The advantages of the build-up with a back three


It is becoming more and more common for teams to play with a back three. There is a lot of potential with this growing popularity. In order to utilize the potential of a back three, it must be used deliberately. First, we must look at an overview of the qualities of a back three.  

Back Three and Positional Play:

As many people probably already know Positional Play is about generating superiority and moving past each defensive line with control. This carries the team’s structure through thirds of the field. The two superiorities I would like to talk about in this piece are numerical and qualitative.

Numerical superiority is the most common superiority a team tries to create for, especially in the first third of the field where the GK can be used. The defensive third in build-up has very interesting dynamics so we will get back to this. Using a back three to generate numerical superiority is most often used when playing vs two STs. 

What needs to be understood; however, is that the team in possession cannot think this solely one-dimensionally as seen above. The team has to think progressively and how they can get the ball to cleanly move into advanced areas. This is why a back three vs two STs is most commonly made into a 4v2. Now the pivot is taken into consideration and the connections into the number 6 generate the 4v2. Even if a central midfielder on the defensive team goes close to pressure the six the situation can still be referred to as a 4v2 because unless the advancing midfielder has access to the passing lane he is not considered an active defender. 

Another common situation a team generates numerical superiority is against a narrow front three. This would be how Liverpool play their front three in their high block. The most common way a team breaks this is with a back three rather than a back four. With a back four you still have the same numerical advantage of a 5v3, but there is more emphasis in using the wide areas and connections may not be as strong. 

Here we see the connections spread across all 5 vertical zones forcing the ball to travel a longer distance with each pass and giving the defence more time to respond if they are broken. This style is still probably the most common and when done well it can take advantage of the low-density wide areas as a space to progress through. However, we are starting to see more and more teams using a back three and a double pivot. First, the connections are tighter meaning the ball will take less time to travel to the players in behind the defensive line. Second, there are more diagonal passing options going into the central corridors putting the players behind the first line in a more dangerous position to further progress the attack. Third, a back three vs a narrow front three naturally aligns the 1st line of build-up with the 1st line of pressure to draw the defence forward enticing them to press. This is especially the case when the back three circulates the ball or if the defensive team looks to press vertically. When looking to build and the defensive team presses a structured team will have the opportunity to benefit and use the potential advantages listed above.

Once the numerical advantage is created then players will have the opportunity to use their qualities to progress the ball. This should be paired with concepts worked on by the coach and the team in training. Creating these situations is just part 1. Part 2 is what the players/group of players do to take advantage of the situation to their fullest. 

Spatially the back three and the double pivot can be seen as a better 5v3 situation for the team in possession because of the vertical zones they occupy. This is highlighted best by the first three players in build-up only have diagonal passing options to enter their next line. This makes it easier for the double pivot to receive as well as harder for the defence to defend. The CDM who is receiving the ball can open his hips more giving him a more positive and goal-oriented field of view. This allows him to keep track of the potential jumping midfielders allowing him to be more press resistant. Receiving a diagonal pass in this position is also hugely helpful because a diagonal pass paired with a side on reception results most of the time in a quicker forward action eliminating the chance of being back pressed by the broken forward line. 

The last bit of numerical superiority to look at can be when a team looks to build up without a central pivot. Let’s say a team is building with a back three vs a 4-4-2. The team in possession will not have a central pivot. This sounds contradictory to what I said earlier, but there seems to always be exceptions in football. For this part of the article, we will look at Pep’s Manchester City. They often created a 3v2, but without a central pivot. Also, City regularly face a lower block. When looking at City’s build-up without a holding midfielder as a pivot they actually do have a pivot. He is just reversed. The pivot can be found as the deepest player. The wide CBs in build-up are very aggressive and look to dribble to draw in midfielders from the opposing team. Ideally, the ball will be circulated where one of the wide CBs will then have space to dribble and progress which should then displace opponents midfielders. Let’s first look on how they can effectively build without their holding midfielder centrally in behind the first line of pressure. 

In the case where City uses a reverse pivot, they have a big emphasis on progression in the wide areas. A deep pivot allows the ball to be circulated very quickly to the weakside using a forward diagonal pass in most situations. This allows City to draw the team to one side using play from wide structures followed by circulation to the weakside CB who then has the space to dribble penetrate and utilize the opposite wide structure.

As mentioned earlier qualitative advantages can be a huge reason for moving to a back three. This is essentially saying that you want a player who has superior ability on the ball to use his skill (most of the time range of passing) to give the team a better chance to progress the ball. This is most commonly seen as a central midfielder dropping deep in the halfspace and joining the CBs to form a back three. This will give the team in possession more options because of the increased ability of the player on the ball. This was probably most clearly seen with Toni Kroos for Germany. 

Dynamics of the Half Spaces

One of the biggest factors a coach will have to be able to work with is the relationship between the first three players in build-up have with the central midfielders. For explanation purposes let’s break the halfspaces up in half as seen below. 

Half space broken in half

Most of the time the goal of a team that uses possession as a tool is controlled progression. This end goal in mind makes it so important that coaches understand this additional field division when playing with a back three. Whether the team is playing with a lone pivot or a double pivot the wide CBs will pretty much always have diagonal access to this player(s). The players who play higher in the halfspace like where an 8 or inverted winger would play is where this division of the halfspace becomes really important. There are two possibilities with this. Let’s first look at when the CBs are positioned on the inside of the halfspace. 

This specific pairing is usually looking to play around the defensive block after manipulating the defence to one side. This pass can be valuable because of the progressive areas the ball is played into on the diagonal. The player receiving the ball then is in a position to attack the back four centrally or look to continue progression via the wide areas. Next option is to have a wide CB and a more narrow 8 (as shown below).

This is a more traditional positioning for the 8s. They are between the lines inside the opponent’s block. A team with this setup will look to loosen the defences horizontal connections to then access the areas between the lines. From here the players between the lines receive the ball slightly more centrally. This puts them in a higher density area and closer together. This makes a fast transition more likely because of the tighter space, but they are also in a better position to respond in a transition situation. Players who excel in this role are David Silva or Iniesta where as a wider role suits De Bruyne. 

Moving through the thirds

Defensive Third

When building from the back the defensive third holds the huge advantage of being able to play with the GK. This almost naturally creates a back three. This can create a huge advantage because it can push a midfielder further forward if the centre back who is most centrally position can play adequately as a holding midfielder too. In this third of the field, there is more space than any of the other thirds because the most the field can be compressed is half field, due to the offside rule. 

In the diagram above the 6 on red will become the third CB when the ball is progressed and connections are broken from the gk. Even if this 6 is not a natural CDM just by positioning in this area he can be a placeholder to narrow the opposing team’s high block leaving the wide areas more able to be utilized for progression. 

Midfield Third

In the midfield third in order to build with a back three an advanced player needs to be sacrificed and come to a deeper role. Here the numbers are equal and the defence has more control over what spaces they want to control. This requires the players in possession to be more precise and deliberate in possession. Many teams will try and create a numerical advantage using aggressive CBs as previously mentioned. This is much more common with 3 defenders because if one drives with the ball there are still two deeper CBs to control the space. Also, as explained by Pep when a wide CB is able to carry the ball past the first line then this creates 2v1s and forces the opposing teams midfielders into a lose-lose situation. This will be depicted below as Pep originally described using a 3-4-3 Vs 4-4-2

Final Third

To finish off we will look at how a back 3 can help in the final third. Most of the time when entering the final third the defenders or players with a largely defensive role will make up a teams rest defence. This is how well teams can defend the opposing team’s offensive transition. The back three can have some favourable implications. First, we have to note that the downside of having three players in the 1st line is you sacrifice a potential advanced player. This isn’t just the case in the final third, but it can appear more clearly. A positive note the wide CBs have the ability to jump and pressure more freely. This is because they will always have cover from the most central defender. Not only this but by occupying the three central corridors the opposing team will have to make their attacks wide in transition. This will be away from goal making the move less dangerous. 


When building with a three-back system there are positives and negatives. Before applying a structure teams need to look at what their goals are. In this case (build-up phase) what are the teams goals in possession and what quality do they have. After answering this question they will then be able to develop a model for their team in possession which can lead them to whether the implications around a back three will most benefit their team or not.

Book recommendations

Marcelo Bielsa – Coaching Build Up Play Against High Pressing Teams

If you want to learn more about the build-up in general and the build-up with a back-three, we definitely recommend the book Marcelo Bielsa – Coaching Build Up Play Against High Pressing Teams which covers all detailed tactical explanations of the build such as creating numerical advantages, dragging opposition players out of position and exploiting the gaps created. So, check it out to learn more about the topic of build-up.

Other recommendations:

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