Playing in a Midfield Three

In the post 4-4-2 era, the 4-3-3 is one of the world’s most popular formations. Not only is it attack-minded but it is inherently possession-based by providing an extra man in central midfield. That is one of the prime reasons why a midfield three has become the first choice of many managers around the world. From Liverpool to Barcelona to Real Madrid, some of the most successful teams in the last decade have utilized a midfield three to perfection.

Youth teams trying to establish a 4-3-3 system or three-man midfield should not strive to pass their way out like Barcelona or Real Madrid, but the formation can still be an incredibly successful way to teach young players the art of passing and moving, triangular-based tactics and how to keep possession of the ball.


The key to a midfield-three is its ability to create triangles. Below are two different ways that a team can set up in a 3 man midfield to create those triangles.

Playing in a midfield three by nature is a possession-based tactic. This is primarily down to the natural triangles that the formation creates in both defense and attack. These triangles allow teams like Barelona and Ajax to make quick, short passes and circulate the ball with the aim of finding the best way to penetrate through an opposition’s defense.

Triangles are great for always creating two easy passing options whenever one player is in possession of the ball. If the players were to arrange themselves in a straight line, such as a flat back four, their passing options become more limited by having one player essentially blocking the passing lane for the others in behind them. For example, if the left sided defender were to try and pass to their right sided centre back, they would first have to get through their left-sided centre back. By that time, a press might already be on and the right-sided centre back then has to drop well into their own box to receive a simple pass.

The best way to pass and move and penetrate in football is through the use of triangles, something a midfield-three provides an abundance of.


Although possession is a key consideration in discussing the value of a midfield three, it is also important to note how the midfielders should operate and work together without the ball. The natural triangles that are created can also be key in winning the ball back. One player can pressure or delay, the other can support by cutting off a passing angle and the third can offer additional support and/or position themselves to receive a pass when the team do win the ball back.

Even teams that were famous for dominating possession in 2017-18 like Barcelona or Manchester City only kept an average possession of 60% and 66% respectively. This illustrates that no matter how talented a team is or who they have in their lineup, there will be plenty of moments in a match where they are tasked with defending. If played right, a midfield-three can provide great opportunities for shutting down attacks far before teams reach the defensive line. First and foremost, the number six in the team (the defensive midfielder) can act as a shield for the back four. This ensures that attackers attempting to penetrate in central areas will have to get past one more defender before reaching the defensive line. In wide areas, it is crucial that the left and right central midfielders shift wide to eliminate the gap between the winger and defender. But the ‘eight’ and the ‘ten’ must also recognize where the opposition players are around them and be careful not to get too drawn to the play in a quest to eliminate space on the side of the ball. If opposition players are left unmarked in the centre of the pitch, the number six has double the workload. This means a balancing act must be maintained between eliminating space in wide areas and marking midfield players. That being said, the benefit again to having three in the middle of the park is that there are still two players in midfield if one gets drawn out wide.

In terms of pressing, the midfield-three is fantastic for playing a high-pressing, counter-attacking style as no matter where the ball is on the pitch, there are always three players that can automatically press. In the left side of the defensive third for example, a left-back is supported by not only the defensive midfielder but also the left-sided central midfielder. This allows the left winger to stay in areas where they are most comfortable and efficient. This is in contrast to formations such as the 4-2-3-1 where the left winger is required to be more diligent in tracking back, taking away from what they likely do best, which is create space in attack.


A three-man midfield inherently provides passing triangles and defensive stability, regardless of the opposition. If coached right, having three midfielders can be one of the most effective ways to dominate any football match. This article aims to help coaches understand the roles and responsibilities of a midfield three-player system and soon Fox in the Triangular Box will provide drills and session plans to help coaches implement three-player systems into their practices and games.

Thanks for reading and see you soon!


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