One certainty in EPL title race: 3-man defence wins

LONDON:  The one certain winner in the English Premier League title race will be the three-man defence.

Chelsea and Tottenham aren't just slugging it out for the title but also ownership over the tactical reconfiguration.

Mauricio Pochettino feels he isn't given credit for bringing the back-three back into vogue last season, helping to propel Tottenham back into the English soccer elite by mounting consecutive credible league title challenges for the first time.

Antonio Conte, who favored the formation with Juventus, waited a couple of months into his reign to remove a man from the backline out of necessity rather than design.

With Chelsea trailing 3-0 at Arsenal and fading from the early season title running in September, the four-man defence was ditched at halftime. The leaks at the back were stemmed and Conte hasn't looked back.

With eight matches remaining, there's a seven-point buffer between Chelsea and Tottenham.

"People say now Chelsea changed the system," Pochettino said, "but no, we played always the three in possession" mainly to accommodate Eric Dier.

Not to indulge the player but to bring out the best of the English graduate of the Sporting academy in Portugal and ensure he felt comfortable.

"He played like a midfielder without the ball, but with the ball he was a third center back," Pochettino said, assessing recent games. "You can see in possession he dropped in between the center backs or between the full back and the center back, and always we play with three."

Pochettino is less rigid than Conte, returning to four at the back with a 4-2-3-1 depending on the opposition and player availability. Two of Tottenham's favored and most reliable center backs have proved to be Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. A 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 formation does allow Kyle Walker and Danny Rose to flourish — when fit — with their pace attacking down the flanks as wing backs.

"We don't often have time to work on formations, only if we've got one game a week," Rose said. "Whatever formation we play everyone knows their job and what's asked from them."

Chelsea's use of wing backs has given Victor Moses a new lease of life after struggling to settle on loan spells. On the left flank, Marcos Alonso has shone through after establishing himself as a first-team regular. Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta, and David Luiz are the favored back three, although Moses' injury has forced Conte to rejig the lineup.

Both Chelsea and Tottenham have matches against teams lower down the standings on Saturday.

Tottenham hosts Watford after maintaining its pursuit of a first English title since 1961 by storming back to beat Swansea 3-1 with three late goals on Wednesday. Chelsea travels to Bournemouth fresh from defeating Manchester City 2-1.

With Liverpool five points further off the pace behind Tottenham in third place, it seems certain the Premier League will have its first champion that largely relied on a three-man defence.

While Conte and Pochettino are both acclaimed for their tactical aptitude, they are hardly innovators.

Gareth Southgate sent England out with three at the back against Germany last month, 21 years after the coach featured in the 1996 European Championship team with similar tactics.

At Barcelona, Luis Enrique recently switched from the more-established 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 shortly after a demoralizing 4-0 first-leg loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League in February. With an additional man in the midfield, Barcelona was reinvigorated and a more attacking force.

When Barcelona loses the ball, the team reverts to four men in the back, with one of the midfielders dropping into the backline. The downside is that sometimes the defence is not able to recompose quickly enough and opponents can take advantage of the outnumbered defenders.

Barcelona's recovery in the second leg of its Champions League meeting with PSG to win 6-5 heightened concerns about Unai Emery's lack of tactical guile as the coach retained Laurent Blanc's 4-3-3 formation.