A Triangle Three Defense?
Defensive systems with three Fullbacks are becoming more popular. The three Fullbacks are usually aligned in one of two ways: flat across the field, or one behind the other two as a Sweeper.
A third option has apparently drawn little attention. One Fullback could play in front of the other two. That’s the point of a Triangle Three, shown below in a 3-5-2. The Triangle Three can also be used in other setups, such as a 3-4-3.
A latecomer to soccer, I didn’t begin playing seriously until joining an adult league. At that time, I had no preconceptions about Sweepers and Flat Back Lines. My interest in a Triangle Three probably grew out of my pointy (American) football experience. Before getting into Triangle Three details, here’s the story.
Pointy Football Story
I played Safety, the football equivalent of a Sweeper, for my high school team. I was recruited half-heartedly to play at the College of William and Mary. When I got to school, though, I settled for intramural touch football—a 6 v 6 version with many strategic possibilities. Boring classes found me designing formations and plays for my team, the Noses.
The other teams used a zone defense that in soccer lingo would be a 1-3-2. One Safety hung out like a Sweeper behind three Linebackers, while two Rushers rushed the Quarterback
The lone Safety had Sweeper-like problems. If he moved toward one side of the field, the other side would be open. A Quarterback could send a receiver deep down either sideline, fake a pass to one, and pass to the other. Like a Sweeper, the Safety had trouble covering the field’s width.
My sophomore year, a new defense came to mind during an existentialism class—a 2-3-1, with two Safeties, three Linebackers, and only one Rusher. The two Safeties could protect the field’s width against long passes while the three Linebackers covered the short passing zones. But could one Rusher mount an adequate pass rush?
The solution to the pass rush problem was to blitz Linebackers in different combinations. Two, one, or none could blitz, disguising their actions until the snap of the ball. That might leave a short zone or two open. But the Quarterback wouldn’t know until the play unfolded, and would be very unlikely to call the right play in the huddle. This 2-3-1 might be like playing with an extra player!
My teammates were skeptical but gave the plan a try. That fall, the Noses became the first non-fraternity team to defeat a fraternity team for the all-college championship—a triumph for individuality over the herd instinct. The next fall, a team of grad students pilfered our defensive system, and beat us in the semifinals. And my senior season, the Noses were champions again. Why? Our defensive system made the most efficient use possible of six players.
How It Works
Getting back to soccer, the Triangle Three resembles the Nose defense. Rather than using one Sweeper, two Outside Fullbacks form the last line of defense. Those two can cover the field’s width, as can two Safeties in touch football. Meanwhile, the Middle Fullback forms a first line of defense. That player can go aggressively to the ball, like a Linebacker in touch football, for there is help to the rear.
Here’s how the triangle works. The Middle Fullback stays on the line between the ball and the goal, moving from one side to the other as opponents pass the ball. This player must also close in on the ball to prevent shots from the center. The Outside Fullbacks sag behind the Middle Fullback on either side, forming the triangle. They must come to the rescue if the ball gets past the Middle Fullback.
This triangle is a very useful shape. The ball must always get through at least two layers. The Middle Fullback is easily backed up by the Outside Fullbacks. And if the Left Fullback is beaten, the Right Fullback can cut across to back the play up (see diagram).
Why Not Flat Back Three?
But perhaps a Flat Back Three is required to protect the field’s width. From the diagram below, you might think so. Three Forwards have pushed up to the offside line, where only two Fullbacks are defending. Won’t at least one of those Forwards be wide open?
I knew from pointy football, though, that defenders further from the ball can guard a larger number of opponents. No matter which Forward is passed to, the Fullbacks will have time to react. And if one of the Forwards receives the ball, so what? As long as the ball doesn’t get behind the defense, no problem.
There’s nothing wrong with a Flat Back Three, but why not see if two Fullbacks can do the job? A Triangle Three frees up a player to do something else, like protect the vital center. It’s like playing with an extra player, just like that Nose defense!
Bring On the Critics!
Can a Triangle Three work? Leonardtown High School boys’ team has used it for the past three years, going a little further each year. Last fall, the team posted nine straight shutouts and advanced to the Maryland state semifinal before losing in overtime. In addition to having great players and open-minded coaches, the team allowed very few close-range shots or breakaways—the two major goal-scoring methods.
Why don’t more coaches try the Triangle Three? Here are some typical but unfounded complaints.
“Making the Middle Fullback continually swing to the ball is cruel and unusual punishment. No player can do that single-handedly.”
The Middle Fullback’s role is actually the easier one, and weaker players can often pull it off. One need not chase the ball all over the field. Just stay on the line between the ball and the goal as it travels from one opponent to another. If the Middle Fullback can’t get to the ball, no problem. A Defensive Halfback or two will be helping as well.
“Defensive responsibilities shouldn’t be attached rigidly to different positions. Fullbacks should react to the situation using the principles of pressure and cover.”
Someone must pressure or close in on the ball. And someone must provide cover or backup for the pressuring player, placing two layers between the ball and the goal. Should these responsibilities be attached to different positions, or should these responsibilities be shared by each position? Either approach can work.
In any event, a Triangle Three doesn’t rule out swapping responsibilities on the fly. For example, if the Left Fullback must close in on the ball, the Middle Fullback can cut behind to the left and restore the triangle. As long as the ball is triangulated, it won’t matter who does what.
“When your players reach a higher level, they’ll probably use a Flat Back system. So you’re doing them a disservice if you teach them some other system.”
Are you saying coaches should use the defense that everyone else seems to be using? That would certainly maintain the status quo and discourage innovation! And what would you tell your players? “I know of a great defensive system that will confuse our opponents. But since your next coach probably won’t use it, we won’t either.”
As the Noses demonstrated, it pays to think outside the box. And while Fullbacks familiar with a Triangle Three dislike having a Sweeper behind them, they have no problem adding a player or two to their last line of defense.
“A Triangle Three might work against inexperienced players, but experienced players will destroy it.”
To quote the gunslinger from the movie Shane, “Prove it!” The systems with geometrical flaws like Sweepers are the ones that allow goals at all levels. If a geometrically sound system lets a high school team post nine shutouts, it will let a college or professional team get by as well.
To learn more about the Triangle Three and the qualities a defensive system should have, see Thoughtful Soccer: the Think-First Approach to Playing and Coaching.