Five At The Back: Continuity And Change
Many novel trends at the turn of the 2010s have become more mainstream concepts as the years have passed. For better or for worse, one such idea is defending with five men at the back. In this piece, we explore the trends and variants associated with this basic setup at EURO 2020.
Written by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Football continues to evolve. Even if trends are no longer as drastic as the advent of zonal defending instead of strict man marking, change is present. From collective pressing and exact principles in possession to less space and time on the ball, a decade has proven to be a long time in the sport.
Yet another indication of evolution has been the breadth of systems on show at the elite level. Indeed, from as early as the first round of group stage games, EURO 2020 has seen a marked surge in the number of teams that operate with three central defenders instead of a classic back four.
But do not expect to find the next Inter Milan, Atalanta, or Chelsea here. Maybe a taste of Barcelona if you’re lucky. Football at club level is a different ordeal, as a distinct trend at the competition has revealed.
Back fives, not back threes
Constraints on national team setups play a pivotal role in how such competitions pan out. On the one hand, managers can look for creative solutions to make the most out of an inherently limited talent pool. On the other hand, fatigue and a lack of training time can cause a team to fall back on old habits. Factor in the randomness of tournament football and risk-averse approaches are never far away.
Many teams that have lined up with three central defenders do not interpret the system adventurously. Rather, a destructive back five, with an extra man at the back, looks to take the sting out of the game.
The flexible Polish outfit from Group E showed this in their 1-1 draw with Spain. Only rotating into a three at the back on the ball from a 4-2-3-1 setup against Slovakia last time out, Paulo Sousa went for a back five system from the sidelines. As one could expect from the new manager, the approach was a bit atypical. Piotr Zieliński would often push through the midfield as the ball swung back to the center of the pitch, so the 5-3-1-1 formation could be seen as more of a disguised 5-2-1-2 shape.
Poland’s 5-2-1-2/5-3-1-1 defensive formation with a flexible midfield setup.
It proved a neat way of offsetting the absence of Grzegorz Krychowiak, who usually holds down the middle of the park. The two defensive midfielders shielded the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. the trio in the middle of the park was flexible on the whole, and Poland guided the play out to the flanks. But in the little time that Sousa has been in charge of the team, he has chosen this system with clear intent. The deep setup and tight coverage of the center has mirrored many displays from outsiders in this tournament.
Hungarian heart; Nordic steel
Flying the flag for underdogs at EURO 2020 were Marco Rossi’s Hungary. In a Group of Death with Portugal, France, and Germany, few would have given them a prayer. But the reality could not have been more different. While bottom of the group with two points, Hungary were only behind for six of 270 minutes in their three games. The basis for this stark overperformance was their 5-3-2 formation.
The central block of five players lends itself to the team showing teams out to the flanks. From here, an aggressive mechanism often comes into play. The wing-back on the side of the ball shoots out of the backline while the four other defenders shuffle over. Denying the immediate threat while offering cover away from the ball, this variant of the back five can garner the best out of both worlds.
32nd minute: defensive sequence against Portugal showing Hungary’s swinging chain of five.
Game to game, aspects can differ. For instance, Rossi often assigns an asymmetric allocation of roles between the central midfielders. Against Germany, András Schäfer pushed out higher from the left a lot more than László Kleinheisler from the right. The match before against France, the inverse was the case. But, above all, a sturdy rearguard remains the constant. Edged out at the death against Germany, their stable back five has nonetheless accrued admirers.
Group B has seen two other sterling back five setups from outsider outfits. Switching to a back three after their opening game, Denmark have battled their way to the last eight of the EUROs. But across the North Sea, another Nordic nation was home to an even tighter defense. Finland, operating from a 5-3-2 formation, conceded just three goals in their three group stage games.
But it is not only smaller nations that have gone for a back five, as some European heavyweights have pursued it too. Gareth Southgate has readily switched from a 4-3-3 structure to a 5-2-3 formation in his tenure as England manager. It would not be a shock, especially given the outfit they face in the Round of 16, to see the system reappear.
Elsewhere, the back five remains a staple of the Belgian setup, where Roberto Martínez aimed to find more suitable roles for his stellar defensive options in the first months of his reign. But, while this setup has been in place for years, he has not implemented a firm defensive framework. A jaded collective high up the field, the Belgians fall back on an often mediocre medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. Should the old guard fail to make a last stand, Martínez’s men could soon run into problems without the ball.
22nd minute: Belgium retreating against Portugal. A common issue in their medium block is a lack of compactness around the double pivot, Two central midfielders next to each other. especially since the forwards tend to lurk higher.
In the meantime, another outfit from the Low Countries has resorted to a back five to elevate their prospects at the EUROs. Dutch manager Frank de Boer has committed an act of sacrilege, aborting a 4-2-3-1 shape in place of a 3-5-2 setup. Contrary to the bleak outlook ahead of the EUROs, this side has enthralled in possession. But the guarantee of a spectacle with this side is a double-edged sword.
Marking man-to-man is like sending out eleven lions
If de Boer hoped the extra man at the back could offer more security, the outcome has been far from the case. Whether in a four or a five man setup, man-to-man marking, long rooted in Dutch football culture, has been the main feature of his team’s defensive style. Suffocating at its best, it can be rash at its worst.
A deceptively straightforward 2-0 win over Austria was a case in point. The Dutch briefly set up in a 3-4-1-2 shape where Georginio Wijnaldum operated as the ten off the ball behind the two strikers. Against another chain of three at the back, one of the central defenders would nominally end up as a free man in the buildup phase. So, just minutes in, de Boer quickly set about making a tweak to remedy the situation. Wijnaldum shifted out to the right to form a line of three with the two strikers. The change should have generated better access to the ball, as the Dutch had now matched up from the front.
But, the Austrians had several escapes. Martin Hinteregger could render Wijnaldum’s new role harmless simply by moving higher up the flank to pull the midfielder away. Meanwhile, Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong now had no answer to the three-on-two underload in the midfield. In their backs, Christoph Baumgartner only made matters harder to manage. Roaming as a second striker, he could offer an option to enable diagonal entries inside the Dutch block.
15th minute: Netherlands poorly defend an Austrian possession sequence. Martin Hinteregger drags Wijnaldum deep and Sabitzer pulls de Roon higher, forcing Daley Blind to move out to the opposite halfspace. Denzel Dumfries also makes one of many positional errors in this game, lurking forward in no man’s land. Austrians errors on the ball saved the Dutch from possibly dangerous situations.
A bunch of eleven men on the pitch in orange kits was just that. As opposed to defending as a unit, the Dutch defense constituted a mesh of individual decisions. Throw careless or misfortunate choices into the mix, and danger can arise almost out of nowhere. A lesson de Boer’s men learned the hard way.
France 1-0 Germany: a false sense of (in)security
The Germans were not in a dissimilar position to the Dutch at the start of the EUROs. The flaws that hurt Joachim Löw’s outfit at the last World Cup haunt them to this day. Kroos plays on autopilot from the left halfspace, even if it is to the team’s detriment, while Löw’s management has often fallen short of the mark. Failing to inspire belief in his ability to lead a gifted crop of players, he has stumbled from one idea to the next. In the end, the manager ended up settling on a 3-4-3 formation.
While the change could not avert a loss to France, a contrast to the opening game of their title defense in 2018 became noticeable. Here, Germany had set up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. The fullbacks bombed on, and Kroos slipped into bad habits, vacating the center. Leaving little to no cover in front of the central defenders, they had signed their death warrant. Mexico stormed through a chasm in the middle of the park, seized the lead and bagged a win. Conversely, facing a fierce trident in a side that seeks to hit others on the break, their management of the transitions against France was an unheralded success.
Above all, on the one hand, Ilkay Gündogan and Kroos did not advance very far. The timid outlook of Löw’s men emerged out of this conservatism, which left the double pivot almost solely in front of the French midfield during the first half. Working with a base of five to defend on the break, Germany looked to swing this aspect of the duel, from a numerical standpoint, in their favor.
On the other hand, the chain of three was valuable from a ‘defensive’ perspective. The extra man at the back afforded Matthias Ginter and Antonio Rüdiger the license to step out from the halfspaces. Alert to danger, they knew that protection was behind him. Hence, the two could stop the French from picking up speed and, in turn, counterattacks before they had even begun. Hummels, too, came to the fore in his second half thanks to his ability to assess possible one-on-one duels well.
53rd minute: Germany defending a French transition. Hummels telegraphs Paul Pogba’s pass into Karim Benzema, shutting down the transition with cover from central defenders either side of him.
Whatever kind of back five it is, the system offers certain promising advantages. More cover in the last line, a greater focus on the center and halfspaces, as well as extra numbers back on the break can give teams a tactical edge. But, as EURO 2020 has shown in equal measure, football is ultimately a game of animation, not formation.
While some sides have blossomed in a back five, others remain plagued by recurring problems. Can the likes of Belgium and Germany find new solutions to old puzzles? Will Southgate stick or twist? An enticing two weeks awaits.
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