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The Best 3 Back Formations In Soccer

Having three center-backs is a common sight in modern soccer, though, for many years, it was often more usual for teams to play with four defenders.

English clubs rarely used three at the back, but in Europe, especially Italy and Spain, it’s been common practice for teams to make use of three center-backs. 

South American clubs have also enjoyed great success with three at the back; having an additional player in the defense allows for a more consistent level of pressing.

Against teams that utilize a lone striker, one or two of the defenders can press the player quickly, crowding the striker off the ball. 

The advantage of three at the back means one player can remain in position, covering any loose balls or closing down any opponent moving into positions of danger.

Three is better than four at the back, though it needs players who are positionally sound and comfortable closing down quickly. 

Let’s look at four of the best formations that use three at the back, each has its unique style, and some are more attacking than others.

Initially, teams used three center-backs as a more defensive strategy, but as you’ll see, formations with three at the back have evolved into an entirely different type of lineup. 

Here are the 4 best 3 at the back formations.

4. 3-4-3

The 3-4-3 formation isn’t the most commonly used in soccer, but it does have the appeal of being exciting to watch. It’s not the most balanced formation, but for attacking it’s one of the best.

With the three center-backs lacking the defensive cover of wing-backs, this is a formation built for attack. Three strikers up front mean you’re a real goal threat, but you’d better score more than the opponent because you’re wide open on the wings. 

The four players in the midfield lineup have to be both aggressive and defensive; with the ball in your team’s possession, one or more midfielders should be moving forwards to support the attack.

In a defensive situation, if the two wide midfielders don’t drop back to support the defense, the space available to the opposition becomes too good an opportunity to turn down. 

Three center-backs work well against a team with a lone striker or a team with a lack of width to it. The defense is forced to pull apart if the opposition has good wingers, as one defender closes down the winger. The remaining defenders are woefully exposed if more than one opponent heads into the area. 

For the fans, the 3-4-3 formation is certainly entertaining; this tactic forces those using it to attack because, defensively, it has its limitations.

Why have three strikers on the field if you’re going to play it safe? Fans love to see end-to-end soccer, and they’ll certainly get it when their team uses the 3-4-3. 


  • It’s a hugely entertaining formation for the fans. 
  • In attack, the 3-4-3 offers many options; a packed midfield ably supports three strikers.
  • For teams able to keep the ball, this is a challenging formation to counter as you’re spending much of your time on the defensive. 


  • The 3-4-3 is heartstopping when you’re on the back foot. 
  • Defensively weak, this is a tactic that needs the support of the midfielders.
  • Without wing-backs, there’s so much space on the wings to be exploited by opponents. 

3. 3-4-1-2

If it’s too stressful to watch your team play the 3-4-3 formation, a viable and highly successful alternative is to drop one of your strikers for an attacking midfielder.

You may not think that the 3-4-1-2 formation is any less swashbuckling than its near-suicidal cousin, but having the extra midfielder can seriously impact the game. 

For a start, the attacking midfielder needs to harry the opposition when they’re on the ball; this creates a very high press that can reap serious rewards.

The further up the pitch the team wins back the ball, the safer the three center-backs are. The 3-4-1-2 formation is still a very attack-minded tactic but used correctly, it can be much more effective than the 3-4-3. 

With this formation still keeping three defenders and a complete absence of wing-backs, the midfield is crucial; without the ball, every midfielder needs to drop further back to scree the defense, and the two wide midfielders must drop into the wing-back or even full-back position. 

Restricting the space is vital, and once the ball has been recovered, the midfield moves into a higher line to support the attack.

Moving upfield also has the added benefit of creating a high press in case the attacking trip loses possession.

Most formations that use three at the back rely on quick attacks through the middle, tiki-taka soccer isn’t the priority here. 


  • Overloading the midfield, even with an attacking midfielder, offers more opportunities to win the ball back quickly. 
  • From an attacking perspective, the 3-4-1-2 is still very potent, with the attacking midfielder being able to create a link between the midfield and the attackers.
  • Teams with quick players can benefit from this formation as there’s a real focus on fast, thrusting attacks. Chances on goal are frequent so that a good strike force can cause mayhem. 


  • The 3-4-1-2 formation can struggle when the midfield is out of position.
  • Another formation that forgoes wing-backs in favor of a more attacking lineup; when it works, it’s great; when it doesn’t, the goals flood in. 

2. 3-1-4-2

There’s a natural evolution to be seen in how managers have used only three defenders. The 3-1-4-2 formation is a prime example of how clubs have tried to keep the offensive benefits while attempting to bolster the defense. 

The addition of a defensive midfielder was the next logical step in adding cover for the three center-backs while keeping four midfielders ready to help out in the attacking phases.

With a deep-lying midfielder sitting in front of the defense, a team adds serious defensive cover as the DMC roams freely, blocking off through-balls and crosses. 

There’s still the issue of a lack of width in the defense, but the defensive midfielder should move onto either side of the pitch to try and recover possession, alleviating the issue when possible because the team is still overloading the midfield and making use of two strikers who should both be high-pressing to expose quick turnarounds. 

Solid and aggressive center-backs who close down as a pack, a roaming defensive midfielder, and up to six players with attacking instructions all mean the opposing team has their work cut out for them.

If the wings can’t be exploited, the opposing team quickly finds themselves overran, and the attacking threat of the 3-1-4-2 formation becomes clear. 


  • Adding a defensive midfielder finally brings genuine cover for the defense, especially if the DMC can stop the wingers from penetrating. 
  • The 3-1-4-2 formation still retains an attacking threat while being more robust defensively.
  • With many teams used to playing against a lone striker, the opposing defense has to provide additional cover to stop the two strikers used in this formation. 


  • The 3-1-4-2 formation, like every formation with three defenders, has issues with the lack of cover on the wings. 
  • The tactic depends on players who can fulfill their roles; solid center-backs and a mobile, quick defensive midfielder are a must. 
  • Another formation that forgoes wing-backs in favor of a more attacking lineup; when it works, it’s great; when it doesn’t, the goals flood in. 

1. 3-5-2

The 3-5-2 formation is a tricky beast; it’s technically still got a three-person defense, but thanks to having a seriously crowded midfield, a manager can make use of the two widest midfielders and have these players drop into the wing-back role. 

The three center-backs are in the usual formation, with one or two defenders pressing the striker into making a mistake.

In contrast, the remaining defender holds their position in case of a breakthrough by the opponent. The wide midfielders can drop deep to act as cover, as the wings are notoriously exposed. 

The wing-backs should immediately counter any attacking winger on the opposing side. Once possession is regained, it’s the job of the two makeshift wing-backs to push forwards and offer the team attacking width.

It’s a tough job and one that requires focus and a lot of stamina, but a team using the 3-5-2 can have the best of both worlds if the team adheres to the plan. 

Having five midfielders means the team can press further up the pitch, adding even more pressure onto the opposing team. If you win the ball high up the field, they’ll have to respond quickly, as five midfielders supporting the two strikers offers many attacking options.

The 3-5-2 is arguably the most versatile formation that uses three at the back, and it’s still widely used in European leagues. 


  • The two wide midfielders offer natural width for attacking and dropping deeper into the wing-back role. 
  • A team using the 3-5-2 can press much higher up the pitch, causing the opponent to retreat into their area. 
  • It’s an exciting formation to watch when it’s used correctly.


  • With fit, energetic wide midfielders, the formation will be able to handle the width issue that many formations that use three center-backs suffer. 
  • The midfield can get very convoluted, with up to ten players vying for the ball in the center of the pitch. 
  • The three central midfielders have to be fluid enough to track back as well as bomb forward; otherwise, they’ll find the game passing them by.

I listed the best 5 back formations in this post.