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On the first day of World Cup, South Africa gave to me: Three-man defences

June 12, 2010

It seems yesterday was a throwback to the early 90’s, with two teams playing with variations of three at the back. Both Mexico and Uruguay set themselves up with three at the back during some point of the match.

When Mexico didn’t have the ball they operated a four-man defence with Rafael Marquez sitting in-front of the back four with the marauding Torrado patrolling the midfield area.

However, when they have the ball, Marquez dropped back into the central of defence and Salcido and Aguilar moved high up the pitch to help make four in midfield. With Vela and dos Santos moving inwards, it created huge amounts of space for Aguilar and Salcido to move into.

This movement of Marquez, Aguilar and Salcido is shown by looking at their heat maps.

Heat map of Carlos Salcido

Salcido’s heat map shows he spent equal amounts of time going forward as defending, pushing forward into midfield and to support the attack. He moved forward down the wing and also moved into midfield, moving into the space vacated by Marquez moving back into defence. This always gave them a numerical advantage in the middle of the park.

Heat map of Rafael Marquez

Marquez’s heat map shows that he spent large amounts of time anchoring midfield, indicating his position when Mexico did not have the ball. When Mexico was in possession, Marquez was comfortable in coming forward with the ball and leaving two at the back.

In the first half, Mexico’s most impressive players were dos Santos and Aguilar. As said previously, with dos Santos moving into the hole to play in between South Africa’s midfield and defence he was able to run with pace at the defence or lay the ball off.

Heat map of Gio dos Santos

Heat map of Aguilar

Aguilar’s positioning shows why Mexico were able to keep possession in the first half and control the game. With Aguilar so far up the pitch, keeping possession was easy as well as offering a great outlet with Aguilar sticking to line and looking to drive to the by-line.

Mexico’s formation really proved to be successful in the first half. They were able to hold possession and control the first half without actually scoring. With a more clinical and mobile striker perhaps they would have been comfortably in front after the first half. However, as shown by South Africa’s goal and their late chance, Mexico have a slow defence not made better by them playing with a high-line. Mexico’s use of three at the back indicates the most positive way of utilising the system, with the wing backs pushing far forward and creating four in midfield with two people dropping deep.

In comparison, Uruguay’s use of three at the back demonstrated how effective the system can be defensively. They played with two very deep holding midfielders protecting the impressive back three of Godin, Lugano and Victorino.

The heatmap of Arévalo reads like that of a ball-playing centre-back showing how far deep he stayed during the whole match. Diego Pérez’s heatmap is indicative of a defensive-minded midfielder. As well as these two midfielders shielding the back three, the right wing-back Maxi Pereira did not venture forward as much as the buccaneering Aguilar, trying to maintain a position of stability and organisation at the back. France really needed to push forward and to help overcome the numerical advantage Uruguay had when attacking.

Heatmap of Arévalo

Heatmap of Perez

Heatmap of Maxi Perreira

These two games show that playing three at the back is not dead in Latin American countries and were more than capable of holding their own against more modern systems. They offer both the opportunity to pack the midfield and dominate possession in the case of Mexico whilst Uruguay’s defensive display against France showed that three at the back can be effective at defending, even if they were sterile going forward with Forlan dropping too deep and wide to make an impact and partnership with Suarez.

From these two games, it seems that a three-man defence can either be fluid and controlling in attack with defensive deficiencies or be organised and overpowering in defence whilst offering a lack of support in attack. Against a team with good wingers, Mexico may find it difficult to use the full-backs to such affect, as the wingers will be able to push the full-backs back, not allowing them to move into midfield and increase the numbers, reducing the possibility of them controlling possession.

The use of a three-man defence is a welcome change to the four-man defences often seen in European football and offers some great tactical discussion in this World Cup.

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