Chelsea finding the third man under Maurizio Sarri

By and large, Maurizio Sarri’s start to life at Chelsea has been relatively positive, and the side remains unbeaten after 12 Premier League games.

There have been obvious stylistic and cultural changes from his predecessor, Antonio Conte. There is now an increased emphasis on moving the ball forward through combination play, even under high pressure in the back third, as well as attempts to press higher up the pitch by closing down the opponents build up.

The most noticeable shift has been in formation. Conte’s legacy in the Premier League, of course, is the 3-4-3 formation that lead to the 2016-17 title. It lead to the spread of 3-man defences, a new and unique tactical development in the league.

Sarri, by contrast, uses a 4-3-3 with two number 10s. One of the primary tasks in Sarri’s attacking system is to get players free in front of defensive lines of pressure (a line, in this context, refers to the horizontal organisation of players in defence, such as the two flat fours and front two in a 4-4-2 defensive shape).

To achieve this, Sarri has developed a number of patterns of play the team utilises to build up attacks effectively. These are 3rd man moves, a common passing pattern in football that, as the name suggests, involves 3 players – a player on the ball passing to a 2nd, typically under pressure, who releases quickly to the 3rd player who is now free.

3rd man runs are relatively straightforward and easily taught passing moves. They are, for example, coached extensively at youth level. Their simplicity does not make them less effective, however, especially when playing through pressure or breaking through man-marking.

A very common 3rd man combination Chelsea use is in the build up to get the #6 (holding midfielder) Jorginho free behind the first defensive line. This often starts with centre-backs moving the ball forward, with the opposition first line of pressure blocking passes into Jorginho, and the second line (a flat midfield four) closing the space for the two #10s.

The centre-back (first man) plays into the #10 (second man, under pressure) who bounces a pass first time into the #6 (the third man). This allows Chelsea to break through the opponent first defensive line whilst also disorganising the second defensive line (as the central midfielder must step forward to close the second man, the #10). This is a simple passing pattern to help advance the ball higher up the pitch, whilst also ‘eliminating’ defenders in the oppositions block.

Another third man pattern Chelsea often use in a similar situation is a longer pass to the #9 (first man) who releases first time to either the #10 or #6 (the third man).

Whilst the video below shows one highly effective example of this from the match against PAOK (in which it is worth noting how the opportunity to play in behind is created by the second man, Morata, attracting pressure from defenders when receiving), this passing pattern has been less effective because Alvaro Morata struggles with receiving under pressure with his back to goal.

Chelsea also use third man patterns in wide areas. This can involve the winger releasing an overlapping full-back as the third man, or the winger moving inside and bouncing first-time into a #10.

Another prolific third man combination is when Hazard moves inside from his wide-left position and overloads the opponent behind their midfield line of pressure. He often moves centrally in between two holding midfielders (creating a diamond with Chelsea’s #10s and #6s), with opportunity to play third man to these midfielders or even become the third man himself with a longer pass to a supporting teammate.

Hazard comes inside to become the tip of a midfield diamond, with the third man pattern involving two forward passes

An interesting distinction to note here is that a third man run does not necessarily involve a forward pass followed by a backwards bounce pass. This Hazard goal against Cardiff demonstrates possible alternative third man combinations.

Sarri’s key focus on third man combinations is not new or revolutionary. In fact, the ‘up-back-through’ combination of centre-back to #9 and back to a supporting teammate was a very common pattern in the 3-4-3 system. What Sarri has done has changed the formation and repositioned players, whilst also placing an emphasis on quick, short passing moves to play through pressure.

However, teams are increasingly being able to block the passing lanes to the second man, or quickly close the spaces around the third man receiving, which can nullify Chelsea’s ability to progress forward in attack. Another issue is in the speed of which Chelsea move the ball – the slower the tempo, the easier it is for opponents to close down free players. Speed also relates to the ability of the players to recognize opportunities to play forward and combine quickly.

The third man will remain a primary component in Sarri’s system, but they will need to be evolved in order for his side to continue their excellent record.

Additional reading
What could derail Sarri’s Chelsea? by Sebastian Chapuis

By Tim Palmer

Tim is a football coach, writer, analyst and sports scientist. He is currently Assistant Technical Director, Head of Player Development & Video and a coach at NWSF Spirit, as well as working with the Pararoos. Previously, he has worked as an analyst with the Socceroos, and in the A-League.

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