Gareth Southgate took charge of England for the first time as permanent manager last night and surprised many by starting a back three. The Three Lions fared well and looked dangerous despite losing.
The England boss told the media after the game that he used the 3-4-3 because "it wasn’t an alien system for several of the players" and "it suited others that aren’t so used to it."
I think the same argument can be made for Reading Football Club.
The season so far
Jaap Stam arrived at the club with a reputation for being a legendary Dutch centre back and a former Manchester United favourite, but without any history as a first team manager.
We quickly learned that he favours the typical Dutch system, with his side starting in a 4-3-3 with plenty of passing and a focus on ball retention.
However, in November, something changed. He suddenly switched to a three at the back formation for the home victory against Burton. Since then, he has played a 3-4-3/3-5-2 a further six times.
When playing a back three, The Royals have picked up 16 points from a possible 21, losing to Derby and drawing with Ipswich. That's an average of 2.28 points per game — admittedly from a small sample size.
A typical four man defence has been Stam's default back line, with that having been used in 31 league games this season. Take off the points earned with a back three system, and that averages out at 1.64 points per game.
A back three suits the players
But my argument isn't based on stats. I may come across as a dinosaur of sorts, but to me, the best way to win a football match is to play your best players in their best positions.
And Reading's best players are all closer to their goalkeeper. Few would argue that the duo of Paul McShane and Liam Moore is the strongest pairing on the field. Add in another quality player like Tyler Blackett in his best position (left-sided centre back of a back three) and you've got a very sturdy, comfortable defence to protect Ali Al-Habsi. That's not to mention the club record (we think) signing of Tiago Ilori, the versatile Joey van den Berg, or the promising Rob Dickie. Oh, and there's also this Reece Oxford fella floating around as well.
Reading are strongest, both in depth and quality, in the centre back department. So it makes sense to play as many of them as you can.
Doing so also gets the most from the players further forward. The likes of John Swift can push forward with greater intent, knowing that he has an additional defensive specialist behind him should the ball leave the feet of The Royals.
It gives Gunter and Obita licence to push forward and overload the opposition full backs, and makes the most of their incredible stamina. It also gives Yann Kermorgant more support further forward, with the players around him able to move around and get alongside him. Heck, it means Stam could — if he wanted to — play two pure strikers up top without sacrificing his three man midfield.
A back three helps the system
Jaap Stam is a manager that wants his side to keep the ball. He's a man that wants his team to build from the back. This is made easier when there's an extra man to pass to around the back. More options, more movement ahead of them, and — essentially — more possession.
I'm going to potentially unravel my argument at this point by saying a formation isn't as important as we think it is. There's not a huge amount of difference between a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2/3-4-3. It's essentially dropping a midfielder back into defence, pushing the wing backs higher up, and fiddling a bit with the attacking trio.
With the players at Stam's disposal, and the positive way it affects the team's mentality and freedom of movement higher up the pitch, reverting to a back three for the rest of the season would ensure The Royals are given a shot at the play-offs.
All stats courtesy of transfermarkt.com.