The Back One: Conte’s Defensive Innovation

There has been a tendency this season for pundits to compare any instance of a back three to that of Conte’s Chelsea. And of course there has also been a backlash, aimed especially at Phil Neville, for what is frankly a lazy and ignorant conclusion to arrive at.

The back three at one club or another has been a constant at the top of club football since coming into existence before even the back four. The Premier League alone has seen plenty of recent instances of clubs utilising three centre-backs: Koeman at Southampton and Everton, Guardiola’s City, Rodgers’ Liverpool, Bruce’s Hull, Martinez’s Wigan, etc.

The fundamental, tactical principle of maintaining a one-man advantage at the back meant that a centre-back trio was the inevitable reaction to the increase in counter-attack football in the Premier League, which has also enabled the return of the front two.

Conte, though, is not undeserving of credit for innovation. One of the strongest components of his current Chelsea team is the frequent passing connections between the wide centre-backs and the wingers/forwards of Hazard and Pedro. The left and right centre-backs frequently push up so that they are alongside the deep midfielders.

What’s interesting here is the personnel decisions. The wide centre-backs are tasked with a creative role and require a technical excellence, but traditional penalty box defender Gary Cahill pushes forward while continental modernist David Luiz remains deep.

Conte makes this counter-intuitive decision, I think, as a reaction to the increase in high-pressing. The modern defender needs to be one who can receive the ball under pressure, but the amount of time Luiz spends without accompaniment at the back means he needs an outstanding level of technical excellence and ability to read the game defensively, leaving him as something of a modern Libero.

Pochettino is making increasingly regular use of a back three this season, but it was also a common situational shape coming off of last season’s 4-2-3-1, with Eric Dier moving between the centre-backs and in turn allowing the full-backs to push up. It is understandable then that Spurs fans would be frustrated by the insinuation that Pochettino has been influenced by Conte’s use of the defensive structure this season.

But I think that, perhaps accidentally, this comparison isn’t entirely unjust. Whereas last season it was Eric Dier moving from a defensive midfield position into the centre of the back three, it is Alderweireld who sits deep and central this campaign. Like at Chelsea, the greatest defensive reader and most technically-astute player is the one moved away from the action. Here, he has a lesser contribution in terms of playing long diagonals into the final third, but instead is trusted so greatly to perform in an incredibly difficult and high-risk role that the wide-centre backs are free to push-up into midfield and contribute to the making of play.

Against Hull, two of Tottenham’s three goals came from a centre-back pushing up into the full-back zone, before playing a chipped through-ball down the line to a wing-back who then gained an assist. First Vertonghen played Rose in up the left and later Dier freed Walker down the right.

Whether or not wide playmaking centre-backs enabled by a back one catches on or not remains to be seen—although it is unlikely given the personnel requirements. Conte hasn’t invented the back three, given it new life or even brought it into attention. But he has modernised it in a way that has caught the attention of at least one other top level manager.