• Raffaele Tomarchio

Back 3 Defending: How effective can this system be at the youth level?


More and more I have noticed youth coaches adopting systems of play where their back line is made


up of three players, rather than the classical four. The natural question that comes to mind is: does this happen as a result of trends coming from the pro levels, or is it based on justifiable rational technical choices.

Playing 3-4-3, 3-4-1-2, 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-2 is a clear signal of a coach that wants to play an attacking brand of soccer. Moving a man from the back line to the midfield or attacking line, clearly could benefit the attacking phase of a team. The common denominator remains playing with 3 in the back.

I must clarify that in this article I will refer mostly to teams playing a zonal defending system, rather then man to man. I'll use the 3-4-3 system to illustrate some examples of how the back 3 play.

My personal belief is that teaching youth players to play with 3 in the back is a little too complex and demanding. It would be better to teach young defenders to play zone in a back four formation, and later when the players have assimilated the basic movements of zonal defending, try to introduce the back 3 defense.

One of the reasons for this approach is that the back four zonal defense is easier to learn, as the width of the field is better covered then with a back 3 defense. (Fig 1,2)

It is also important to understand that unlike the back four training, where players are taught as one independent defensive unit, in the back 3 defense ,the three defenders need to train together with the midfielders. Fig 3

This article is my personal attempt to discuss this topic, illustrate scenarios, and propose exercises for all those coaches that use or are thinking about using a back 3 line. It is important to remember that before starting any formal zonal defending training,

each player must have good technical and tactical defending ability.

That means being comfortable in various 1v1 situations and having a good understanding of the basic principles of pressure, cover, and balance in a zonal defensive system.

Before deciding on which system of play to choose, the coach must assess the overall characteristics of his players on the roster. It is senseless to try to use a system of play that reflects a coaching philosophy, if the coach does not have the right players to execute it.

As an example, in the 3-4-3 system, the back 3 defenders must be very good in 1v1 situations and have good speed and good aerial ability. As the width of the field is too wide for them to cover, it will be the outside midfielder that, when needed, will need to take on this responsibility and become the fourth defender. Covering that much territory implies that the outside midfielders must have great aerobic endurance and decent speed.

Basic Defending Situations

Basically, in the 3-4-3, the team actively defends with 7 players compared to the eight players used in the 4-4-2. As mentioned before, to train the back 3 line we need to include our midfielders.

All players will move together in reference to the position of the ball, their teammates, and the opposition.

In Fig 4 with the ball in a central midfield position, players 5,6 and 3, are compacted centrally creating numeric superiority (3v2) in front of the goal .The four midfielders will cover the whole width of the field with 2,and 11 minding the wide areas and providing support to the two central midfielders.


In Fig 5 the ball is played wide to a winger.All players react by moving from their zone towards the ball, setting up diagonally in relation to the ball.

The closest player to the ball is 2 which moves to challenge the ball carrier. The central midfielder 8, and 4 also move towards the ball carrier creating numbers up around the ball, with 8 having the possibility to double up on the ball carrier. The three central defenders 5, 6,and 3, move accordingly diagonally to the ball in a line leaving the far side of the field open.

Midfielder 11 might slide down to fill the space left open by 3, or take a little more advanced position in case of a turn over. (see Fig 10 and 11)


In Fig 6 one of the strikers shows and receives the ball from a central midfield. In this case the central

defender 6, responsible for that zone, comes out to challenge the striker. Defender 5 (is covering and at the same time marking the other striker) while 3 gets in line with 5 forming a defensive triangle in front of the goal.

Wide midfielders 2 and 11 drop back balancing the defensive line which becomes a back 5 line.

Attacking when playing with 3 in the back


On the attacking side, the challenge of playing with 3 in the back is to find the correct balance in the build up phase. A slow build up can allow the team to come up together, and to keep good supporting distances on the field in order to create numeric superiority.

(The overall team technical abilities must be high in order to keep possession)

On the other end, if the team or coach decides to have a more direct approach in the build up phase, than the danger might come from the wide players not being able to support both the defensive and attacking phase, as the team might get stretched.

That is why it is vital that players are trained physically and mentally to read the various game situations and recognize the necessary adjustments in each situation.

Balance is the key word, as well as a basic principle for any system of play.

In this particular system (3-4-3), a team attacks with 3 strikers making it an offensive system .

If, when in possession, the two outside midfielders take a ultra offensive position (Fig 7,8,9) and the ball is lost, there is the risk that the team could be outnumbered in the defensive phase.

Likewise, if the two outside players are too defensive minded, they might transform their back 3 defense into a back 5. When the team regains possession, there are not enough players in the midfield zone for properly building an effective attack (Fig 10-11).


In conclusion, playing with 3 in the back can offer a variety of solutions to a coach, on both sides of the game.

Ultimately it boils down to personnel, and balance. Youth coaches of teams U13 to U16 should probably stay away for any systems that plays with 3 in the back, and concentrate on teaching good team defense with 4 in the back.

As players get older, and get a better

understanding of defending within a team concept, and its principles, then it could be appropriate to try playing with 3 in the back if necessary.

Training the back 3 will be a topic that will be discussed in future blogs, so...stay tuned.

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