Should Spurs play three at the back?

Let me preface this article by saying that I’m not yet convinced by the argument I’m about to put forward for a 3-4-2-1. The last 3-5-2 I liked was Terry Venables’ Euro ’96 England team. What a team that was. Anderton at wing-back! Sheringham the puppet master. Gazza the roving magician. It was glorious. Nevertheless, since then I’ve not seen a three-at-the-back system work well and produce good football. Louis Van Gaal’s 3-5-1-1 was fairly successful at last summer’s World Cup, but it was also about as dull as an Alan Titchmarsh/Coldplay mashup. However, I do think there’s an interesting argument to be made for Tottenham to use a back-three system at times, so allow me to be the devil’s advocate.

The Centre Backs

Spurs have a lot of centre backs. Kaboul has thankfully been sold to Sunderland who clearly haven’t seen a Tottenham match since Harry was in charge. Chiriches will likely be offloaded too, but that still leaves Dier, Wimmer, Fazio, Vertonghen and Alderweireld. If you’re only using two at a time in a back four, at least one of them is going to start getting irritated at the lack of playing time. Using a back three allows the manager to use more of them.

There’s also an argument to say that if it isn’t your strongest position, use more players there. Alderweireld is a good signing and a partnership between him and Vertonghen is an exciting prospect, but truth be told, Vertonghen hasn’t been the Rolls-Royce defender he looked when he first arrived for quite a while now. Dier and Fazio are no rocks, either. Putting the ball-playing Jan and Toby on either side of Fazio, Dier or Wimmer might well provide more security.

The Wing Backs

Let’s start on the left. Danny Rose improved a lot last season, but he is still better going forward then he is defensively. As a wing back he’d have even more offensive responsibility, and his defensive mishaps might be less exposed with three centre-backs behind him.

On the right, the same argument applies to Walker. Personally, I think Spurs would be well rid of the last remaining Kyle because he is thick as two bricks, but should he start next season as first choice, wing-back might suit him a little more easily. If it’s Trippier, all the better. The kid can really put in a good cross.

Central Midfield

Not much changes here between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-5-2. We’re still looking at Bentaleb and one more – hopefully a new signing - behind Eriksen. Alternatively, in a 3-4-2-1, Pochettino could line up with two central midfielders behind Eriksen and Lamela, who would both act as #10s and second strikers. Not only would this give them creative freedom and allow Bentaleb and his partner to concentrate on winning and distributing the ball, it would also make Lamela much less predictable. On the right, the defender knows exactly what Erik is going to do. He shuttles inside to look for the lay-off or shot. He doesn’t have the pace or right foot to go outside and act as a winger. Moving Lamela into a more central role would allow him more movement across the pitch, more influence on the ball and would protect his lack of pace.

Up Front

Not much changes here either. Harry Kane would go about his business as usual, except in a 3-4-2-1 with Eriksen and Lamela behind him, he’d have more and closer support. Last season he did incredibly well, but in many games he was isolated and had to create a lot of his own chances. With two creative midfielders playing close to him, his burden might be eased in more ways than one. If Eriksen and Lamela could chip in with seven to ten goals over the course of the season, the side would be less utterly reliant on Kane. A big ‘if’, I know.

The Arguments Against

What does Pochettino do with his wingers if he plays a system that doesn’t use them?

I’m not sure it matters.  Chadli spends most of his time cutting inside anyway, as does Townsend. Both are horribly inconsistent, and I can’t imagine many fans being particularly upset if they aren’t key parts of the team next season.

If the opposition play with one striker, three centre-backs is overkill.

True, but less true if two of them are Vertonghen and Alderweireld. The Belgians are so good on the ball that either could happily stroll forward ten yards and act as a deep-lying play maker in possession.

The team would be exposed down the flanks

The team is regularly exposed down the flanks playing with a back four. I’m not sure there’s too much to lose in that regard.


It all sounds great on paper. How it would or wouldn’t work in practise is another thing entirely. I can’t help but feel that it’s worth a shot, though, and that it might get the best out of a number of players while protecting the weaknesses of others. I’d love to hear your thoughts.