Analysis: The Curse of the Back Three

Blackpool’s form has tailed off recently, dropping to 17th in the Championship. We’ve analysed our performances over the last few games compared to those in our previous good run and found that the number of defenders is a key issue.

A bad run

We look like a cursed side at the moment, having played seven games without securing a win and four games without scoring a goal. While the performances have varied between unlucky draws (like QPR [H]) to woeful outings (like Derby [A]), there’s been one consistent theme. In all seven games, the opponents have played three at the back – and the Seasiders have only earned three points, with four defeats – including the last three games.

This been a trend across the season – all nine of this campaign’s losses have come against teams who played three central defenders in their backline. Our only victories against this setup have come against an insipid North End and second-bottom Barnsley.

Comparatively, we’re unbeaten against traditional “back-four” teams and have taken points from league leaders like Fulham and Bournemouth who play with this formation.

The Curse: All BFC’s losses have come against teams playing a Back 3

Blackpool, it seems, well and truly have a “curse of the back three.” In the rest of this article, I’ll be seeking to diagnose why we suffer this heinous voodoo – and how the team might be able to fix it in the rest of the season.

What exactly is going wrong against teams playing a Back Three?

On the ball, initial signs are positive. The Seasiders have more possession, play more passes and get into the final third more easily against teams playing a back three, compared to a four. However, Blackpool look much more stunted around the penalty area – getting into the penalty area less often, creating worse chances (by xG) and fewer shots on target. The team is much more reliant on crossing the ball into a packed box against a back three, where our small forwards are far more likely to lose the aerial duel given the extra centerback roaming the box.

The story is reversed when Blackpool are defending. Neil Critchley’s side supposedly “limits” opposition playing three at the back to less possession, fewer passes and fewer touches in dangerous areas through an aggressive press. However, these teams are often more practised at breaking through the press using long passes and direct football. This enables quick counter-attacks against fewer defenders, meaning more “easy” chances and shots on target despite having less of the ball. 

Against sides who play with three centre backs. Blackpool create less and concede more against the run of possession. The Seasiders don’t seem to have the tactical or physical tools in the toolkit to adapt and control these games like they do against sides playing four at the back.

Tactical Tools

As avid Sky Sports watchers will know, the “three at the back” base is becoming more popular in the EFL – and it often requires different preparation. In general, the presence of an extra central defender means that pressing patterns need to change to close down the extra man, and attackers/defenders must adapt to the extra space in wide areas. However, as Ali Maxwell describes in this clip, the system is also highly flexible – with teams using it in a variety of ways. For example, Swansea keep their wing-backs high and wide with extreme possession, while Coventry play vertical football with inter-changing forwards.

All the iterations of this system are not problems that Critchley will have regularly had to solve before this season. PL2 squads follow in the footsteps of their first team and so rarely play three at the back. Last season, Liverpool U23’s opponents in the PL2 only played the system 24% of the time. Similarly, last season in League One, Blackpool only played against it in a quarter of matches. Critchley has moved from leagues where the system is a minority to the Championship where most teams play it. This may be an area where further growth and learning is still ongoing.

Physical Tools

Blackpool are not a physical side, and it shows. Gary Madine, Marvin Ekpiteta, Richard Keogh and Dijon Sterling are the only regular players taller than 6 feet. Of these four, both. Madine and Keogh are veterans who regularly miss games with persistent niggles and injuries. As a result, we rank second-to-last for % of aerial duels won in the Championship this season (43%).

This problem is only exacerbated when we play a team with extra centerbacks. Most fans want to forget Cardiff (H) at the beginning of the season, where the squad was regularly bullied and jostled off the ball. This issue has led to persistent frailty against corners (e.g., Luton) and long-throws (e.g., Cardiff). Blackpool have been 50% more likely to concede a shot from a corner when playing a team with a back three this season. We’ve opted to develop young, technical players who are still growing – and this trade-off punishes us against these sides when we lack the physical presence to control the game.

What next?

The curse of the back three has no straightforward exorcism. Critchley has a vision for his style of play and has a contract until 2026. Even if the club wanted to switch to a Barnsley-esque extreme and buy a crop of physical bruisers, Critchley wouldn’t be the man to integrate them.

Instead, there is a long but more worthwhile road ahead. Teams like Luton Town have shown how you can bring physicality and advance through the divisions, while Bournemouth remain a role model in technical and physical dominance. As the club continues to invest in infrastructure and revenues and resources grow, we hope that they can continue to find more physical presence without sacrificing “non-negotiables” like technical ability and pressing.

Trust the process. Up the Mighty Pool.

If you enjoyed this, have a listen to our recent chat with the wonderful Ali Maxwell in our most recent podcast (link below).

Don’t forget to turn on notifications on Twitter and Instagram to see our latest content first. Please help us out by commenting, liking and retweeting our posts to spread the word across the Blackpool fans. Up the mighty Pool.

Published by Conor Hamilton

Northerner working in finance. Blackpool FC fan. I write about football with healthy doses of tactics, statistics and data visualizations.

One thought on “Analysis: The Curse of the Back Three

  1. Its not the curse of the back 3 more a return to last seasons laborious passing ie 2 foreward 3sideways 2backward even the cry from the stands in the last home game was Maxwells free . If we dont inject some pace and passion into game were going to struggle at the wrong end of the table

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