How Xabi Alonso and Simone Inzaghi are Changing the Perception of a Back 3

By Adam Iannetta

When a coach utilizes a back 3, many believe that the team is setting up to be pragmatic and defensive. However, a back 3 is not just a formation that can be beneficial to teams that wish to sit in a low block and absorb pressure. Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen are undefeated and top of the Bundesliga, with a 10-point gap between themselves and juggernauts Bayern Munich. They have averaged 62.2% possession in the Bundesliga this season, more than any other German top-flight club. Simone Inzaghi’s Inter Milan is running away with the Serie A title and has scored 70 goals in only 28 games. Both coaches have found success by utilizing a proactive back 3 in and out of possession. 


The most obvious advantage of playing a back 3 is that it utilizes 3 center backs instead of 2. While this certainly provides more solidity, the added center back can also be used to press the opposition aggressively. Alonso and Inzaghi use the extra defender to their advantage by asking them to step into midfield and close down inside forwards. As more teams attempt to play through central areas in the modern-day game, having the extra center back to close down the space in midfield is a perfect tactic to frustrate the opposition and force them wide. This also allows Leverkusen’s and Inter’s midfielders to feel confident when pressing the opposition higher up the pitch, knowing they have support from the backline. The aggressive pressing from the center backs is key to winning the ball in midfield and creating chances on the counter-attack. 


One of Alonso’s most important principles is being compact in and out of possession, with the distance between the defenders and attackers being small. This allows Leverkusen to suffocate their opposition and press in numbers when they lose the ball, recovering it quickly. This prevents counter-attacking situations for the opposition and allows Leverkusen to keep the ball for long periods. Being compact in possession also keeps the distances between players short, allowing the man on the ball to have several passing options. Close combinations and third-man runs are used to play through presses and carve through the opposition. In the 3-4-3 system that Alonso deploys, the wing backs stretch the opposition, while two inside forwards operate on either side of the striker. With many teams defending in a back 4, a frontline of 5 immediately creates an advantage for Alonso’s team. The wingbacks, Alejandro Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong have especially benefited from the space afforded in wider areas, recording 33 goal contributions between them this season. 


Inter Milan’s style of play is less possession-based than Leverkusen’s and more about playing through presses quickly and creating space behind the backline for the strikers and wingbacks to run into. Important to Inter Milan’s system is rotation. Center backs often overlap, with a midfielder dropping deeper to fill the gap, and wing backs coming infield. Over the weekend, center-backs Alessandro Bastoni and Yann Aurel Bisseck combined in open play to secure the 3 points for Inter. Inzaghi deployed a 3-5-2, with the front 2 being Marcus Thuram and Latauro Martinez. Thuram loves to run in behind, while Martinez drops into midfield. Thuram and Martinez have combined for 33 goals this season, the most amongst any attacking duo in Italy. For teams that attempt to manmark Inter’s buildup, they struggle to contend with the fluid rotations. 


Alonso and Inzaghi show that a back 3 does not always have to be defensive. You can control games, pressing aggressively and creating a high number of chances with a back 3 formation. Currently, most teams in Europe still use a back 4. In the English Premier League, only Wolverhampton Wanderers regularly use a back 3 with and without the ball. Some teams use a situational back 3 such as Manchester City, but revert to a back 4 when defending. Success breeds imitations, so more teams will take note of Alonso and Inzaghi’s tactics and use a back 3 in the coming seasons. 

Posted in Blog and tagged .