Home Football Manager Guides Playing with 3 centre-backs

Playing with 3 centre-backs




The use of 3 centre-backs has been a controversial move used by many managers in football leading their virtual counterparts to recreate their tactics on Football Manager.

When looking at a teamsheet which has an extra defensive player it reads as a preventive choice. However, if deployed right, it adds more attacking intent, allowing other players to have a higher attacking input.

Looking for the right combination

Like every great centre-back pairing the defenders must complement each other. One of the 3 centre-backs must be adept in distributing the ball and one must be dominant in the air.

Ball-playing defender

A Ball-Playing Defender in a defensive trio is a vital part in a team’s build up play. Most of his team will be in more advanced positions, like wingbacks and attacking midfielders. A centre back with high Passing, Composure, Technique and Vision, will allow your team to play out from defence with ease.

One tactic I like to set is telling the goalkeeper to distribute the ball specifically to the Ball-Playing Defender. This reduces the risk of the defenders giving away the ball cheaply in dangerous areas. Having the Ball-Playing Defender in the middle of the three also opens more passing channels for the player. And that increases the chance of your team keeping hold of the ball.

Good examples:
  • Sergi Gomez (Celta Vigo)
  • Hector Moreno (PSV)
  • Virgil Van Dijk (Southampton)

All three players have great passing stats for defenders. When starting a new save, these three tend to be on my shortlist. Whilst Van Dijk is very expensive, he is worth every penny. He provided me consistent 7.5 plus ratings.

Dominating in the air

Alongside the Ball-Playing Defender should be someone who dominates in the air, providing a presence in both boxes. This role must have high Jumping Reach, Heading, Strength and Bravery. He will offer both defensive and offensive prowess to your team. In the tight games where both teams are cancelling each other out, set pieces often prove to be the difference. At the end of the season goals scored or prevented by your dominant centre-back could be the difference between taking the club to next tier and failing to meet objectives.

Good examples:
  • Niklas Sule (Hoffenheim)
  • Domagoj Vida (Dinamo Zagreb)
  • Virgil Van Dijk (Southampton)

At the start of the save you can buy Vida for around 10M, the only down side of this player is he picks up a lot yellow and red cards. Van Dijk again makes the list. He is adept to playing either role, as his stats are so well rounded. He is a must for any team looking to dominate their domestic league.

Various roles

Every centre-back has three specific roles within their playing style, Stopper, Defend and Cover. These control the defender’s positional play and how aggressive they will close down the ball.

Big Target Man

The way I decide which roles each defender takes on is based on the oppositions attack. If the opposing team lines up with a Target Man or a good header, I tend to put my best aerial defender in the middle and set his role to Stopper.

This means the defender will push ahead of the defensive line and challenge the Target Man. Typically Target Men lack pace therefore there is reduced risk of them turning and running past your defence.

Quick Striker

However, when the opposition line up with a quick forward, who is a good dribbler switching the central defender to Cover is the best suited tactic. The defender will sit a little deeper than the other centre-backs allowing him to be in a better position to sweep up any balls put through or over the defence.

The other counter to a fast striker is using the offside trap. However this is a very risky tactic. To be effective all three centre-backs must be on the same wavelength. I tend to void away from using the offside trap. I like to have control over what my players do and where they are positioned.

Centre-back conversion

Football Manager allows the opportunity to retrain players in different positions and it is wise that you explore this avenue. When joining a team you may not have the depth to field 3 centre-backs every game.


By retraining players as central defenders it increases the flexibility of your squad. You will create new options and possibly saving money in the transfer window.

The best example of this is retraining full-backs as centre-backs. They have the necessary defensive attributes and added speed to play as one of the outside centre backs. Antonio Conte’s use of Cesar Azpilicueta as the right sided centre back is a good example. Conte utilising a full backs defensive capability and speed in a different position.

Roma’s Danielle de Rossi is someone who has produced great performances as a central Ball-Playing Defender in my Roma save. Surrounding him with fast centre-backs either side makes up for his declining pace. His tackling and passing stats make him a vital asset when recycling possession and building up from the back.

I also found that retraining Matteo Darmain as a right sided centre-back was a good move. He wasn’t good enough to be playing at wing back and I needed cover in defence.

Read more on:
The benefit of retraining players

Mentality: Control

Playing three central defenders not only adds extra defensive stability it also allows attackers creative freedom. When deployed correctly and the players have been given time to learn the tactics it creates a fluid, yet stable shape to a team.

I found in my saves that a Control mentality works best with 3 defenders. It means the team has the majority of possession, reducing the amount of pressure the 3 centre-backs are under. And it allows them to bring the ball out of defence.

The central midfielders should drop deep every now and again and collect the ball.  This will create a triangle around the onrushing striker(s).

To close

The use of a defensive trio should be one of your three main tactics as it can often act as a very good plan B. If results aren’t going your way or players are getting restless about their playing time, it’s a good alternative.

This guide has been written by Tom

Read more on:
How to create a basic tactic
How to improve your tactics
How to waste time & Park the bus
Using opposition instructions

Buy Football Manager 2020

Football Manager 20 is available for pre purchase now.
Buy at FMInside and receive a nice 10% discount!

Previous articleMaxi Romero
Next articleTop 70 Brexit proof players


  1. Hi Hi Hi

    Is a stopper cover stopper back three a competent system?

    Also, when facing a 4 4 2, I find their full backs have loads of time. It’s not proved that dangerous, but how can I limit them a bit more? Get a striker to mark one?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Buy FM2020

Football Manager 2020 is now available for pre-purchase!

- Advertisment -

Latest players

Lewis Cook

Lewis Cook is one of the ideal Brexit players to keep watching. He plays for Bournemouth, but is keen on moving to one of the club inside the top 6. He will cost you roughly around 45 to 50 million and that is considered a steal for this type of player in the Premier League. He is a very good playmaker and could easily play for one of the big teams in the Premier League.

Lisandro Martinez

Lisandro Martinez is a real catch in Football Manager 2019. The young Argentinian is a talented centre-back and is available for an expected 7M transfer fee. Ideal player to have if you like longer saves and need a good ball playing defender who is able to develop a lot.

Julian Brandt

Julian Brandt has the potential to become one of the elite players in Football Manager 2019. The German winger shows some lethal skills and will have no trouble with playing for the biggest clubs in the world. He has a 70m price tag, which seems a fair price in modern football.

Franck Kessie

If you are looking for a tireless midfielder Franck Kessie could be the ideal player for you. The Ivorian international has all the attributes for a very good ball-winning midfielder. However, it is not possible to sign Kessie in the first two seasons as he is on a loan from Atalanta and will sign on a permanent deal for Milan in the summer of 2019.

Javairo Dilrosun

Former Manchester City left winger Javairo Dilrosun is considered as one of the bigger talents from Holland. He has the potential to become a regular international and is a very handy player if you love a left-footed left winger that will cross in the ball onto your striker. For 22.5 he could be yours, so keep an eye out for him!

Josip Brekalo

Josip Brekalo is a talented player who could develop into an awesome inside forward. The Croatian international is already a first team regular at Wolfsburg and it is expected that he will leave the club on a short term. Keep him on your shortlist as the expected 60m fee could drop after a couple of seasons.

FMI Update 2019/2020

The best transfer update
for Football Manager 2019.
Featuring the 2019/2020 season.

Also interesting

Players with an Expiring contract in FM20

Look for players whose contract will expire in Football Manager 2020. On this list you will see the 60 best players with an expiring deal in FM20.

Football Manager 2020 Release Date

Football Manager 2020 release date has been confirmed by Sports Interactive!

Metallic Logos Megapack 2020

Enhance the realism of Football Manager by downloading the Metallic Logos Megapack. Ten thousands logos for clubs, nations and competitions.