Manchester City and 3 at the Back

Manchester City kicked off their season with a 3-2 win over Chelsea in the Community Shield on Sunday. The most memorable thing to take out of the game (besides Ivanovic’s dangerous challenge) was Mancini continuing his experiments with the 3-4-1-2 from preseason.

Playing 3 at the back is not that new to this City side. Mancini would resort to 3 at the back as a defensive maneuver during games last season. What is new is that he is beginning games with it and hence looking to make it a more proactive system rather than a reactive one.

Why the change?

One of the problems City had last season was a lack of width. Both Silva and Nasri are more playmakers than wingers and hence both tended to roam inside. This narrowness restricted the space players like Yaya Touré and Carlos Tévez had to influence the game as they also operated in a similar area of the pitch.

The problem was temporarily solved when City played Adam Johnson who would stretch the play on the flank, giving the side more balance. Mancini doesn’t trust Johnson with a regular starting place in the City side and so this wasn’t a permanent solution to the problem. 

Man City’s average positions in the away defeat to Swansea from showing how narrow the side is with Silva and Nasri as the “wide” players.

Mancini had a unique solution to this problem in the crucial away game at Newcastle. With the game tantalizingly poised at 0-0 half way through the second half, Mancini brought on Nigel De Jong for Nasri and pushed up Yaya Touré. To the idle eye, it may seem like a defensive substitution but it actually gave more room for Touré to work with. Touré scored 2 goals to win the game and the move effectively won the title for City (although QPR went on to give them quite the scare on the final day as the narrowness problem once again became an issue).

A permanent move to 3 at the back could be a move to give more room to the attacking players even if it means that one of them will have to be dropped. A more simplistic explanation would be of course that Mancini is simply looking to create a practical plan B.

How it works

City’s 3-4-1-2 sees a defensive trio with 2 solid midfielders in front of them, 2 wing-backs and a fluid attacking trio. 

When in possession, the wide centre backs effectively become defensive full backs, covering the space left by the wing-backs who push high up the pitch providing the width. In the second half, City played 2 full-backs – Zabaleta and Clichy as the wide centre-backs. The central sweeper is the deepest of the defensive trio.

The defensive shape helps low tempo possession recycling but makes it difficult to press high up the pitch as there is a high likelihood of being too open to the break, especially against a side with quick wingers. This is where Ivanovic’s sending off really helped City. It helped City press higher up the pitch more confidently whilst also allowing Yaya Touré more freedom to get forward.

The most crucial element of a 3-5-2 shape is the wing-backs. They are required to fulfill the duties of both wingers and full-backs – stretching the play on the flank in attack and racing back into position in defence.

While the attacking full-back’s offensive role is more often than not auxiliary to that of the winger in front of him, a wing-back has a much more important offensive role, especially if he is used in a proactive system. Wing-backs have much more space in front of them than full-backs and may be required to cut inside once they reach the final third as James Milner (circled) has done in the image above.

How the wing-back can be an effective attacking outlet

One of the reasons why a wing-back can be an effective attacking outlet is because modern defences don’t really have a specific player who is supposed to mark him. Modern attacking wide players are rarely cut out for regular tracking of a wing-back and if full-backs push up to deal with wing-backs, it will leave a pocket of space for one of the forwards to drift into.

Italy’s opening goal against Germany in the semi-final of the Euros was a classic example of how a wing-back can cause the modern 4-2-3-1 serious problems (it was a 4-4-2 diamond from Italy but the point about wing-backs remains valid).

Chiellini receives an exquisite long ball from Pirlo (surprise surprise) and finds himself in space as the Germany attacking midfielders were high up the pitch. The German right-back, Boateng now come out to meet him.

Chiellini now plays in Cassano who drifted into the little pocket of space left by Boateng. This drags out the centre-back, Hummels, who gets turned by Cassano. Cassano crosses to Balotelli who only has Badstuber for company. Balotelli out jumps the German and heads home.

While the German defence did not cover themselves in glory here, it does show how the wing-back can drag a defence out of shape.

Back to the Community Shield and Mancini would be fairly pleased with the way his wing-backs functioned in the game. Milner’s forward run indirectly led to Yaya Toure’s equalizer while Kolarov directly provided City’s third goal with a cross to Nasri after leaving Juan Mata behind.

Can it be successful in the long run?

The graphic above (from shows that 3 man defences are, somewhat surprisingly, successful in recent times. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the 3-5-2 has always been a potent system to have against the archetypal 4-4-2. The centre backs in the 3-5-2 outnumber the strikers 3 – 2 and should cancel out any aerial danger (although this may not be the case if all 3 defenders aren’t particularly great, like with Napoli), the midfielders in the 3-5-2 outnumber those in the 4-4-2 3 – 2 and if the full backs of the 4-4-2 push forward to make it 2 – 1 against the wing back of the 3-5-2, it would leave it 2 v 2 at the back against the 3-5-2’s 2 strikers. The 3 man defence and the sweeper seemed to be going out of fashion in the 21st century but now have come back to popularity to combat the 4-4-2, particularly in Italy in recent years.

Secondly, even though a 4-2-3-1 should ideally dominate the 3-5-2 in all areas, it doesn’t quite happen. A 4-2-3-1 would give a 3 man defence only 1 striker to mark meaning that a player would be short elsewhere for the 3-5-2. But due to the lack of traditional wide players in world football, it actually becomes a 3 v 3 situation at the back which actually makes the 3 man defence better than 2 centre backs (for purely defensive purposes).

An example of this happening was seen in the group game between Spain and Italy in the Euros. Both the Spanish wide players came narrow giving Italy 3 v 3 at the back while the wing backs only had to deal with the full backs on the wing and the Spanish full backs also had to be wary of staying too high up the pitch given how both Italian forwards would drift to the flanks (Balotelli probably should have scored from one such incident).

This is basically a case of teams forgetting how to expose the 3-5-2. With wingers that stay wide and stretch the play, the 3 man defence would be dragged out of shape. This not just true for the 3 man defence, a lot of teams over the last 12 months have had success by simply staying deep and narrow to frustrate the opposition.

If City are to use this shape more frequently, teams would become more accustomed to it and would then be in a better position to counter it. The weaknesses of the 3 man defence may be forgotten but a resurgence in popularity would help expose it once more.


Mancini’s experiments with this 3-4-1-2 shape promises to produce some very interesting tactical battles in the coming season in the Premier League and the Champions League. Whether it is used as a defensive plan B or a proactive starting system, it will be something different to what we are likely to see from the rest of the big boys in the Premier League and this should be refreshing. While it should be an effective shape to go to when trying to defend a lead late on in games, only time will tell whether regular use of this shape will prove to be successful.

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