With competition in the Hyundai A-League increasing, coaches are returning to a three-man defence to get one over their rivals.
For more than a decade we have hardly seen a back three in our domestic competition. And now, suddenly, they are all the rage.
When Ange Postecoglou changed his 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 on New Year’s Eve, looking to arrest a five-game losing streak, he became the third Hyundai A-League manager in recent weeks to change from a back four to a three.
It followed hot on the heels of John van ‘t Schip’s recent work for Melbourne Heart, with the Dutchman alternating between a three- and four-man back-line, depending on what the opponent is doing.
Van ‘t Schip’s flexible strategy is about controlling the opposition by always having a man spare at the back.
When Melbourne Victory used three attackers in the pre-Christmas derby, Heart eventually reverted to a back four, after starting with three.
The next game, against Sydney FC, van ‘t Schip started with a back four. But a quarter of the way into the game, realising that Sydney were controlling proceedings, but only playing with two up front, he went to a back three, thereby strengthening his midfield.
From there, Heart took complete control, eventually winning 4-0.
Van ‘t Schip’s use of a back three against both Victory and Sydney reminded me of the recent work of Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola in the El Clasico win over Real Madrid.
There Guardiola started with a four, but eventually shifted Dani Alves forward, gaining control of the midfield.
In Europe, as in Australia, it has been rare to find many back threes over the past decade or so. Napoli, employing one in Serie A and the Champions League this season, have looked easy on the eye.
During the 1990s, however, it was far more common. In Australian football, the use of a ball-playing sweeper was all the rage in a period where we saw the likes of Milan Ivanovic, Ned Zelic, Paul Okon, Ante Juric and Steve Horvat feature in our national and club sides, “sweeping” behind two “stoppers”.
Now we are starting to see the trend re-surface, here and abroad, and it’s another feather in the cap of the Hyundai A-League that managers are reaping some success with it, and players are adapting quickly to it.
The first to consistently switch to a back three this season was Miron Bleiberg.
At the foot of the table after nine rounds and needing to arrest a slump during which Gold Coast had conceded 12 goals from their previous five games, Bleiberg had to try something.
His solution, against Sydney FC in round 10, was to revert to a three-man defence, with Michael Thwaite splitting Kristian Rees and Jonas Salley.
It was a tight, scrappy affair that finished scoreless, but that mattered little to Bleiberg. United kept their first clean sheet of the season and provided a base to build from.
Since then he has continued to use a three-man defence, with the team keeping a further three clean sheets.
The run of four games has featured victories over Adelaide United and Brisbane Roar, and while Bleiberg’s side still sit bottom, eight points from four games is a great springboard into the second half of the season.
Perhaps Postecoglou had his neighbour’s turn-around in mind when he decided to switch to 3-4-3 for Saturday’s game against Victory.
Little doubt he needed something to arrest the slide that had seen his men concede nine from their past five, all loses.
Playing Matt Smith between Matt Jurman and Mohamed Adnan worked a treat, with Roar’s defence looking far less susceptible to the counter-attack than it has in recent times.
As well, it allowed Erik Paartalu to play in a far more advanced role than he has been used to.
With the success that Roar, Gold Coast and Heart have hitherto had by employing threes, temporary or permanent, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more teams go down this path, especially those struggling.
Don’t be surprised, for example, to see Newcastle Jets revert to a three at some point to arrest a slide that has seen them win only one of their past eight.
It is, of course, a strategy not alien to Gary van Egmond, who sprung a surprise in the season three Grand Final win by employing three at the back.
That afternoon the use of a back three appeared to be a one-off, designed to catch Central Coast Mariners out, but now, it appears, we are seeing the back three becoming a more viable option.