Three at the Back
Against Columbus Crew two weeks ago, FC Cincinnati put together their best all-around performance in club history and embarrassed the oldest MLS team in the process. I could not sum up the emotions surrounding that game better than Bob Brumberg did on Die Innenstadt’s blog, so check that out here. But up until this point in the season, FC Cincinnati didn’t appear to have a coherent plan from week to week. Lineups were nearly impossible to predict outside of goalkeeper, the formations that had been used up to this point were unpredictable, they were unable to put the best players on the field at the same time, and suspensions on top of injuries did Alan Koch no favors when picking a starting eleven. So when the team rolled out yet another formation, with yet another new-look formation, you would have expected people to roll their eyes. But this was different, this line-up just felt right. Koch went with a trendy throwback these days, the 1986 vintage 3-5-2.
The 3-5-2 sees three centre backs holding down the defense, two wingbacks on the outside of the mid-field who are bombing up and down the sidelines all game, three midfielders to control or clog the middle of the field, and two attackers up top. And three at the back has really become the next big thing in global soccer. This is more or less the formation USA recently rolled out in World Cup Qualifying against Mexico at the Azteca, matching their best performance at the Mexican fortress in the process. The beauty of this formation is that it allows for a team to use the lineup both defensively and offensively.
Other variations on three at the back have been used to great success this past year. Arsenal, in the English Premier League, managed to save their season, and very likely Arsene Wenger’s job, by implementing a three at the back system. Wenger’s new system was more of a 3-4-2-1, something Wenger had never attempted in his previous twenty one years of managing Arsenal. This is the same formation that they rolled out against Chelsea in the FA Cup this year, pulling the shocking upset and leaving a forgettable season with a trophy.
The shock victory over Chelsea because Chelsea had just won the English Premier League a few weeks earlier. Chelsea too had implemented a three at the back system that ran wild on the rest of the league this year. Chelsea's first year manager, Antonio Conte, had run this system before at the Italian giants Juventus and as the Italian national team manager. Conte put this plan into practice after a, get this, shock defeat to Arsenal about a fourth of the way through the season. Now with Juventus and Italy, Conte had the advantage of using arguably the three best defenders in the world, but at Chelsea he proved the system could work if it was drilled properly.
Which brings us back to FC Cincinnati. With a new formation and system in place, FC Cincinnati took the field against Columbus Crew and proved we could play with the top division. Now the advantage of a 3-5-2 like what Cincinnati ran out against Columbus, is that it allows the wide midfielders to drop back into defense, essentially creating a back line of 5 defenders. The midfielders, and particularly Kenny Walker, harassed the attack and allowed the defense to clear forced passes. And up top the fans got exactly what they wanted, Djiby and Konig starting together. These are two of the most experienced players in USL not just here in Cincinnati, and they began to click. Djiby as the target-man and Konig as the deep-lying-attacker, they paired well to produce more chances than Columbus had business giving up. And true to the 3-5-2’s promise, the goal comes from Konig salvaging a broken-down play, passing back to an onrushing wingback, who crosses the ball to the big target-man in the middle of the box. A little Djiby magic and Columbus fans are taking swings at their coach after the game. Perfect.
It was just a few days later and FC Cincinnati was squaring off against the Eastern Conference leaders, Charleston Battery. But now, Koch and his team have a plan, a formation, a system. And sure enough the team rolled out a three at the back system. However, this time the formation was much more along the lines of a 3-4-3 ala Chelsea. Yes, there were two attackers up top in Djiby and Konig, but they played with Mclaughlin up top as well to serve as the playmaker between them. Despite needing a very late equalizer from Weideman, FC Cincinnati walked away from that game with a tie that, really, felt like a win against a team we’ve never managed to beat.
And this past weekend we saw the 3-4-3 again, but with an incredibly in-form Weideman on one side of Djiby and Mclaughlin on the other. The resulting effort had Saint Louis only getting three shots on target and five chances created according to Opta. The attack was in full force with seven shots on target and eleven chances created. Allowing the wide midfielders to get back and defend has really locked down a once shaky defense. Now sure, we’ve never lost to Saint Louis, but this was a comprehensive victory from a team that now has a system to work within. There is now a plan, a formation, and a system that allows for slight tweaking and just plugging player in and watching them go.
And now we’ll get to try our formation out against the Chicago Fire.