Liquid assets of the defence

Simon O'Hagan analyses the English trend for using three centre- backs
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The Independent Online
A WILLINGNESS to experiment with tactics has never been exactly synonymous with English football. But this season is already looking very different from that point of view, and at Old Trafford this afternoon the return of Eric Cantona to the Manchester United team provides perhaps the biggest test yet of a system which Liverpool have been quietly honing for the last 12 months and which is suddenly all the rage elsewhere.

Some people call it 3-5-2, others 5-3-2. It depends on whether the emphasis is on attack or defence. Either way, a formation in which the defining characteristics are the use of three centre-backs and the conversion of the two full-backs into wide midfielders may be in line with the way many Continental sides play, but it represents a significant departure in England, where 4-4-2 has been sworn by for years.

Liverpool's success in Europe from the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties owed much to their readiness to be tactically innovative, and in this the team of the Nineties is no different. Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, is reluctant to take credit for introducing 3-5-2 (his way of describing it), saying all his predecessors back to Bob Paisley tried it. But he agrees that "we are probably the first team to sustain it for a lengthy period".

It began just over a year ago, in circumstances Liverpool will not wish to recall. They were playing at Manchester United, and drawing 0-0 with 20 minutes to go. Phil Babb then made his first appearance for the club, coming on as a substitute and lining up next to John Scales and Neil Ruddock. Liverpool lost 2-0, but Evans was sufficiently convinced of the wisdom of using three central defenders that he had them all on from the start of the next match, a 1-1 draw at Newcastle. They have not looked back since.

A comparison of the 44 Premiership matches Liverpool have played since that defeat at Old Trafford with the 44 they played leading up to the draw at Newcastle shows only a marginal improvement in their goals for record - 66 to 60. Defensively, however, the effect has been startling: a mere 38 goals conceded post-reorganisation, as against 57 conceded before it.

The thinking behind 3-5-2 is that three central defenders will cope better than two when faced with a conventional front pairing and that it will also give a team the time and resources to build better from the back - something that Don Howe, in his capacity as the technical co- ordinator for the Football Association, is keen to encourage at all levels of the game. Meanwhile, a midfield augmented by both full-backs has many more attacking options. And when the opposition has the ball, or are using two wingers, the full-backs can easily revert to a more traditional role.

Aston Villa are one of the teams successfully playing three central defenders - a system their manager Brian Little was using at Darlington as long as six years ago. "I often think that if a central defender gets pulled out chasing a forward you've always got two players to deal with the cross," he says. "But people play their centre-backs differently. Some people would man-mark with two and allow the other fellow to be a sweeper. I'd look at Chelsea and suggest that Gullit was a sweeper. People would look at us and say McGrath was a sweeper. But he's not. He's got a centre-back's role. We tell the three of them to play as centre-backs."

Ray Wilkins at Queen's Park Rangers is another who has gone this way, notably when his side won 3-1 at Leeds earlier in the season. Danny Maddix, with just one man either side of him, marked Tony Yeboah out of the game and QPR's increased numbers in midfield stifled the opposition where they were looking to create.

Evans thinks 3-5-2 is more attacking than defensive. "It's been very successful for us and the biggest thing is it's given Steve McManaman a freer role. With 4-4-2 he'd be basically wide right or wide left. With five in midfield he's always got the chance to break out."

Not everyone is convinced - Blackburn Rovers, for example, who have toyed with 3-5-2 in attempting to solve their defensive problems while still regarding it with suspicion. Even Evans sees there are disadvantages. "If people push you into a flat back five," Evans says. "Then you can end up with two forwards holding five players, so it's important that you're versatile not just with the full-backs getting out wide, but with the centre-backs stepping out."

This chimes with what is now official thinking at the FA. Howe visited Ajax last season, where a radical formation, best described as 3-3-1-3, was helping the Dutch side towards their European Cup victory and influencing tactics worldwide. On his return, Howe got together with all the Premiership coaches and discussed what he thought was the most important aspect of playing three at the back - which was not what it could offer in terms of stopping goals, but the emphasis it placed on defenders being comfortable on the ball and bringing it forward in constructive ways. "That's really the message we're trying to get across," Howe says. Whoever you credit, Wilkins believes there is "far more thought going into the game than a couple of years ago".

What is fascinating about today's match is the threat that Cantona's highly individual method poses to Liverpool's defensive system, since he generally plays not alongside Andy Cole but much deeper than him. If Cole, in effect, plays as a lone striker, do Liverpool really want to waste three men on a marking job that could adequately be done by two? But if they want to get at Cantona, who can destroy defences from the halfway line, that could mean deploying one of the three - say Babb - to mark him. That in turn could force Liverpool closer to the 4-4-2 that they have long since renounced, with a consequent loss of freedom for McManaman.

When Eric Cantona asks a question, the answer is seldom easy.

How Eric Cantona will put Liverpool's defensive formation to the test

Holding formation means three centre-backs have little to do against lone striker

Cantona's withdrawn role challenges defences to come to him to try to snuff out the danger. Typically, he might gather a ball out of defence around the centre circle before delivering the telling pass. Against a lone striker, Liverpool's back three - Phil Babb, Neil Ruddock and either Mark Wright or John Scales - may be underemployed, while Cantona is left to weave his magic elsewhere.

Challenging Cantona forces change in formation to 4-4-2

Liverpool's solution would almost certainly come at a cost to their midfield. John Barnes might keep an eye on Cantona, reducing his own effectiveness. Or a defender, perhaps Babb, could mark Cantona, but the defensive system would break down. If Giggs attacks down the wings, Liverpool could be drawn towards 4-4-2, with full-backs Rob Jones and Steve Harkness in defensive roles.