Pundits and commentators up and down the country often present the same aphorism when watching a particularly potent pressing team, that the “best defence is a good offence”.
Andy Townsend most likely sputters and spits this down commentary microphones due to his own penchant for a cliché, and is probably utterly oblivious that the phrase comes from Sun Tzu’s, Art of War.
Most managers and coaches in football look to steady rocky shores and set a team upon a winning formula by sorting out the defence first – prioritising keeping clean sheets before then moving on to other issues in a team. However, very few actively look to the defence to create the best offence.
Overlapping central defenders has been quite a buzzword over the last 18 months or so since Sheffield United’s charge to the top ten of the Premier League through an interesting, innovative and individual playing style.
Back in 2016, with the Blades still in League One, Chris Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill started working on how to break down teams who sat with ten men behind the ball. Their solution was not the Brucie move of sticking as many strikers on the pitch and merely hoping for the best, but to actually increase the number of defenders.
All the more incredible considering before this Knill was only really famous for once almost being killed by a squirrel.
Although on the face of it, putting three very traditional central defenders onto the pitch may seem rather antithetical to Wilder & Knill’s plans of being more attacking – in reality a back three is neither a defensive system and nor does it necessarily mean a lessening of attacking output. In reality, is one of the most attacking formations any manager could utilise.
This is thanks to a South American football theory. Juego de Posición is a concept widely held in the continent but has now spread to Spain and the Netherlands. It outlines that the pitch is split into five vertical sections, and the offence are thus responsible to play within a set of guidelines within this structure, and wide-men in a defence can overlap down these channels with ease – as long as they are protected by an anchoring defender and legs in midfield.
Each player has his own specific task or responsibility within his own zone. Pep Guardiola is a massive proponent of Juego de Posición, and as such his training pitches at Barcelona, Bayern and Manchester City are all zoned within these parameters.
The scheme was largely developed by Ricardo La Volpe, a former Argentine footballer and manager who won the World Cup in 1978 with his home country. La Volpe created La Salida Lavolpiana (the way of La Volpe) - a system in which build-up is started by the defensive midfielder dropping between the centre-backs who in turn move into the channels.
With a ‘situational’ back three established, the wing-backs then move further up the pitch to occupy the wings. Wilder and Knill took this idea and developed it even further, by overloading the wings with central defenders who were both comfortable on the ball and uncharacteristically – at least compared to the common centre back – quick. Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham are ideal candidates for their current system.
La Volpe is known to favour a back-three for its ability to cover all the vertical channels on the pitch, high up the pitch - therefore providing numerical superiority all over. As well as occupying the channels at the back, the wing-backs push up to occupy the wings.
In a 3-4-3 the winger pushes inside to cover the channels; whereas in a 3-5-2 the strikers can either play in tandem, or one dropping slightly deeper and thus able to cut passing lanes. The five verticals are occupied both in attack and defence; creating an attacking formation and overload on the ball.
Guardiola may not implement a back-three at City, but the offensive nature of his full-backs and Fernandinho’s role to recycle and ward the central defenders seemingly replicates a 3-4-3, merely 40 yards higher up the pitch at all times, and truly shows how effective the formation can be, without actually utilising it to the letter of the law.
Kurban Berdyev is a name probably unheralded and unheard of in English football, but in Russia the man is an undoubted genius. He is an Uzbek coach who firstly led Rubin Kazan to a historic 2-1 victory over Barcelona at the Nou Camp in 2009, before repeating the trick as he led his virtually unknown Rostov side to a fantastic 3-2 victory over Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.
In a recent interview, he claimed:
A formation with three central defenders is more attack-oriented than the one with four defenders. It all comes down to the functional duties of attacking and defending players. It is the perfect system
The Sheffield United backroom staff tweaked the traditional style, favouring a sweeper central defender flanked by very attacking central defenders on either side who would be afforded the freedom of the pitch to make vertical runs, especially against teams who looked to sit back, soak up pressure and concede territory to the Blades.
The notion of such attacking centre-backs is by no means new: Franz Beckenbauer, Ronald Koeman, Gaetano Scirea, Velibor Vasović, Ruud Krol and Matthias Sammer were all playmakers because in their day the central defender was the only player on the pitch afforded enough time to be able to do so. But they were also prodigious talents.
Wilder’s true genius was taking the two existing ideas and utilising both in the same team. Part masterstroke, part utter steel balls. They were a massive club in a position which belied their history. The pair could only implement this because they had a squad with high fitness levels, energy all over the pitch and faced opponents who more often than not merely just sat back, especially at Brammall Lane. Three years, two promotions and irrevocable success later, it is tried, tested and being adopted by coaches up and down the football league.
Sound familiar? Phil Parkinson endure a torrid start to his tenure at Sunderland, part self-enforced by a stubbornness to pick players clearly not good, fit or interested enough and his own decision to employ a bafflingly disjointed long-ball style that forced an already lethargic midfield of 34-year-old Grant Leadbitter and out-of-form Max Power to be utterly isolated for 30 yards in all directions on the ball.
However, in his search for a formula, Parkinson endured. He stuck by his attempts to shore up a rocky defence and instil discipline and fitness into an unruly and out-of-shape squad. Then “dross” turned into “better performances”, and a leaky backline became the strongest defence in the league.
On Saturday, we arguably seen the best performance from a Sunderland side in five years – in itself possibly more of a condemnation of those five years, but still quite the achievement considering the state of the side which got swatted away 3-0 by League Two Scunthorpe two months earlier.
Parkinson hasn’t merely carbon copied Wilder and Knill, however. To his credit, Parkinson has changed things up. For the Blades, the wing-backs cut inside and roam while the central defenders provide the width.
However, only on the right-hand side of Sunderland’s attack is that seen – with Jordan Willis galloping down the right and producing the highest quality crosses by a defender since Younes Kaboul stuck it on a plate for Steven Fletcher against the mags.
On the left, Denver Hume essentially plays as a very attacking left-winger while Tom Flanagan and Max Power provide cover. The youngster links up with a very narrow Lynden Gooch to absolutely terrorise seemingly everyone they’ve faced since their blossoming partnership took form.
The last two games have been some of the most enjoyable, pleasing and effective I’ve seen at the SoL in years. We had a clear and identifiable style both on and off the ball. The performance was bounding with energy, and the pressing off the ball was an absolute delight.
With any luck this trend of performances continues, the Lads look confident and Parkinson deserves the utmost credit for turning it around.