The World Cup dream, for England, is over.
Crashing out against Croatia killed the aspirations of a country which began to dream again. Under Gareth Southgate’s stewardship, England has achieved their best World Cup result since 1990. This was achieved on a foundation of togetherness and unity coupled with a dynamism and athleticism from the youngest side in Russia.
Furthermore, the deployment of a three at the back formation improved England’s productivity in Russia and allowed them to control games whilst ensuring they maintained a defensive resilience. United they stood, but ultimately they fell, fatigue and experience were factors coupled with a lack of offensive nous.
With England’s World Cup concluding, all eyes turn swiftly back on domestic football and with pre-season well underway, Daniel Farke’s men will be well aware that they will be subject to criticism should they struggle to show a significant amount of progression in the next campaign.
In the three games that have been played thus far, Farke has opted to operate in variations of three at the back, although he has changed to a conventional four at points.
In times of improvement last season, Norwich deployed a back three.
Arguably, they lacked the personnel for this to become a viable long term solution, but the operation of this formation saw Norwich display a greater amount of equilibrium and allowed them to control possession centrally.
There is a stigma surrounding the three at back however, it is seen as a predominantly negative system. When used efficiently, the wing backs should contribute to both offensive and defensive elements of the play in order to attempt to overload opponents during phases of play both on the ball and off it.
Athleticism and dynamism is required in these roles due to the need to cover a substantial period of ground and be both an offensive threat and a competent defender. The signing of Felix Passlack is one which provides an option to explore wing backs.
Passlack and Lewis provide the youth and energy to fulfil these wing back roles successfully. Lewis requires further development of his offensive game and decision making whilst Passlack needs a period of adaption to the climate and physicality of the English game.
There are problems with wing backs however.
When defending, there is an overload created in the wings by the overlapping full back if the opponents deploy a flat four and wingers. The wing back is in a mismatch now with both the winger and an attacking full back. This results in the midfielder in the ball near side coming to help out the wing back to compensate for the overload. This will lead to space in the midfield for the opposition midfielders to exploit.
Ultimately, the makeup of the individual roles in central defence is pivotal to the success of the system.
Conventionally, one centre back is deployed slightly behind his counterparts in a role which is reminiscent of the sweeper role of days gone by and allows the extraction of defensive qualities over technical elements. For a defender like Sean Raggett or Grant Hanley, where there is a greater emphasis on their defensive skills rather than ball playing, this allows them to perform adeptly.
The other defenders are seen more as ball players who provide the connection between midfield and defence whilst in possession of the ball. They are encouraged to break the ball into the midfield element and be positionally higher than the central defender. Evidently these positions suit technically superior players like Timm Klose.
This formation, by design, counteracts the 4-2-3-1 which is played by the majority of sides in the division. It outnumbers and isolates the lone striker as well as going man to man in midfield.
The wing backs can mark the space out wide while the two defenders on either side of the central defender in the back three can mark the half spaces. The central midfield is also packed and negates the opposition midfield. This is particularly striking when we see that the midfield 5 can occupy all the wide and central zones along with the half spaces.
Teams focussing on building from the back can benefit from this sort of a setup with horizontal overloads in the first two phases of build-up. There will always be an extra passing option available and this would lead to easier circulation of the ball in the initial phases of the build-up.
This is why coaches like Pep Guardiola encourages his sides to play out from the back, and why Farke is so adamant on possession football in order to create numerical advantages in certain stages of the pitch.
The balance within midfield is critical also.
Norwich will need to deploy someone which an excellent passing range alongside a press resistant midfielder. In short, this means a technical player, Moritz Leitner or Mario Vrancic, couple with a more combative midfielder, Alex Tettey or Ben Godfrey, in order to maximise the success of the system.
Issues arise when teams play 4-4-2 or play with an abundance of attacking midfielders who can displace defenders and unlock sides centrally. Furthermore, he wide areas are a liability when playing three at the back and a compact opposing midfield with effective wingers can exploit the formation.
It is complex, and it is a system made up of numerous parts with are required to work in conjunction and can be argued to be a theoretical style of football which is more difficult to deploy in reality. The formation seems to be the key in answering a lot of modern day football problems and looks set to stay, but for Norwich, it’ll be all about balance and application on the pitch.