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Tactical theory: Third man

What is the third man principle?

The third man principle or concept is a tactical term that refers to the team in possession gaining access to a free target that was previously not reachable using quick interplays between three different players. In this situation, we have players A, B and C with A being the initial ball-carrier who’s trying to find player C but can not due to the passing channels towards him being completely shut and unavailable.

So in an effort to reach the target, player A uses player B as a layoff to find player C. The ball movement will therefore go from A to B and then finally to C, who was the primary target from the very beginning. The third man principle requires a lot of positional prowess and movement manipulation and all with a goal of achieving superiority and territorial dominance.

Some other terms that are closely related to the third man principle are positional play, quick interplay, compactness, movement manipulation, isolation, channels, link-up play, ball progression and superiority.

Examples of the third man principle in football

As the name itself suggests, in order to successfully execute the third man tactics, a total of three players have to be involved in the whole play. Usually, the target player will be in an advantageous position in a pocket of space in the opposition’s half. However, due to the defending team’s structure, he may be unavailable for a direct pass. This is where the attacking team has to get creative in their tactics and use the third man principle to gain access to the said player.

The ball-carrier starts from the deep and then sends a ball to the available player whose back is turned to goal. He can then receive the pass and quickly lay it off towards the primary target from his advanced position on the pitch. This principle is often used by the more positional coaches like Pep Guardiola of Manchester City or Marcelo Bielsa of Leeds United, both of whom have popularised the tactical term itself.

Of course, these tactics require one-touch football and technically astute players who understand their coaches’ philosophy well.

Why use the third man principle?

The third man principle is an effective tool to progress up the pitch and find a free man in a pocket of space in an advantageous position. It may be difficult to execute and requires a lot of skill but the end result is definitely worth it.

Using this strategy can get the ball to the attacking team’s key players and also help them receive possession while facing the opposition’s goal.