper areas, this could work but as a high pressing strategy maybe not the best unless this shuffling is timed well.
We can see the similarity here between the Gladbach press highlighted earlier in a conventional 3-4-1-2 press with the striker’s covering the centre-backs and leaving the wide passing lane open. The main advantage of this compared to a 3-4-3 is its ability to occupy the pivot easily thanks to the number ten, whereas a 3-4-3 relies on the use of the cover shadow from the striker, which can be difficult.
We can see Inter applying this press here, with the two strikers covering the centre-backs and a number ten stepping up to cover the pivot. The 3-5-2 is adapted to a 3-4-1-2 due to the position of the pivot. Again this kind of press requires the wing-backs to press extremely high up the pitch, but with a tight man-marking approach this doesn’t cause Inter issues.
Here we can see a slight variation to a 3-5-2, which allows for the midfield to stay further back and mark deeper players. Here, the two strikers take responsibility for the pivot, with one pressing the ball carrying centre back and the other covering the pivot. If the ball switches between centre-backs, the nearest player presses and the other goes onto the pivot. Again though, if the ball is played into a wide area and the wing-backs press, suddenly this looks like a 3-4-3, so again, less about the numbers more about the roles.
This next system is one I haven’t seen executed before but is an interesting concept that incorporates the last scheme slightly. Again we see the rotating front two press the centre-backs and pivot, but here there is a diamond in midfield with the widest number eight pressing the full-back. Although this increases the pressing distance as opposed to the wing-back pressing here, the wing-back can stay further back and protect the wide space should a ball be played down the line.
This requires some shuffling across as in a normal diamond, and if the ball far wing-back tucks in they can ensure they are not outnumbered in the middle, but again with numbers, this then becomes a 4-4-1-1 press but started off as a 5-4-1. My only worry for this would be the transition and shuffling across, particularly if the opposition is quick enough with their passing, and the problem around the pivot is an area teams could exploit if done well.
As I’ve just written about in the February edition of the Total Football Analysis magazine, different pressing strategies work against different build-up strategies and there are different advantages and disadvantages for any system. The height at which these presses are deployed should also be considered within its advantages or disadvantages. Hopefully, this article has highlighted some ideas and tactics of how to press effectively within a three at the back formation and shown multiple variations on how it can be done.