Antonio Conte Didn’t Invent Three At The Back, But He’s Brought It Back Into Fashion

Antonio Conte Didn’t Invent Three At The Back, But He’s Brought It Back Into Fashion
Mar 23, 2017

Chelsea Featured

The summer of 2011 saw Juventus name former player and fan favourite, Antonio Conte, as head coach. With Jose Mourinho winning the treble of League, Coppa Italia and Champions League, Juve had gone several seasons in which the ‘Old Lady’ had not lived up to expectations. Conte went about transforming Juventus into a team which swept all before them and kickstarted a period of domination which is still going to this day.

Conte bucked the trend of teams playing with a normal back four or an Italian style back five with a libero/sweeper type player. Opting to play with a 3-5-2 formation and boy did it pay dividends. In his first season, Conte lead Juventus to an invincible style league championship. Undefeated and a record-breaking run of games without defeat culminated in the trophy leaving Milan and landing in Turin. Two more league title winning seasons followed meaning that Juventus had cemented their place amongst Italy’s best.

2014 saw Conte and his three at the back, take on the national job. Two years of qualification for Euro2016 saw Conte trial a 3-4-3, 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1, all with mixed results. Italy qualified and come the start of the tournament, the wise Italian switched to what he knew best, 3-5-2 and a back three and goalkeeper on which he had built his Juventus foundation on. A cruel lottery of penalties in the Quarter Final put paid to his dreams of leading Italy to glory, Germany ( of course ) sending the Azzurri home. But Conte had his irons in another fire. The April previous to the Euros, Conte had agreed to take over at Chelsea once the Championships had finished.

Chelsea started this season with mixed results and with the team floundering in seventh place, Conte ditched Chelsea’s traditional back four and replaced with his famous back three. A 4-0 thumping of rivals Manchester United in game two after the switch signalled to Conte that this was the way forward. Chelsea currently sit ten points clear at the top of the table and are far from wobbling as the season reaches its climax.

Barcelona under Cruyff, played with a back four which would become a three when in possession. The full backs would push so high up the pitch to join in the attacks, basically turning themselves into wingers, leaving just two centre backs to hold the fort. A defensive midfielder would then drop back in and make a three. This formation and system has been passed down from coach to coach for years as it is now ingrained into the clubs principles and style of play.

Pep Guardiola at City has recently been switching between a three and a four depending on opposition. John Stones has been heavily criticised this season for trying to play football in the wrong areas of the pitch, but this system of a back three suits him because there are two centre backs flanking him, to protect him if he loses the ball.

Louis Van Gaal led the Dutch to a World Cup Semi Final in 2014, playing with three at the back. Following the tournament, LVG took the reigns at Old Trafford, looking to bring back smiles on the United fans faces. It never really took off and mixed results with poor football led to a fans and players protest to switch back to a back four. It was too late to mount a serious title charge and Van Gaal faced an uphill battle to win round supporters. Jose Mourinho in recent weeks has resurrected a back three. Injuries, suspensions and a desire of parking the bus has prompted Mourinho to switch formation. How long he uses it for is anyone’s guess.

Tottenham Hotspur have carried on their fast attacking football of last season even with a change of system to a back three. Eric Dier is comfortable playing as a centre back of midfielder and switches between the two positions with ease. Belgian defender, Jan Vertonghen, is also a good left back. His adaptability means that by playing on the left of a three, he doesn’t feel isolated getting drawn out to the flanks. Full backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, suit this system as like the Barcelona system, playing mainly in the opposition half enables them to be more attacking, knowing they have good defensive cover should the move break down.

England’s friendly away in Germany ended in defeat. Southgate followed what is now the football fashion and switched England to a back three. A solid first half in which the hosts barely registered an attempt on goal. Unfortunately for England, a Podolski thunderbolt meant that the Three Lions left Dortmund empty handed. New England boss, Southgate, commented that England would look abroad to learn other ways of playing.

Three at the back seems to be the ‘In thing’ right now, just as 4-5-1 then 4-2-3-1 was. Conte won’t be heralded for re-inventing the wheel, but he may have just brought it back to the football cat walk.

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