Why Are Premier League Teams Ditching Back Three Formations?

Every Premier League manager has their own systems and philosophies they bring to the ground with them on a matchday. These systems are methodically coached on the training ground week after week, and the history of football is littered with ingenious formations that have shaken up the sport. And it looks like the Premier League might be on the cusp of its next big tactical shakeup with teams ditching back three formations in favour of a return to more traditional set-ups. 

What Are Back Three Formations? 

The term ‘back three’ or ‘three at the back’ is used to describe side’s that play with a formation that involves three central defenders. These defenders are usually flanked by two wide fullbacks who are responsible for pushing forward when on the attack, but also track back and defend without the ball, creating a back line of five players.  

It’s generally been a system that has been developed by coaches who look to horde possession and play through the lines, whilst its flexibility also makes it a dangerous formation for teams who play on the counter. 

Back Three formations originated in Italy initially, and it was an acclaimed Italian coach that brought their contemporary systems to the Premier League…

How Back Threes Became Popular In The Prem 

Antonio Conte joined Chelsea in the summer of 2016 on the back of a stellar Euro 2016 with Italy and three successful seasons with Juventus. The Italian had built his wins off of a fiercely-coached 3-5-2 system, a formation that he would implement with the Blues. Chelsea had finished the 2015/16 season down in 10th but, in Conte’s maiden season, went on to set the record for the most Premier League wins (30), sweeping the title from Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, Jose Mourinho’s Man United and Pep Guardiola’s Man City

From there, back threes became increasingly popular up and down the division. Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves side were promoted in 2018 using a 3-4-3 and the side continued using the formation right up until the dismissal of Bruno Lage in 2022. 

Elsewhere, Brighton and Hove Albion switched from a four to a three-back formation following the appointment of Graham Potter in 2019. Potter would establish himself as one of the most tactically-flexible managers in the division whilst with the Seagulls, but utilised his squad mainly in a 3-4-1-2 shape, deploying the likes of Leandro Trossard in a central number 10 position. 

In 2021/22, 28.6% of Premier League sides used a back-three formation in matches across the season. In fact, 13 out of 20 of the teams in the division lined up with three central defenders in their starting lineups at least once. 

Brighton 3 Back Formation 2022/23
Brighton have switched from a back three to a back four this season

Why Premier League Teams Are Ditching It 

In comparison to the 28.6% from last season, only 22.2% of Premier Leagues have used a back-three formation in 2022/23 so far. 

These formations have given way to more traditional systems, with the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 being the two most popular systems in the division, being used 7.1% and 8% more than last season. 15 Out of the league’s twenty teams have used either of these formations, with Arsenal, Fulham, Leeds and Newcastle being the biggest users so far. 

In fact, it is only Graham Potter’s Chelsea and Antonio Conte’s Spurs who have continued to use three central defenders as their system of choice. 

Perhaps the biggest reason for the ditching of these back three formations has been how teams have looked to find more goals with the addition of another attacking player. In the case of Brighton, for example, the Seagulls have already scored the same amount of goals in 14 matches so far as they managed in 20 last season (19).