#17 Three at the Back: Bristol City and Swindon Town


n my formative years as a football fan the 3-5-2, particularly in Europe, was the preferred formation. The German Euro ’96 winning team played it with Matthias Sammer as sweeper; the great Juventus side of mid to late 90s, and the Bayern Munich Champions League winning 2001 team, used it without a sweeper; and on a more provincial front, Martin O’Neill’s extremely direct Leicester City, marshalled by the unyielding centre back trio of Walsh, Elliott and Taggart, with Impey and Guppy galloping up and down the flanks, were exponents. The use of the formation dwindled in the noughties and is still seldom used by the elite clubs (Juventus and Liverpool aside). However, post the 2014 World Cup, the formation has made a bit of a comeback, particularly among English lower league clubs including Bristol City and Swindon Town who are thriving.

Bristol City play the 3-5-2 (more of a 3-4-1-2 in their case) in a fairly conventional manner. The back three (right to left) of Ayling, Flint and Williams is similar in style to the 2001 Bayern Munich centre back trio of Kuffour, Andersson and Linke: a slower, aerially accomplished, organiser (Flint and Andersson) flanked by two pacier, aggressive, ball winning players (Ayling and Williams, and Kuffour and Linke). For Bristol City, Aden Flint – club captain, and a colossus at 6’5” – is, arguably, Bristol City’s most important player. As you would expect, given his size, he wins everything aerially and is a considerable threat at set pieces. Ayling and Williams – very quick for centre backs – use their pace well to cover the pockets of space in the corners of the pitch: the glitch of the 3-5-2 formation. Confident in their recovery ability, Ayling and Williams press the opposition high up the pitch, dispossessing the opposition in advanced areas to start counter-attacks in their opponent’s half. Ayling and Williams could play as full-backs and, in Ayling’s case, as a box-to-box midfielder. They are both comfortable in possession and rarely resort to long punts up the pitch, unlike Flint.

Bristol City’s wing-backs, Little and Bryan, are quick and athletic. Given Bristol City’s dominance in many games, they are often high up the pitch, but do not neglect their defensive duties and expose Ayling and Williams overly to counter-attacks. Bryan is the more skilful of the duo and better in an attacking sense; he has probably been the best League One wing-back/full-back this season. 

Bristol City’s central midfield is well balanced with Pack/Elliott and Korey Smith as the double pivot, and Freeman ahead of them, operating between the lines in a ‘free role’. The midfield trio is similar in style to the 2001 Bayern Munich central midfield of Effenberg, Hargreaves and Scholl. The most eye-catching of the trio is Freeman, although Korey Smith is the most effective: comfortable in possession, an excellent passer and incredibly athletic. He is the best defensive midfielder in League One. 

Bristol City’s front two – currently Wilbraham and Agard – perform, essentially, the big man (Wilbraham), little man (Agard) act. For strikers they have a very high work rate, but are, perhaps, not good enough for the Championship in an attacking sense.

Currently, Swindon play a 3-6-1 formation rather than a 3-5-2 which they have played for the bulk of the season, although badging it a 3-5-2 is a simplification. Swindon’s 3-5-2 has actually been a 1-2-1-4-2 or 1-2-4-1-2, the latter resembling Jorge Sampaoli’s buccaneering Chileans. It is unconventional; tactically innovative; progressive some might say.

Swindon’s back three is an inversion of Bristol City’s: playing with a sweeper flanked by two orthodox central defenders. Nathan Thompson is Swindon’s sweeper, club captain and a product of the youth team. Up until the current campaign he spent most of his career as a right back/right-wing back. Technically, he is excellent: one of the most composed defenders in possession in League One. Given Swindon’s expansive style, and susceptibility to the counter-attack, he, on occasions, uses his pace to move into wide positions to cover in behind the flanking centre backs, and defend in one-on-one situations (less so as Swindon’s organisation improves). Branco and Turnbull are orthodox central defenders – good in the air (the former particularly so) – and comfortable in possession. Unlike Ayling and Williams, they are not very quick (but not slow), and would struggle to play as full-backs in a back four, making them less effective in covering the space out wide left by the three centre back formation. Although Swindon’s back three is technically superior to Bristol City’s in possession, it is a weaker defensive unit off it, not helped by the protection afforded by the wing-backs.

Swindon’s wing-backs, Byrne and Toffolo are, arguably, not really wing-backs at all. Frequently stationed well into the opposition’s half their remit (or preference) is to attack more than defend to pin back the opposition’s full backs and to be in prime position to counter-attack. This can leave Swindon exposed defensively, relying on Branco and Turnbull to defend against opposition wingers in one-on-one situations. MK Dons have been particularly good in exploiting this weakness. 

Swindon’s central midfield is the best creative unit in League One. When playing the 3-6-1 formation, typically, a diamond is used with Stephens at the base, Kasim and Luongo ahead, and Swift at the top in the ‘number 10 role’ just behind the lone striker, Smith/Williams. Generally, most opponents play a 4-5-1 formation against Swindon to swell their midfield numbers to counter Swindon’s threat, but, unless their full backs play in advanced roles – which would give them seven in midfield – they find themselves outnumbered in this area. Swindon have the highest possession per game average in League One by some margin, dominating most opponents in central midfield. Their share of the possession has not dropped below 50% in any game this season.

Up front, Michael Smith or Andy Williams play in the ‘number nine role’, the former more effective than the latter as a lone striker. 

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