The evolution of PL football: from 4ATB to 3ATB

It was after the introduction of Marcos Alonso in the 55th minute in Arsenal’s rout of Chelsea at home last season that Antonio Conte had finally found the formula.

His Chelsea side looked absolutely clueless as Sanchez and Ozil ran riot, as the hosts took a first half 3-0 lead. The defence had no answers, no organisation and did not look like a defence you expect from Premier League champions. As soon as Marcos Alonso was brought on, Chelsea changed their system and immediately became more defensively stable. In the 13 games that followed, Chelsea took 39 points, and their defence was not breached for 10 of those. It truly was the most remarkable of turnarounds, and it firmly put Chelsea en route to the Premier League title.

When Arsene Wenger was under intense pressure last season, he resorted to a 3ATB in a bid to try and get the team’s play more free flowing, and it worked. Arsenal stopped shipping goals left, right and centre. True, their defensive woes weren’t plugged altogether, but it was a significant improvement.

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Both Chelsea and Arsenal have now made the 3ATB their default formation. In addition to these two, another London side have adopted the 3 man back line for the big games this season. Tottenham Hotspur chose to field 3 CBs in their matches against Chelsea, Liverpool and most recently Manchester United this season. Manchester United responded likewise this weekend, Jose opting for a back 3 as well. Man City started the season fielding 3ATB for their opening games, before reality dawned on Guardiola that his 3-5-2 was quite easy to see through, although not as easy to stop. In their more recent games, he’s continued using the 3ATB to great effect, and although the team sheet points to 4 starting defenders, it’s generally Fabian Delph who drops into the midfield pivot alongside Fernandinho with City in possession.

So what’s brought about this monumental change in outlook in merely a season and a quarter?

Firstly, fielding 3 defenders means additional defensive strength, as the men at the back are all centre halves, tasked only with the defensive duties of the game from open play, not with making marauding runs forward like the wing backs are required to. For a top side, the pair of full backs in a 4ATB is charged with supplementing the attack, effectively leaving only 2 defenders back. Hence, fielding 3 CBs adds defensive steel.

Secondly, full backs allow a side to make good use of the width of the pitch. This isn’t necessarily the case in a traditional 4 man back line, especially if you consider building from the back. Both full backs have to stay narrow to provide passing options to centre half in possession. However, this limitation is liberated in a 3ATB. In terms of its use up the pitch, it allows the wingers to play a little closer to the centre than the by-line, which can be a tremendous asset in the modern game, where the traditional wingers have faded away with inverted wingers having taken their spots. The wing back provides much of the width, which draws defenders out of position to block the balls into the penalty area, leaving a numerical advantage for the men waiting to pounce in the box.

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Thirdly, it provides an increased advantage from set pieces. An additional centre half adds to attacking ability from corners and free kicks, as well as defensive ability in defending these set pieces.

Very often, the wing backs drop into central midfield to act as pivots, either side of a defensive midfielder. This also enables them to make delayed runs through the gap between the full back and centre back, which more often than not results in a cut back across the face of goal and an empty net for the attacker to tap into.

Evidently, such a system is paying dividends for the managers, as they continue to utilise it in the big games, whether as a defensive precaution or to add more attacking bite, it’s anyone’s guess.

Written by Ayush Verma.

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