Door 6: Playing the 3rd man
“The third man is impossible to defend against.”- Xavi Hernandez
Todays Adventskalender piece will be all about examining the playing principle of the 3rd man and why exactly one of the all-time great central midfielders says that it is impossible to play against (with coaches like Pep Guardiola having being quoted very similarly).
A third man pass is a combination where player A plays to player B who finds player C, with player C being the third man. There are several reasons why this type of passing combination is so highly desirable. Firstly, when player A plays to player B the natural reaction of the opposing team is to press player B, orienting themselves on him and trying to win the ball from him.
This pressing action could be performed by one or more defenders. If player B is however already pre-oriented towards his next pass (thinking 2 actions ahead when player A has the ball), he can quickly release the ball to player C and thereby free up this player.
A major principle of positional play is to create and find a free man. This is most easily achieved with the above kind of playing scheme. As mentioned above, the defenders are very likely to press or even collapse (as a group) on player B. However, 2 quick changes of ball position within a short space of time is massively difficult to deal with and most often leave that third player receiving the ball in space.
This would also be due to the fact that the second pass (to the third man) would most often be against the grain of the pressing action on player B. Not only are 2 quick changes of ball possessing player (in a short time) difficult to deal with, but so are 2 changes of direction.
It would probably be most easy to compare a 3rd man actions complexity to an isolated 1-2 double pass. Whilst a 1-2 doubtlessly has many advantages, it is certainly considerably less complex. The defender can block the return pass with his cover shadow, or slightly step across the 2nd receivers running lane.
An attacking action involving just 2 players is not very deep in terms of possible solutions. If a team however creates a positional structure with a good spacing and an adequate amount of connections, there can theoretically be more than one possible 3rd man that can receive the 2nd pass. This makes it very difficult for the defense to predict and neutralize this kind of combination.
Many third man combinations also end up with the 3rd player facing forward and receiving the ball in an open position. This is particularly linked to the principle that David wrote about in his piece about looking for the furthest possible flat pass. If line splitting (both attacking and defensive lines) flat passes are played frequently, the 2nd player should have options underneath him that have just been by-passed with the first pass.
If he plays the 2nd pass to one of these players that 3rd man is facing the opponent’s goal with potentially many options to further advance the attack. Consequently a 3rd man combination can free up the third receiver, break a press and often create a very desirable and advantageous position to further advance the attack from a dynamic situation.
Of course, this principle has to be closely linked to other principles such as the one mentioned above or having as many lines as possible in possession in order to be carried out success stably. I find it particularly useful to highlight this concept to the players as it implicitly sharpens the team’s structure towards a lot of the other desirable principles of positional play.
Of course, this concept can be coached in a variety of different conditioned or positional games. With rules such as giving a point for every third man pass that is executed with 1 touch (for pre-orientation and adequate speed of support play). Nevertheless, the below game was particularly effective in combining the desired 3rd man actions with a diagonal passing and playing focus.
The main constraint is the field shape which looks like a double diamond with a a straight part connecting it. There are 2 neutrals who work with 1 touch only and only play on the outside of the field (but can move along the straight line). There are no other rules added in my base version, but can obviously be added depending on the context the game is being applied in.
The field shape creates a severe restriction of space and time for the team in possession. This forces them to know where their next pass (3rd man) is before receiving the ball, and also highlights the free man aspect of 3rd man play (mentioned above), as space and open positions are hard to come by in a tight space like this.
When the ball is played out from the back there is chance to open up towards the edges of the diamond. However, if you go wide initially your next action has to be back inside and often diagonal. This causes a zig zag pattern of passing of not just playing up and back, but also playing outside and then back inside, in each case finding a 3rd man facing forward.
“Move the opponent, not the ball. Invite the opponent to press.”- Pep Guardiola
In tight spaces, finding a free, forward facing player in a dynamic situation is particularly valuable as it opens up the possibility of further advancement. In these situations, the value of the 3rd man is really demonstrated to the players. Which then encourages the principle to truly be taken on board and internalized by the players.
In the base form of the game I play with the offside line being between the far edges of the diamond in each half but this can obviously be adapted to increase the difficulty of the game. The middle area of the field with the neutrals, can be used as a trigger to increase the speed of the combination play. Finding the furthest possible flat pass to the neutral (often played diagonally) then find a layoff back inside towards the 3rd man in the middle against the grain (as mentioned above).
Despite the tight space, if this combination can be achieved a spatial gain from there is likely. The small switches of play in the center to find a clean, flat forward passing lane is a useful by product of this game. Obviously further zones in the field could be added for certain movement and structure constraints in possession.
I generally used this game as a main part of a session focused on combination play and usually went with a timing of 4×4 or 5 minutes with 90 seconds or 2-minute breaks between rounds. As this game can be quite complex, I would advise to do it as a progression after doing other combination focused games such as the tube or the diagonal game that I wrote about last year.
Mixing third man plays with a general diagonality in structure and in pass direction makes for a potent mix in possession. I look to achieve this by first highlighting a certain principle (like the third man) to the players.
After they have played for a certain amount of time, I would coach in the breaks or freeze the game. With freezing I will generally look to find a healthy mix of good and bad moments to highlight to the players. Ideally without the intervention destroying a good passage of play.
With the players having a good basic understanding of the principle we can now help them gain a deeper understanding thereof by showing possible combinations based on the principle itself. This could be compared to a math lesson at school where a teacher would explain a certain rule which would then be applied by doing a couple of examples in order to show how it works in practice.
It is also important to encourage the players to keep looking for constructive solutions when building out from the back even under very high pressure (making the training harder than the match).
And to keep attempting the combinations that we are looking achieve, all while not overcoaching it to keep space for the players own solutions, especially involving dribbles in tight spaces. I try to encourage risk taking and unconventional creativity even if it doesn’t initially come of as it implies that the players thinking deeply about solutions.
The base form depicted above is played as an 8v8+2 but could certainly be played with more or less players to in or decrease difficulty, (with the playing area also adjusted in size to increase or decrease difficulty).
For the side-neutral positions I will generally look to start with fullbacks, but other players should also get a turn there. To involve the fullbacks in a different way, but also to give others a chance to work on their orientation towards the 3rd man or combining with the inside lane when being on the outside.
Overall, I believe that this game carries a high relevance in working on and highlighting the 3rd man combinations that we value so highly as a principle. A high success-stability can be found in the marriage of the 3rd man play with diagonality and a very efficient spatial structure focused on triangles and creating as many lines in possession as possible.
I found that my players greatly enjoyed this game when employed during training sessions. They played some outstanding combinations, one of which I attempted to depict above.
Finally, on a personal note the joy that I can get from watching my players play beautiful combinations, whilst enjoying themselves greatly in doing so during a game like this, is for me one of the major highlights of this job where one gets a real sense of celebrating the collective beauty of the game of football.