Use of wing backs will only put teams in a flap

With the use of wing backs decreasing in the modern game, Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa has set his side up to play in an intriguing 3-3-1-3 formation but he must be wary of it’s weaknesses.

Three years ago, during England’s ill-fated 2008 European Championship Qualifiers, then manager Steve Mclaren made a bold move which shocked and surprised everyone; he was to play a 3-5-2. It was either going to be a stroke of genius or a monumental cock up. And as it proved, it was the latter.

The England team had been preparing the system for a while but bearing in mind not many teams had played with wing backs for some time, the Three Lions would always find it troublesome. Curiously Slaven Bilic, upon getting the job as Croatia manager, made sure the first thing he was to do as coach is to ditch the 3-5-2 and then hoping England would deploy the formation for the exact reason abandoned it. “I hoped they’d play 3-5-2 as it would give us more room to attack on the wings,” said Bilic. “I knew if we could switch the play quickly we’d be two-on-one. I expected England to come out and pressurise us but it was more a question of whether we’d get a third.”

It was tactical naivety from McLaren’s part and also assistant Terry Venables who was said to be heavily involved. The press derided them after the 2-0 defeat but rather hypocritically, a number of them championed the cause for the system in years previously. The idea was to be “adaptable and flexible” something which Venables’ England side of ’96 had in abundance (they played a fluid system which started as a 4-4-2 but could become a 3-5-2 or a 4-3-3) but having been out of the game during the rapid evolution of the Premier League,  gone were the days where superior players could fit into a 3-5-2 and overwhelm opponents.

Quite how the wing back has dramatically fallen from grace can be neatly summed up by one word: inefficiency. Playing with wing backs require securities in order for them to bomb forward therefore the need to deploy three centre backs. However many sides are increasingly turning to the lone striker leaving three central defenders marking one and meaning at least one of them unemployed from the initial danger. It makes more sense in this instance to push one defender out and play a defensive midfielder and dropping wing backs back to full backs.

Johan Cruyff has blasted the use of full backs because he feels they function more like athletes than players of skill. They need to be quicker and fitter to cover more ground and reorganize themselves for the team. Just mapping a wing back system with other more established ones draw on the same weaknesses Slaven Bilic touched upon and those of controlling and pressuring “zones”. And because of Fabio Capello’s Arrigo Sacchi-like thinking, it is unlikely to see his ever-improving England side deploy the same system as Mclaren even if having more players suited to the formation than the now FC Twente coach.

Having said that, two teams have used wing backs to a degree of success recently with Napoli playing a 3-5-2 and Udinese 3-4-3. The former however is a club who would rather sit back and let their opponents take the initiative, looking to break on the counter while Udinese are more the opposite.

The problem with using wing backs is finding balance; it suited Napoli’s counter attacking style last season but anyone who is intent on dominating may find it more difficult. It almost seems wing backs are either best suited to the ultra-defensive or the ultra-attacking. And it is the latter Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa is trying to implement in the South American World Cup qualifiers, his side playing an adventurous 3-3-1-3.

The thinking here is to play in the oppositions half, pressuring opponents high up and using the wide areas to great devastation. The two-v-one weakness Billic alluded to is meant to be their strength attacking wise although defensively it can still be a problem especially down the channels. And still it requires high intensity and fitness levels but on the plus side, they are playing with great fluidity with the front four. Chile have moved up to second in the race for the World Cup Finals and the real test will be how they cope with Brazil’s expertise on the counter. Argentine Basile will not have forgotten his country’s failure in the 2002 finals where they disastrously crashed out in the group stages, tiredness after a long season blamed for the failure of the wing back system.

Which begs the question, could wing back formations be deployed in more one-off situations? Shakhtar Donestk had a modicum of possession against Barcelona in the Super Cup and could not get the support they desired to lone striker Luiz Adriano. Could they have looked to force the game to Barcelona especially in extra time? Or maybe, Burnley who for all their industry and willingness were cut open by Chelsea. Maybe using three defenders to counter Drogba and Anelka would have been the way forward while using wide forwards to deny Ashley Cole and Bosingwa the opportunity to get up the pitch.

The use of wing backs is certainly not dead but for a team looking to take the initiative it may be too big an ask to play it. Indeed Rinus Michels said of Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 formation for Barcelona as “spectacular but risky” as much responsibility to dominate was entrusted to the central midfielders. Cruyff knew he would have close to 60% of control each game therefore minimizing some of the risk on the defenders that would have been far greater to other sides. It seems nowadays with the increased importance of zones and transitions you either have to be the best or a cautious side.

Or maybe, as Steve Mclaren intended, it may be best used in one-off games but if you do be prepared for the same weaknesses that Mclaren and England found out about one night in Zagreb.


9 thoughts on “Use of wing backs will only put teams in a flap

  1. Good article.

    I believe the 3,5,2 is an optimal system for any team trying to use a 3 man defense. The crucial part, as you mentioned is the role of the DM. I believe it is vital for a team, who uses this system, to poses 2 highly versatile and able DM, such as an Essien and De rossi. They need to be able to quickly adjust from Offense to defense, and be able to cover for the left most or right most defender who pushes out to cover the attack on the wing.

    Also it is upto to the “wingers” in the mid, to be able to track back a little and be able to support in defense extremely well to take of some of the pressure of the “back 5” which include the DM.

    It is a system that needs certain players and a certain mindset, and there has to be a good coach, who is able to understand the strength and weakness of the system, and be able to assign roles accordingly.

    I love a 3,5,2 or 3,6,1 as it is suited for an attacking style who love to hold the ball. I think if arsenal were to sign another top CB and DM then we may be able to suit this formation.

    even now..we can deploy gallas, Vermaelaan, and Sagna in the Def.

    DM would have to be song and XXXXXX (de rossi, essien mold), as denilson would not be suited in this role.

    then across the center a theo, fabregas, rosicky. Fabregas can
    “sit” in the middle or do whatever he wants. Rosicky will show he creativty and theo will have his speed, but they will have to keep defensive dutties in mind. trying to stop the play quickly or force the players into the center of the pitch where it will be a little more crowded.

    Arshavin/Nasri, behind the lead striker, of Van P. This will provide Van P with a “partnership” sort of. As well, Nasri and arshavin are little quick demons on their feet, who are always willing to fight back for a ball if it is cheaply given up..

    anyways, just a rough thought…Good post!

  2. It would seem that those teams running with wingbacks are really just admitting that they are spreading defensive midfielders wide.

    It isn’t really a case of one or two of the back four going forward as often, at least in the higher levels of the game. For that to be the case it almost requires a higher backline in order to give that extra bit of opportunity for a fleet footed defender to catch up on the sprung forward.

    Outside of Italy are we really seeing anything like a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 anymore? It would seem those could have the width for a wingback to come forward while the centerbacks still have coverage of the opposition forwards.

  3. My team plays a 3-5-2 at club level. It looks good in that you have a sweeper and two CB man marking the two strikers and 3 CM crowding space in the midfield and dominating possession most of the time.

    However it is very weak defensively. Wing backs have to do a lot of running without touching the ball a lot. On the counter they are often left exposed. If a winger gets past the wing back then generally a cross will go into an area where there is 3 on 3 or 2 on 2 etc – the sweeper is rarely a free man, having to pick up one of the strikers.

  4. The main issue with 3 men defense formations is (the lack of) coordination, I suppose. With a typical 4 back formation, the central defenders need to coordinate cover, tackles, depth etc..And fullbacks follow. In a 3-5-2, the core of the defense needs coordination among 3 players. Which is obviously harder and more vulnerable.

  5. I remember a documentary where one of the contributors said about fullbacks “If they come forward once or twice, it is a surprise, any times more than that, you can prepare for it.” Apart from Maicon for both club and country, there are few wingabcks that can dominate an entire flank, and if a team tactically prepares, they can shut them down. The experiment at Genoa is interesting, they play a variation of a 3-4-3, with Criscito on the left and Mesto, both natural defenders pushed further up field, and they are able to work both defensively and offensively very well. Napoli built their 3-5-2 towards Maggio, but had nothing on the left,just how they expect to put Zuniga there is a mystery to me.

  6. Hi, nice article. Does the 3-3-1-3 formation have wing backs? How does it line up? It has three CBs, one holder, 2Cms, one Central Attacking Midfielder, 2 wide forwards and a striker right? Does it have a diamond midfield? How is it different from a 3-6-1?

    1. I admit to having not watched Chile in much detail before the article (i.e. only highlights) but since then I have seen them live and have been very impressed. They don’t use wing backs (although some of the players they’ve use have played at full back) but use two midfielders to stretch wide when in defence and possession.

      It’s almost as they play four forwards; one behind the main striker, and two as wingers. The interchangeing is very good and they pressure high up the pitch but the downside of that is that it can leave them exposed at the back.

      It depends how you interpret the 3-6-1 if you’re asking how different. The ‘6’ signals the midfielders are deeper and not forwards as like Chile’s.

      1. Is the midfield similar to the one at Barcelona where Xavi, Iniesta and Toure line up in a triangle? Or does the midfield 3 consist of a CM, LM and an RM?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s