Although it’s not the most popular formation these days, the 3-5-2 has had plenty of success over the years and remains the formation of choice for some of Europe’s finest teams. The 3-5-2 is largely used by managers whose first priority is to make their side hard to beat; it is inherently defensive in nature. The formation does produces attacking benefits also, however, it can be difficult to find a balance between attack and defence.
Carlos Bilardo was at the vanguard of the revolutionary back three formation. He famously deployed the 3-5-2 in the 1986 to give Diego Maradona more room and freedom; it paid off as Argentina went on to win their second World Cup.
Bilardo first started to experiment with the formation two years earlier when Argentina played a many friendly games against European national teams ahead of the 1984 UEFA Euro Cup. Most football critics thought he’d lost his head and accused him of making a big mistake. He was soon vindicated as his side dispatched of Switzerland and Belgium 2-0, before beating West Germany 3-1. However, the 3-5-2’s ultimate display of efficacy came in the 86’ World Cup. From there, the formation would begin to spread all around the world.
Since then, the formation has come in and out of fashion. By the 2000s it was mainly restricted to use in Brazil and Eastern European teams.
A notable head coach using this system is Antonio Conte. The Italian tactician implemented the 3-5-2 successfully at Chelsea in the 2016/17 Premier League season, where he led the team to a Premier League and FA Cup double.
In his early days of football coaching, Conte tended to use the 3-4-3 formation. However, when he arrived at Chelsea, he tweaked the formation slightly by moving an extra player (David Luiz) into the midfield to make his preferred formation the 3-5-2. This proved to be a master stroke.
The lines between the 5-3-2 and the 3-5-2 can sometime become a little bit blurred. However there are differences, and it is important to establish them. The difference between the two systems lies in the types of players that are deployed in the wide areas. It goes without saying that the players who occupy the wide areas in a 5-3-2 are likely to be defence-minded; whereas the players who occupy the wide positions in a 3-5-2 are likely to be more attack-minded. Both formations will operate with a 5 at the back when defending, however, the 3-5-2 will be much more committed in the final third.
Example – Sheffield United (5-3-2) v Inter Milan (3-5-2)
The difference in the two systems is highlighted when comparing the players used in the wide areas at Sheffield United and Inter Milan.
Chris Wilder’s first choice wingbacks in the 2019/20 Premier League season were conventional right back, George Baldock, and conventional left-back, Enda Stevens.
Antonio Conte on the other hand, often plays Ashley Young, historically a winger, and Ivan Perisic, also historically a winger in the wide areas. This subtle difference in player selection completely shifts the dynamic of the team.
Player requirements within the 3-5-2 system
Having three central defenders on the pitch is beneficial in many circumstances, for example, when defending set pieces. However, when there’s three defenders in the last line of defence, it can make ‘keeping a line’ quite difficult; it is harder to organize 3 people than it is 2. The defenders used in this system need to have exceptional communication and on-pitch rapport.
Each player should be confident on the ball as possession will be frequently held on the back line, where the team has numerical superiority.
Having five midfielders could create an element of congestion in the middle of the park, especially if the opposing manager decided to match up and play the same formation. The three central midfielders need to possess great ball control and very good awareness. An importance should also be placed on finding a balance in midfield. Two players tend to be more defense-minded, while the last one has to be more attacking minded.
The two attacking wingbacks needs to be in line or further up the field than the midfield when they have the ball. That is so the ball-possessing team can make the pitch wide and therefore play around the oppositions defense. They must also be the fittest players in the team as they are expected to have the endurance to not only support in attacking phases but drop into a back five when out of possession.
The two strikers up top need to have great chemistry and good communication. The players deployed in these positions will often find themselves isolated from the rest of the team. One of the strikers tends to me a traditional target man; his job is to hold the ball up until more attacking options arrive. The other striker’s job is to run behind the opposition’s defensive line and hope to receive through balls.
All in all, this is a formation which requires players who are both very fit, and possess great attacking, defensive and technical skills.
Juventus as a case study
One of the best examples of a successful 3-5-2 was Juventus under Massimo Allegri. If we take a look at their league winning 2015/16 season, we can get a better understanding of the formation.
The centre back triumvirate of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli was pivotal in the success of this team. Each player had different attributes which made for the perfect balance.
Bonucci was the primary ‘ball-player’ which meant he would often become the free man when playing out from the back; this tactic allowed him to progress the build up by playing vertical balls through the lines. Chiellini and Barzagli look to position themselves wide in the buildup phase. This has the desired effect of stretching the press of the opposition. Bonucci performed the ‘libero’ duties – sweeping up any loose balls. The chemistry between the defensive line was exceptional. All players were Italian which will have helped their communication. Chiellini and Barzagli possessed more pace than Bonucci which made them more suitable for policing the left and right channels.
Allegri had an incredibly strong midfield at his disposal. Sami Khedira, Claudio Marchisio and Paul Pogba were deployed centrally, with Alex Sandro and Cuadrado operating in the wide areas. Pogba and Marchisio carried out the offensive duties, each player bringing different attributes to the attack. Khedira was the defensive-minded of the three and sat in the middle of the trio. Alex Sandro and Cuadardo were two very attack orientated wing backs, both with exceptional speed. They tended to push high up. If this was a 5-3-2, these players would be replaced with conventional full backs.
The two strikers, Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala, were very aware of their own role in the team. Mandzukic was the target man. It was his job to hold the ball up until the midfield had arrived. Dybala on the other hand, tried to make runs behind the opposition defence.
Each of the players are conducive to the aforementioned player requirements, which explains why this formation was so successful for Allegri.
The overarching benefit of the 3-5-2 formation is its defensive solidity. Although managers who deploy this formation will usually use attack-minded wingbacks, the formation still employs three pure centre backs. This gives the team a great aerial advantage when defending set pieces. Furthermore, the team will often have numerical superiority in its defensive third due to the wingbacks dropping in to make a 5-3-2.
Suitable for possession-based football
As previously mentioned, the numerical superiority in the back line is especially useful for those sides washing to play out from the back. A perfect example of this was Mikel Areta’s use of the formation in his early days at Arsen
There can also be a numerical advantage in midfield as the wingbacks move into the middle third when in safe possession. This is an important area to get control of in a big game. Furthermore, the wingers/wingbacks are widening the field, which creates space for the three central midfielders. This also means that the attacking options are great, since you have five attackers, who are ready to score. This includes two wingers, one offensive central midfielder and two strikers.
Easy transformation makes it favourable for counter-attacking play
Pacy wide players are of the utmost importance when using this formation. In the 3-5-2, defence can shift to attack in a matter of seconds. This makes the formation ideal for managers wishing to hurt the opposition on the break. When soaking up pressure in 5-3-2, the opposition will begin to commit more players to the attack as they feel is necessary to try and break the deadlock. This is when they become their most vulnerable; this is the ideal opportunity to make use of the wide areas.
Like any football formation, the 3-5-2 has its inherent weaknesses. Although some of the key advantages of the system come as a result of the inclusion of wing backs, it is also the case that many of the weaknesses come also as a result of the wing backs.
When playing against a 3-5-2, managers look to exploit the wide areas – the space in behind the wing backs. This is a notoriously problematic area for managers who employ the 3-5-2 but do not have the correct players to do so. Even if the team in question has athletic wing backs with good endurance, if the wide centre backs are not quick then the team can be incredibly susceptible against fast counterattacks in the wide areas. Even if the centre backs are quick, constantly getting dragged out in to 1v1 situations can create holes in other areas of the back line.
This formation is particularly hard on the wide players from a physical standpoint. There’s a tremendous amount of tracking back to do for these players which means they will likely need replacing at some points in some matches. It is therefore important that the managers have substitutes ready to replace the wing backs. This can be tricky given how specific the role is and how many attributes are required to play it.
Organisation of the back line
As previously mentioned, communication when defending and keeping a line is very important. It’s harder to maintain an even line with three defenders than with two. The three defenders must play games together regularly to build an understanding.
The popularity of the 3-5-2 formation in modern football is unfortunately falling. There are still teams using it, and others who are using variations of it, but not as many as before, mainly because of demanding skills and fitness level that it requires.