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.