Teams using two strikers are starting to come back in to fashion in the Premier League this season. Man Utd, Liverpool and Man City are among teams that are flirting with the twin-pronged attack, as are the likes of Norwich and also our most recent visitors, Newcastle.
The Magpies’ Loic Remy and Shola Ameobi not only gave us a headache by running in-behind, but also the two of them condensed the space for our centre backs by pressing in from wide starting positions. This meant that Michael Dawson and Vlad Chiriches (then Younes Kaboul) couldn’t move the ball out as easily to our full backs. Something that they are accustomed to doing against sides playing with a lone striker.
By hemming our centre backs in, Remy and Ameobi forced them to either pass the ball forward in to central areas or to split much wider apart than they wanted to.
The ball then had to be sent over a greater distance between our two centre backs, slowing down our ability to move quickly forward.
Playing two strikers also meant that both of our centre backs were occupied when Newcastle had the ball, especially if our full backs had gone forward.
Most teams like to have a man over at the back to act as cover. This is fine against a lone striker as we’ll have 2v1, but against teams playing with two front men, adding a third centre back can offer this security.
Our next two Premier League games are also against teams that play two strikers, Man City and Man Utd, whilst Liverpool also loom on the horizon.
So should we consider playing with three at the back against teams that are favouring two front men?
The benefits of a back three against 4-4-2
That shift to a back three creates a number of benefits against teams playing 4-4-2.
First of all it would give us a stronger defensive presence in the centre of the park. Immediately against teams playing with two strikers you have an additional defender to act as cover to have 3v2.
On Newcastle’s goal on Sunday, if Loic Remy had been playing as a lone striker then Michael Dawson could have come over as cover to help Vlad Chiriches. As it was, with Kyle Walker caught forward from the quick turnover in possession, he had to respect the run of Shola Ameobi.
What’s more, Michael Dawson is strong in the air, but slow over the ground. He may be better deployed in a defensive three where he is sweeping behind faster centre backs against a twin-pronged attack.
Secondly, It would also permit Jan Vertonghen, Vlad Chiriches and Younes Kaboul to make forward bursts to create overloads further forward.
Jan Vertonghen is not averse to playing at full back where he can bomb on, as he did in scoring at Old Trafford. But he also has done the same from centre back, highlighted in his strikes last season in Swansea 1 Spurs 2 and Liverpool 3 Spurs 2.
As we know, Younes Kaboul also likes to move forward in to the attack, as does recent arrival Vlad Chiriches. The Romanian developed a reputation for doing this in his time at Steaua Bucharest, where his surges out from defence became legendary and he set up and scored a number of goals.
In Arsenal 5 Spurs 2 at the Emirates last season, Andre Vilas-Boas went with a back three in the second half after Emmanuel Adebayor’s sending off. Whilst only playing with ten men, how much more attacking Jan Vertonghen could be was clearly evident after the switch.
Thirdly, a back three also provides more cover for the full backs. Their ability to get forward and receive passes played through the defence is key to our system this season. A back three – as highlighted on Remy’s goal – would afford more protection against two centre forwards if the wingbacks were caught up field.
Fourth, it also permits us to have the choice of two centre forwards, a lone striker and a number ten, or to play with wide forwards.
A back three can be deployed in a 3-5-2 formation which would allow us to play a partner with Roberto Soldado in a twin pronged attack of our own.
It could also be used with Christian Eriksen or Lewis Holtby just off of the Spaniard as a lone striker. If we wanted to be more aggressive then a direct dribbling number ten, such as how Erik Lamela played for River Plate, could also be used behind Soldado.
If we were to stick with our current game plan of utilising wide forwards, then we could play a 3-4-3 formation against teams using two strikers. This keeps the security of 3v2 at the back, whilst maintaining the additional attacking presence of a central number nine with two wide forwards.
Drawbacks of a back three against 4-4-2
The main drawback is that by adding an additional player to our defence, we are going to have to give something up elsewhere. This is either in the wide positions or in central midfield.
A switch to a 3-5-2 would mean having to either dispense with our wide forwards or to use one or both of them aggressively in the wingback positions.
Alternatively, a move to a 3-4-3 would mean that we’d have to dispense with one of our current trio of central midfielders.
Of course Sandro or Etienne Capoue could play in a role to drop in to the defence to create a three when possession is lost and then move up in to midfield when it is won back, but this does carry the risk of being caught 2v2 due to a quick transition.
Could Spurs use a back three against 4-4-2?
There were a number of warning signs against Newcastle that there may be trouble on the horizon against better opponents. Man City, Man Utd and Liverpool whom we face in the span of our next five Premier League games, all deploy two strikers that can cause us greater problems than Newcastle.
Opponents playing two strikers up top allow them to hem in our centre backs, whilst it also gives them two players to then try and get in-behind our high defensive line. Sergio Aguero tried this repeatedly last season for Man City and i wouldn’t bet against him attempting the same this term.
With the number of excellent centre backs we have at our disposal, moving to a back three is an option for Andre Villas-Boas against sides playing 4-4-2.
If we did switch, then it would either require sacrificing some of our wide players, which is often where we gain an advantage, or a central midfielder. It is for this reason that I could only see us playing this system when we are up against two strikers to not leave us outnumbered in midfield.
Although not a perfect system, three men at the back is an option for Spurs this season against teams playing a 4-4-2.