There’s more than one way to skin a cat and day one of the World Cup showed that there is also more than one way to play a back three.
Mexico and Uruguay both wake up this morning unbeaten in their opening games and both can count themselves a little fortunate. Mexico dominated possession against the hosts South Africa but were only spared defeat by the woodwork in the final minute. Uruguay, down to ten men for the last ten minutes of the ninety, were forced to survive the only thing that passed for an onslaught in their tepid encounter with France. Both Mexico and Uruguay operated with what was nominally a back three. And yet, what was noticable was just how differently the two sides interpreted this system.
Mexico’s system is hard to pin down to a single notation and ITV were happy to describe it as a back four, although this seems to betray the evidence of our own eyes. The tactics guru Zonal Marking has described it as a 3-4-3 and this seems to me a more accurate notation for how the Mexicans lined up. The so called right full-back Aguilar was often one of their most advanced players on the pitch while Rafael Marquez could regularly be found sitting in between his two centre-backs when his side had possession as they spread wider to receive the ball. This was key to the fluidity of the Mexico system and allowed them to control the majority of the game with so many options for team-mates to pick a pass.
Uruguay also showcased their interpretation of three at the back against France later in the evening, although it was to prove an altogether more staid affair. The rigid Uruguayan 3-5-2 ran into, tactically at least, the very formation that has seen it diminish as a viable option in much of Europe. Namely, the 4-5-1. With Anelka operating on his own up front and Ribery & Govou keen to support from wide, the 3-5-2 is presented with a challenge: asking the right and left centre-backs to pick them up leaves you dangerously short at the back 3 vs 3 and vulnerable to midfield runners, but asking the wing-backs to pick them up makes your system worryingly close to a flat back five. After some early Ribery forays down the left, the Pereiras were pinned back and Uruguay were largely nullified as an attacking threat, restricted to hoping their strike-force of Forlan and Suarez could nick something on the break. It was a situation Tabarez appeared comfortable with and this is clear from the substitutions he made. All three changes, even after the sending off of Lodeiro, were like-for-like changes – suggesting there was no need to alter the system as his side, whether it be 3-5-2 or 3-4-2, were set-up to defend their point even with ten men.
Mexico, on the other hand, were asking all the right questions going the other way. A major reason for this is that central question posed above – is the winger in a 4-2-3-1 to be picked up by the wing-back or the wide centre-back. Such was Mexico’s confidence in possession, they were comfortable to push the wing-backs on when they had the ball. This was where the difference in what was going on in front of them became key. Whilst the Pereiras for Uruguay would be faced by the French full-backs if they advanced, Salcido and Aguilar of Mexico were met by open space because the South African full-backs were already occupied by Giovani and Vela – the advantage of 3-4-3 over 3-5-2. Tshabalala in particular seemed all at sea defensively as he was unsure whether to close down Aguilar or pass him on to his full-back, Thwala. More often than not he let him roam and Aguilar proved the Mexican outlet of the first forty-five.
Mexico’s problem, and a problem Uruguay rarely had, was getting caught out with those wing-backs high up the field. The reasons for this were manifold and both the speed of the South African counter-attacks and the lack of pace in the Mexican defence were certainly factors. It was also significant though that Marquez was keen to get in and around Pienaar and when this was coupled with Aguilar pushing on, the first goal of the World Cup provides a clearcut example of the dangers this brings. With Marquez sweeping in front rather than behind, and Aguilar leaving spaces out wide, Tshabalala was able to take advantage of the gap down the channels to score. It was a gap that Uruguay’s more defensive-minded back three never looked likely to allow.
The use of the back three always had the potential to be a major tactical talking point in this World Cup. However, few could have expected two sides to showcase it’s strengths and weaknesses, both defensively and offensively, all in the first few hours of the tournament.