The 3 man build-up

It is very common in today’s game to have a team defending in a 1-4-4-2 shape. This trend is not new and it reached the peak of perfection with Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. This structure is very effective defensively because of the existence of two lines of four, which makes it easier to control both depth and width. It also allows for interesting pressing schemes, with the two forwards available to rush the centerbacks.

As a logical response to that trend, many teams started to add another player to their build-up to help the centerbacks. The main idea was to create a 3v2 numerical advantage at the back so that there was always at least one player available to lead the build-up. Today that is, in itself, a trend that can be seen in most of Europe’s top teams. But not all of those teams do it the same way.

The easiest, most simple way to make sure you have 3 players in the build-up is to adopt a system with 3 centerbacks. Three man defenses are back in vogue in European football and one of the main reasons is the possibility to create a numerical advantage at the back (although there are also defensive concerns behind this choice). Chelsea is perhaps the most notorious example.

Building from the back with three players is not limited to three defenders formations. Coaches that play other shapes devised different strategies to get the third man in there to help the centerbacks in the build-up. It can be argued that this is a much more flexible way of tackling the issue. A three-man build-up is not always needed; there are some opponents and certain match situations that require a different approach. When the situation asks for it, these teams can get a third player involved in the build-up.

The most common way to accomplish this is known as the “La Salida Lavolpiana”. This move is credited to Ricardo La Volpe when he coached the Mexican National Team and gained fame with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. La Salida Lavolpiana dictates that during the build-up a midfielder will drop between the two centerbacks. This has consequences all over the field; the fullbacks can now move up the wings and the wingers cut to the middle to occupy the halfspaces. A 1-4-3-3 turns into a 1-3-4-3.

Spaletti’s Inter and Zidane’s Real Madrid apply a variant of La Salida Lavolpiana. Instead of dropping between the two centerbacks, the midfielder drops to the side of one of them. This is a quicker and more subtle way of achieving the same goal and it also eliminates the potential danger associated with La Salida Lavolpiana, that is, the widening of the two centerbacks to accommodate the midfielder.

These are all different strategies to create numerical superiority during the build-up, but that can be easily nullified. To gain a real advantage, teams need to create positional superiority through proper positioning and spacing. But that’s a discussion for another time.