During the 2016/17 Premier League season, no fewer than seventeen teams dabbled with playing three at the back in many or even just a few of their games. A marked tactical trend in English football, renowned for favouring a more traditional looking four at the back, although arguably a trend influenced by the influx of foreign managers. On the continent, teams playing formations with three centre-backs have been more commonplace for two or three decades.
Without any shadow of a doubt, Antonio Conte was the most notable proponent of playing three at the back last season. After a disappointing start to the campaign, he shook things up tactically at Chelsea and reverted to something he was far more accustomed to, which he had already deployed successfully during his previous tenures with both Italy and Juventus. Stamford Bridge ended up celebrating the title.
Various national sides have deployed 5-3-2, 5-4-1, 3-5-2, or 3-4-3 formations with notable success. Club managers are keen observers of what tactics their peers deploy during international tournaments and quite frequently, vice-versa, with international managers emulating something they’ve seen work effectively at club level.
According to renowned student of all things tactical, popular football journalist and author Jonathan Wilson mentioned a very interesting point in an article for The Guardian, during the final stages of the Euro 2016 tournament. Highlighting the relative success of two competing teams (Wales and Italy), plus one that switched to a back-three as a reactionary measure to counter a specific rival (Germany against Italy), he referred to some of the teams deploying three centre-backs as unsurprising, given the over-performance of Holland two years previously at the 2014 World Cup.
Indeed, and important when thinking about recent formations and tactical choices at Everton, there was mention of Louis van Gaal apparently being inspired to play three at the back in a Dutch counter-attacking system, after watching a PSV Eindhoven side performing well with such a tactical approach that landed them the Eredivisie title in 2006/07. The manager of PSV at the time? None other than current Everton boss, Ronald Koeman.
Beginning with the epic 5-1 thrashing of reigning champions Spain, Louis van Gaal defied the international football betting odds to guide Holland to the semi-finals of the Brazil tournament, only missing out on a place in the final after losing on penalties against Argentina. Although on paper that Dutch side was considered distinctly average, having the right players for the job of forming a defensive trio is clearly a key element, or at least their ability to adapt quickly to the requirements of their manager.
— Everton (@Everton) September 9, 2017
That would appear to be the focus of concern for writers at the Liverpool Echo. “An Everton defence with three at the back fills me with unease,” claimed journalist Dave Prentice, whilst also referring to a squad of players who are still trying to find their feet at the club. Likewise, not one of his journalistic colleagues favoured playing three centre-backs, when expressing their formation preferences. All seemed keen to see Koeman return to playing four at the back, given the players at his disposal.
Despite the apparent recent trend in English football to go with systems featuring three central defenders, doing so is not merely fashionable thinking for Koeman. We can all argue the merits or deficiencies of the players he currently has available at Everton, or their ability to adapt within such a tactical framework, because the common consensus and disappointing results would suggest it doesn’t always work.
However, given Koeman has deployed three central defenders at different stages of his tenures at every club he’s managed, either as the principal tactical plan or as an effective alternative, the idea will always be firmly there in his mind. Habitual thinking that he won’t be able to shake free from his thoughts. Does his current Everton squad have players capable of deploying three at the back effectively? That remains very much open to debate amongst fans and journalists alike, but be certain, Evertonians haven’t seen the last of three at the back.