Defending with a back three is, on the whole, an unusual proposition for A-League sides accustomed to a back four.
Globally, a back three tends to be popular in a cycle, often when one side does well with the formation – opposition teams tend to copy those who are successful. For example, during 2012, there was a period where the likes of Barcelona, Juventus, Wigan and Napoli were all using different applications of a back three – so the formation, for a time, became unusually popular, with teams like Manchester City and Roma using it even if it didn’t necessarily suit their players.
In Australia, the back three is even more of a passing fad. No team has yet found success in the form of trophies using a back three, and very few sides have used the formation for long periods of time.
Rather, a back three has always felt an experiment, or a useful Plan B – like, for example, when infamous tinkerer Gary van Egmond sometimes used to switch to the shape, amazingly doing so out of nowhere for the 2011-12 Grand Final. Ricki Herbert, too, in his seven years at Wellington, occasionally dabbled with a back three, while John van’t Schip in his first tenure at Melbourne Heart sometimes used a back three if the opponent played with a front two.
This season, we’ve seen Adelaide use a very different type of back three, where Isaias plays a unique role as a centre-back when defending that steps forward into midfield when his side has possession, creating a diamond through the centre of the formation. In Josep Gombau’s 3-4-3, there are no wing-backs – instead, the two full-backs move inside to form a back three when attacking, and then return to the traditional full-back position when the ball is turned over.
However, like with some other back threes in the A-League, it was a Plan B. Gombau admitted the 3-4-3 was a ploy for chasing games rather than a permanent tactical system for his side. Thus, since those early games, the 3-4-3 has only appeared once, when Adelaide needed an equaliser in the 1-0 defeat to Brisbane a fortnight ago.
In keeping with the theme, Phil Stubbins’ use of a back three for Newcastle in their last two games feels like a last throw of the dice for a winless team rather than a permanent strategy. Nevertheless, it’s been successful – they got a first win of the season (after 10 games) against Adelaide, before holding Melbourne Victory, the competition’s top scorers, goalless until the 85th minute.
v Adelaide – 2-1 win
Against Adelaide, Stubbins used a 3-4-3. It was asymmetrical, however, with David Carney, the right-winger, playing much deeper than Joel Griffiths, the left-winger, because Carney worked harder in defence and tracked back to protect right wing-back James Virgili. Griffiths, by contrast, stayed higher up, which sometimes gave Newcastle the look of a 3-5-2.
“We were a little bit pragmatic in the approach we took against Adelaide,” said Stubbins. “We went with three at the back and we decided to drop our wing-backs back on to their wingers and subsequently frustrate them and catch them in transition which I think we did at times.”
Having two wing-backs – Andrew Hoole and Virgili, left and right respectively – that dropped very deep when Newcastle were defending, meant that they were able to thwart Adelaide’s usual gameplan of attacking down the flanks and hitting quick switches of play to the opposite flank. This was particularly obvious when Adelaide built up attacks down the left-hand side, with Hoole dropping goalside of Fabio Ferriera to prevent him from receiving a long, cross-field pass.
The problem for Newcastle was that by having a front three, they could only play with two in midfield – Zenon Caravella and Ben Kantarovski. This caused problems against Adelaide’s midfield triangle, where one of Isaias, James Jeggo and Marcelo Carrusca was often free in space. Playing through that spare man was often Adelaide’s best route to goal, like when Cirio got in behind off a Jeggo pass over the top.
However, Adelaide were uncharacteristically poor in their ball movement and possession, often appearing lethargic and slow when attacking. That meant Newcastle’s numerical disadvantage in midfield was not exploited. They got a winner through a quick counter-attack, with Carney cutting inside onto his left to provide a fortunate assist (a promising route of attack for Newcastle this season) for ex-Adelaide player Jeronimo Neumann.
v Victory – 1-0 defeat
Understandably, Stubbins was very encouraged by the performance and result, and so kept with the back three for the following match against Melbourne Victory. He made a crucial adjustment, however, by dropping Carney to the bench for the first time this season, and bringing in Jacob Pepper – another central midfielder, which meant Newcastle were now 3-5-2. Griffiths and Montano were upfront as an out-and-out strike partnership.
Furthermore, Stubbins tweaked his approach by asking his players to sit quite deep in a low defensive block. They rarely put pressure on Victory’s back four, and instead attempted to soak up pressure. This nearly backfired in the opening ten minutes, where Kevin Muscat’s side had all the early running, and entered the penalty area seven times before Newcastle had even entered their final third.
The Jets three central midfielders had important defensive roles when the Victory built up play. As the 3-5-2 lacks natural width, there was no obvious direct opponent for the Victory full-backs, Scott Galloway and Jason Geria (left and right respectively). If the wing-backs moved forward, they risked leaving the Victory wingers free higher up the pitch.
Remembering that the Jets played with a fluid midfield where Caravella, Pepper and Kantarovski were happy to swap positions, Stubbins instructed the ‘outside’ midfielders to move wide and press on Victory’s full-backs. This often meant when Geria or Galloway brought the ball forward, Pepper and Caravella closed them down.
The distance for the midfielder was often too great to stop the full-back from getting forward, especially down the Victory’s left, where Galloway was very quick to push up quickly when on the ball. He completed more passes (69) in this game than any other player.
Often, this caused problems when the full-back was able to pass past the pressure and get the winger ahead of them on the ball, because the winger could then cut inside into the space vacated by the midfielder moving out wide. This was obvious down the left, where Ben Khalfallah constantly dribbled inside and had shots on goal – he came the closest before Finkler’s late free-kick with a thundering shot that cannoned off the bar.
Khalfallah also benefitted from another weakness in Newcastle’s strategy. Traditionally in a back three, if a wing-back moves forward to close down an opponent, the ‘outside’ centre-back would also step forward and help cover in behind, given the protection of three centre-backs.
This was what occurred on the left hand side, where the Jets left-sided centre-back, Allan Welsh, was comfortable moving out into the channels to cover the space in behind Hoole whenever the left wing-back pushed up to stick tight to Kosta Barbarouses.
On the right, however, Scott Neville, playing right centre-back, did not provide anywhere near as much cover to right wing-back Virgili when he stepped forward to mark Khalfallah. Therefore, rather than a 2v1 of Virgili/Neville v Khalfallah, a 1v1 was created – Khalfallah v Virgili, where the former clearly had the upper hand and was a dangerous attacking threat throughout the match.
Khalfallah was also a threat when Newcastle sporadically attacked, because when Virgili got forward to provide width, it left space in behind that Khalfallah broke into on the counter-attack.
There was a period in the first ten minutes of the second half where Khalfallah was absolutely sensational – he put in a low cross that Barbarouses conspired to miss at the far post, then another low cross that Berisha just couldn’t get on the end of. Then, he had the aforementioned shot that hit the bar, before drawing a yellow card for Virgili with a clever piece of trickery.
Therefore, Newcastle’s defending (described as ‘brave’ and ‘courageous‘ in the media) owed more to them simply having numbers behind the ball, and creating a wall of players that the Victory had to try and break through. It also meant they lacked numbers in attack. It took them 58 minutes to record a shot on target, despite Caravella working manfully to be the link player between the back five and the front two.
Montano positioned himself up against the diminutive Leigh Broxham and tried to out-muscle him, but Newcastle were committing so few players forward he never had much support. The game was all about Victory’s attack v Newcastle’s defence, which, to Stubbins credit, nearly paid off. Unfortunately for him, Finkler provided the winning goal with a stunning free-kick with five minutes to go.
In the short term, Newcastle might persist with the back three given the short turnaround between games during this period and the relative success with the formation (compared to the winless run of the first ten matches). It will be particularly interesting if they use it against a Sydney side on January 3rd. On paper, it should work nicely, with two centre-backs picking up Shane Smeltz and Marc Janko, and the extra man providing cover.
In the medium to long term, however, this back three feels like a temporary fix rather than a genuine, sustainable tactical system. They were reliant on Adelaide playing badly and offered next to no attacking threat against the Victory, who were guilty of missing some good chances. That’s hardly a foundation to build long-term success upon, and some players, like Neville, don’t really seem to grasp what is required in their roles. That lead to obvious limitations out wide and in midfield against the Victory and Adelaide respectively.
It’s provided some welcome tactical variety in the past few weeks, but Newcastle’s back three, like so many back threes in the A-League, feels short-lived.