How does the third-man principle work and why is it so important?

Tak, tak, tak, that´s the sound the ball makes when it is passed quickly between teammates. But its more than simple passes, it feels like the players move as a unit, it becomes poetry in motion.

As a football fan those moments are rare, and therefore remembered for a long time. If you look back at history, teams like the Dutch national team and Ajax Amsterdam of the 70s, AC Milan around 1990 or Barcelona under Pep Guardiola from 2008-2012 come to mind. Those were the great teams that not only were successful but also played the game in a way which is often described as the beautiful, the right way of playing football.

All of those teams have in common that they are influenced by the idea of total football which was introduced by Ajax under Rinus Michels in the 70s.

In contrast to the school of Michels, Cruyff and Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri developed his on playing style throughout the years in Italy. Of course, influenced by coaches such as Guardiola, Sacchi or Conte, Sarri managed to give his teams an identity which was different from what we saw before.

Especially, his Napoli side which managed to gain 91 points in the 17-18 Serie A campaign but still couldn´t win a championship, is the blueprint of the way Sarri wants his teams to play. One dominant concept of this team was the 3rd man concept.

Although the actual action is rather simple, the concept is one of the most important yet undervalued tools in football for teams to play successfully in possession. But, why is the 3rd man concept so important? Which details make it so valuable and why should we take a closer look at it?

Well, because understanding every detail of the 3rd man concept will elevate the game of your team to a higher level. Therefore, I´m going to analyse the principle in detail in this article.

The basic action

For everyone who is not familiar with the 3rd man concept, it is basically a passing combination including three players. So, the idea is that player A wants to pass the ball to player B, however, the passing lane is closed. Hence, player A uses a third player (I will refer to him as the third player), player C who is open. Now, player A passes the ball to C who plays a simple layoff pass to B. By using the third man, player A could successfully move the ball to player B.

While the actual action is rather simple, the concept behind involves different ideas. I will use Napoli under Sarri as the example throughout this analysis to illustrate the potential actions the 3rd man principle triggers.

The basic idea behind the 3rd man principle

We already know that the third man principle is used to pass the ball to a player that is covered by a defender. In order to understand the idea behind it, we have to take a look at the main goal a team has in possession.

Except of obviously scoring a goal, a team in possession should always look to find the free man in an advantageous position. Hence, the different concepts such as the switch or the 3rd man principle only serve as a tool to find the free man.

In case of the third man principle, the player ultimately receiving the ball, in my example from above, player B, should be the free man. Due to the fact that teams nowadays do not defend 1v1 but rather try to cover the space and shift towards the ball, moving the ball intelligently can create a free man.

In order to find a free man, Napoli tries to create pressure by passing the ball to Marek Hamsik in the example above.

Why do they create pressure? Because the opponent is able to press and if Hamsik turns with the ball he could easily play a pass between the lines and create a dangerous situation for the defence of Udinese.

Those two motives, the risk of getting outplayed and the chance of conquering the ball, lead the opponent to press aggressively. Usually, several players of the defensive team will focus on that area and try to make the ballnear space as tight as possible. As a consequence, other spaces aren´t tightly covered anymore. Preferably, the player ultimately receiving the ball is positioned in such a space. If he then receives the layoff pass, he should have time and space to control the ball and make the next move for his team.

In the example above, Diawara didn´t have any space due to the position of the striker and the midfielder. However, the striker starts to press and the fact that Marek Hamsik receives the ball lead to a short movement of the midfielder towards the Slovakian midfielder. As a consequence, Diawara has more space once he receives the ball.

This example shows the effect of creating pressure with the first pass in an extremer way. Here, three players of Udinese have the possibility to press. Hence, the blue space opens which Napoli can use by applying the 3rd man principle.

However, creating a free man is not the only objective of the usage of the third man. Both examples so far show another aspect which is important to consider. The player receiving the ball in the end, faces the goal of the opponent while his team advance closer towards it.

One has to understand that facing the opponents goal gives the ball carrier the possibility to see most of the players on the pitch as well as the structure of the defence of the opponent. Of course, simply turning the body once receiving the ball is also possible, however, in the modern game this is rarely possible due to the compact defences and the high game IQ many players possess.

Here, for instance, Diawara has enough space, hence he can simply turn with the ball.

The structure

Now, the question arises which preconditions have to be met in order to use the third man combination. As always, triangles and diamonds play a particular important role due to the diagonal passing lanes that are created.

More general spoken, it is important that the players of the team in possession position on different vertical and horizontal lines. The more they create due to their positioning, the easier is the 3rd man concept useable.

For instance, if the 3rd man principle is used to overplay a defensive line, the third player should be positioned higher in order to occupy the defence and free-up the player to which he plays the layoff pass. The centre-back-winger-central midfielder combination is for example one of the more common actions where the creation of several horizontal lines due the positioning is visible.

But not only the number of horizontal but also vertical lines which are occupied/created is important. The reason is that diagonal passes are harder to defend than vertical or horizontal passes. Hence, creating two diagonal passing lanes instead of one vertical and one diagonal is beneficial for the successful use of the concept. Furthermore, the third man is able to turn with the ball more easily if the defender tries to speculate for the layoff pass.

Once the first pass is played vertically, the third man has a harder time turning with the ball in one direction, hence he can only play the layoff pass. Furthermore, the spacing can be less optimal and the player who presses the CB can maybe even intercept the first pass to the CM.

Furthermore, the body position of the CM only allows layoff passes which are slightly played backwards. Every other direction requires great body control as well as a great first touch.

In the case of a diagonal structure, the CM has various possibilities depending on the pass of the CB, the positioning of the DM and the behaviour of the defender.

For example, if the pass is played to the right foot of the CM he can turn over his right shoulder. If the defender moves slightly diagonal because he anticipates the layoff pass or his initial position was more centrally, the CM of red can capitalise on the behaviour of the defender.

If the CB passes the ball to the left foot of the CM, he will probably adjust his body position slightly and is able to play a layoff pass. That pass can easily be played horizontally forcing the DM to move forward.

The third option for the CM would be to turn around his left shoulder and attack the space behind the defender of black. This is possible once the defender does not approach the CM diagonally from the centre. As a reaction to the different angle of the defender, the CB could play a harder pass towards the left foot of the CM, signalling him to turn over his left shoulder.

A perfect example for the non-verbal communication of players by passing the ball. At Napoli one could observe this regularly. Especially, because every pass had a purpose. Therefore, the 3rd man concept was used in different ways and not only in the described order by Napoli.

In my opinion there are five important points a team has to consider in order to use the 3rd man concept effectively.

  1. Position on different horizontal and vertical lines
  2. Try to create passing angles which give you several possibilities
  3. The spacing has to be good
  4. The body position of the third man has to be correct in order to play the layoff pass
  5. The pass has to be played as flat as possible to allow a first contact layoff pass

I quickly want to explain point three which goes hand in hand with the creation of advantageous passing angles. Players have to take into consideration that there positioning decides whether the use of the 3rd man action will be successful or not.

Here as coaches, it’s important to create guidelines helping the players to orient easily on the pitch. The perfect spacing means that the three players involved in the action are positioned far away enough that the defender can´t defend two players simultaneously. However, the passing lanes still have to be short in order to speed up an attack and play a simple layoff pass.

The third man principle as a tool to open space

I already mentioned that the 3rd man principle is used to create space for the player ultimately receiving the ball. Although, the main task of the third player is to create a connection to the second player, this does not have to be the case all the time.

He can also be used to attract opponents while playing a simple one-two with the first player. However, this simple one-two can ultimately free-up the third man.

Napoli under Sarri used the 3rd man concept regularly in this way.

third-man principle

In this scene, the passing lane to Hamsik was closed due the positioning of the striker while one of the defensive midfielders or the striker could press Diawara if he would try to turn around with the ball. In order to solve this situation Napoli would use the third man concept.

By passing the ball to Diawara, Napoli creates pressure and lure the striker out of position. Consequently, the passing lane to Hamsik is open, although not for Diawara. That’s why he passes the ball back to the centre-back who can give the ball to Hamsik easily. In fact, the third man concept as we know it was present when Diawara passed the ball back to the CB. The difference in this situation, the CB was the one initiating this action.

While is seems to be trivial and only a small detail, Napoli also used the 3rd man concept to create more space for an overlapping fullback. Usually, a winger dribbles towards the defence in order to force them focusing on him and then he would pass the ball out to the fullback. The problem is that especially against a deeper block, this two-man action is easy to contain. Therefore, Napoli involved a third player.

Now the winger would dribble towards the defence, pass the ball to the central midfielder while sprinting forward without the ball. The central midfielder would then pass the ball to the fullback. The difference in this approach is the short switch from the wing to the halfspace and the movement of the winger who creates space.

However, the short switch is important because it distracts the defence for a few second from the threat the overlapping fullback is and towards the central midfielder. Those few second moving towards the central midfielder create more time for the fullback once he receives the ball.

The 3rd man principle to control the speed and rhythm of the game

In possession switches play an important role as I outlined in my piece for thefalsefullback. Switches help to move the opponent, force him to make mistakes and find open space. In order to successfully move the opponent, speed and rhythm play an important role.

For one, if you move the ball faster, the opponent needs to react more quickly which more likely leads to mistake being made. Furthermore, rhythm is crucial to surprise a defence. If I manage to increase the speed of my combinations suddenly, I can catch the opponent sleeping which can be advantageous for me.

The 3rd man concept can help increasing speed or changing rhythm all of a sudden. Due to the short time spans in which each player has the ball, the combinations are quicker. Moreover, the quick layoff pass can trigger an increase in speed.

That’s why Napoli under Sarri sometimes used the third man concept to switch the play to the far side. How did this look like? For instance, the left centre-back passed the ball to the central midfielder who played a layoff pass to the other centre-back, a common movement during the build-up phase to connect the centre-backs.

third-man principle

If the centre-back now wanted to switch to the right-back, he could either turn around with the ball or play a quick layoff pass to his partner. Napoli´s centre-backs were usually positioned close to each other. The other centre-back would then pass the ball to the fullback. Hence, the 2nd line pass increased the speed while the third man action before triggered the speed increase and changed the rhythm.

The third man principle during the build-up phase

As we now know the general ideas behind the third man concept as well as the details which are necessary for a successful usage, let´s take a look at real game situations.

During the build-up phase the 3rd man principle has to general applications. One would be to evade pressure and try to find the free man in the first build-up line. The other application is the transfer of the ball from the defenders to the offensive players in the second or attacking third.

In the example above we could see that the 3rd man principle is useful to move the ball to the defensive midfielder who then can advance the ball in higher zones. Another common situation is that the centre-back wants to move the ball to the other side, but the opponent tries to cut the connection to his centre-back partner. Then the defensive midfielder can function as a connector. That’s why most teams either use a triangle or a diamond during build-up.

Or the attacking team is able to attract the opponent while moving the ball quickly. As in the example above, they would be able to use the third man concept to attack the open space. Again, creating pressure to create space is the main idea.

Once we take a look at the transfer of the ball to the final third, the action that comes to mind is the pass of the centre-back through the halfspace to one of the wingers who then plays a layoff pass to the central midfielders. Here, it is crucial to move the opponent before and create space for the centre-back. If he then dribbles with the ball, he directs the focus of the midfielders of the opponent towards him. In fact, he creates pressure. Hence, they won´t pay close attention to the central midfielders, a potential advantage once the winger plays the layoff pass to the central midfielders because they then have more space to operate.

third-man principle

However, the pass to the winger is not the only option for the centre-back moving forward. At Bayern with Robert Lewandowski you could observe regularly that the Polish striker would drop a few meters and could receive diagonal passes from the centre-back. As we discussed before, diagonal passes are preferable because it gives you more option to continue. Either he turns around with the ball or he can lay off the ball in one of the halfspaces. Especially, when they can use the third man principle out of the build-up to switch dangerous goalscoring opportunities can be created.

The importance of the next options

Along with a good structure for the initial third man action, it is beneficial if the attacking team creates a connected shape with multiple passing options for the third player or for the second player to continue. Therefore, the movement without the ball is crucial to create options to even use the play with the fourth man.

In order to secure a good structure, the principles explained like positioning on different horizontal and vertical lines as well as creating diagonal passing lanes are important. Furthermore, the balance in terms of where on the pitch the players are positioned is important.

For instance, last season Borussia Dortmund tried to overload the left side constantly, however, they had too many players on that side leading to a disbalance overall. The consequences were that the team of Lucien Favre couldn´t switch quickly to the other side or halfspace, hence their combination became ineffective because they did not manage to play through tied spaces the opponent could create due Dortmund´s disbalance.

However, there was another important point why Borussia Dortmund struggled in possession, which is also crucial for the third man principle in the last third – vertical movements without the ball were missing.

The third man principle as tool to overcome a defence

Several teams heavily focus on the third man concept in their plan to overcome the defence of an opponent. Teams like Napoli but also Antonio Contes Chelsea, Inter or Juventus are just a few examples. Those teams often have in common that they circulate the ball in deeper zones, invite the opponent to press and then use those quick third man combinations to use the open space the higher pressing created.

Therefore, those passes from the centre-back to the winger in the halfspaces are crucial. From there on, many different options are possible.

third-man principle

Here, I want to stress the importance of the right structure again. Having options to continue the attack is crucial for the successful use of the 3rd man concept as a tool to overcome a defence. Essentially, movement without the ball is the decisive factor in terms of attacking successfully.

When we take a look at Napoli under Maurizio Sarri one can quickly identify that one player of the Italian side always moved deep behind the last defensive line. This has two reasons. Number one, it created a passing option which was a direct threat for the opponent. Quite often you could see that a layoff pass was played, and the next pass was immediately a throughball to the forward moving attacker.

If the pass couldn´t be played because the defence reacted accordingly, the player receiving the layoff pass would have more space because the defence had to move backwards. So, no matter how the defence reacted, Napoli created a positional advantage for themselves.

Following the principle of creating pressure to create space, they often used the third man concept to create space only to then play a backwards pass to the central midfielders. You may ask yourself why attack if you play the ball backwards anyways. However, think for a second what happened through the applied 3rd man concept.

third-man principle

Let´s assume the striker is the third man and passes the ball to the winger between the lines, for example, Insigne. Lorenzo Insigne could then either try to create a shoot, pass the ball behind the defence or backwards. No matter which action he decides to do, the fact that he was the player receiving the layoff pass and not the central midfielder already, forced the defence to narrow the space around the Italian winger. As a consequence, the central midfielders could position higher and still have enough space to operate. From there on you could observe how Marek Hamsik took a shoot, switched the ball to the other side or give it up to Jorginho whose chippasses behind the defence were always a threat.

As I mentioned with the example of Borussia Dortmund, vertical movements without the ball are crucial not only for the 3rd man concept but also for the game in possession in general. Especially, when those vertical movements cross a horizontal line of the opponent leading to communication issues for the defence, the third man principle can be perfectly suited to take advantage of those movements.

Take this example where left back Ghoulam moves forward through the halfspace without the ball. The 3rd man principle is the ideal tool to use the dynamic of the run without the ball. Ghoulam can start his run early having an advantage over the defender who has to react. When the striker of Napoli now plays the layoff pass, Ghoulam will have few seconds in which he won´t get pressed because none of the defender can step up the face him due to the striker and left winger of Napoli waiting for the possibility to attack the blue marked space.

Here, multiple possibilities to continue the attack are possible for Ghoulam. Either Mertens, the striker turns around and moves in between the two CBs into the blue marked space or Insigne attacks this space diagonally. No matter who is performing the run, Ghoulam can play the throughball immediately.

Due to the fact that the CB may try to press Ghoulam, it would be good if Mertens performs the run behind the defence while Insigne stays wide in order to stretch the defence. Either the left-back of Napoli plays the throughball or he passes the ball to Insigne when the right-back of Inter follows Mertens.

One detail I want to mention is the movement of Mertens. First, he starts to sprint towards the opponent´s goal, stops and drops a few meters. By performing this movement, he pushed the defence back and created more space for Ghoulam.

In general, different vertical movements combined with the third man concept can be really dangerous for the defence. The reason is that the dynamic created by the movement and the short individual possession times challenge the opponent in terms of communicating and reacting as a collective.

Hence, it is beneficial to have the third player dropping a few meters and playing the layoff pass to the forward-moving player. Add a fourth man sprinting behind the last line of the defence and you have an almost unstoppable attacking move. Especially, when the fourth player moves diagonally in the space behind the defence. The diagonal movement creates a situation in which the fourth player is always outside of the visual field of the defenders who try to contain the third man combination.

third-man principle

Especially, in attack the third man principle can ideally be used to surprise the defence and use the advantages of the dynamic of the offense. Similar to the example with Ghoulam above, one can regularly observe how the layoff pass can be played to a player sprinting towards the goal. Again, the fact that the first pass creates pressure and forces the attention of the defence towards the third man, creates more space for the player ultimately receiving the ball.

As one can see, the possibilities are endless. However, it needs a lot of coordination between teammates to fully use the potential of the 3rd man principle.


This article was a brief overview of the third man concept. Of course, one can even describe the concept in greater detail and illustrate the endless possibilities. However, I think I gave you a useful overview over the most important ideas behind the 3rd man.

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