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The 3-5-2 Formation Makes a Comeback in World Football

A passionate Football (Soccer) fan who is into the sport as both a player, a fan, and in the future, a coach.

An illustration of how the players lineup in a 3-5-2 formation.

An illustration of how the players lineup in a 3-5-2 formation.

What's a 3-5-2 Formation?

Why is the 4-3-3 formation similar to the 3-5-2? Because both formations require a high pressing and attacking mentality, the 3-5-2 system is frequently considered to be a counter to the widely used 4-3-3 formation. Although it appears that the former lacks defensive prowess, the 3-5-2 might be a formidable formation with the appropriate pressing approach. Let's break it down to see what the roles of the players in these positions are.

Defenders (3 Players)

While it may appear that three defenders is insufficient in this formation, fear not: all three are center-backs and play primarily in defensive positions. Their duty is to protect the goal area. They'll stay in a more central position (as seen below) while covering the penalty box's open spaces.

At the same time, the wing sections of the field are the most vulnerable in this situation. Strong coordination between the defenders and the wing-backs is required. The defensive trio's duty is to slow down the opponent's attack while allowing the wing-backs to fall back.

The areas where the 3-5-2 formation center-back trio covers.

The areas where the 3-5-2 formation center-back trio covers.

Wing-Backs (2 Players)

Wing-backs are the most important part of the team in this formation. They play a significant part in both defense and attack. Those that play in this position must be the fittest, fastest, and best dribblers. They must be strategically disciplined players who know when to attack and when to defend.

Wing-backs are there to give the team width and pass options. For example, wing-backs must open up spaces in both attack and defense for the midfield and defending trios to open up the play.

You might wonder where and when they should be tactically aware. It's simple: wing-backs work with midfielders as passing options and/or space makers during attacks. Wing-backs in defense should be conscious of being a passing option for their defenders to bring the ball out of the defending area.

The diagram of where the wing-back space is.

The diagram of where the wing-back space is.

Midfielders (3 Players)

Wing-backs can also be considered midfielders, which is why the formation is called 3-5-2. While wing-backs play an important part in both attack and defense, midfielders are the team's main controllers. Let's take a look at the three individual midfielders in this scenario, where each one of them plays a different role (as seen in the visual below).

Holding Midfielder

Holding midfielders, also known as defensive midfielders, provide support to the defenders by dropping down when gaps arise in the middle. They close down opposing strikers and deny them the opportunity to make attacking runs. Holding midfielders are frequently the attack's originator during attacking runs.

Box-to-box midfielder

Box-to-box midfielders provide support to both attack and defense by opening themselves up for passing options from all parts of town. They have the most stamina and are willing to run all day.

Attacking midfielder

An attacking midfielder can be dangerous in attacks as they have the least defensive duties among the trio. Often seen as the third striker, or a false 9, the attacking midfielder's role is to drive the opponent's defenders off position to open spaces for the strikers to score.

The areas covered by the midfield trio.

The areas covered by the midfield trio.

Strikers (2 Players)

Strikers play the biggest attacking role. The two strikers are key to pressing the opponent's defenders by shutting down their passing options so that the midfielders and wing-backs can retrieve the rebound.

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While strikers play a huge tactical role in bringing the opponent's defenders out of position, they are also tasked with scoring goals. Strikers in this case need to be in the correct areas of the field in order to receive the ball and score.

The area a striker covers during a match.

The area a striker covers during a match.

3-5-2 Formation Explained in 3 Minutes

Overall look of the formation vs a 4-3-3 formation.

Overall look of the formation vs a 4-3-3 formation.

Effectiveness of the Formation

When you have five midfielders on the pitch, two of whom are wing-backs, it's easier to dominate the midfield in a 3-5-2 formation. Whether the team wants to play high press, high possession, or sit back defensively, this gives coaches more creative alternatives.

Furthermore, the midfielders can line up in either a linear or a diamond configuration, giving coaches greater choices in both defensive and offensive play.

In a nutshell, the more midfielders a team has, the more dynamic the play will be, and it will be simpler to break down and score goals against an opponent's defense.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, showing frustration during City's match.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, showing frustration during City's match.

Weaknesses of the 3-5-2 Formation

While having wing-backs are great, they do provide some disadvantages when they go forward. Since it takes time for them to fall back, this gives advantages to the opponent's strikers to attack from the wings instead. Therefore, in a 3-5-2 formation, it is difficult to defend the wing positions.

At the same time, the 3-5-2 formation poses a high risk of counter-attacks from the opponents. The formation allows defenders to create lots of gaps in the line. The only way to stop counter-attacks is to press from the attacking position.

Lastly, the 3-5-2 formation looks nice on paper, but it is difficult to perfect as the right mentality, players, fitness, and chemistry is needed to excel in this formation.

Antonio Conte, one of the managers to bring the 3-5-2 formation to popularity.

Antonio Conte, one of the managers to bring the 3-5-2 formation to popularity.

Return to Popularity

The "three at the back" system has made a return in recent years with Marcelo Bielsa's 3-5-2 and 3-3-3-1 system. In the 2019/2020 season, the formation helped Leeds United secure a promotion back into the Premier League for the first time since the 2003/2004 season. Lucien Favre, a former manager with Borussia Dortmund, adopted a modified 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 system in his team. Other managers, such as Antonio Conte from Inter Milan and Julien Nagelsmann from RB Leipzig, have utilized the formation.

Roberto Martinez used the 3-5-2 formation during his time at Everton.

Roberto Martinez used the 3-5-2 formation during his time at Everton.

Is This the Formation for the Future?

We hope to see new innovations of the 3-5-2 formation and its counterparts, the 3-4-3 and other variations of the "three at the back" formation. Its distribution of space and allowing for a wider play from defense up to the attack allows for a more intense game to be played. However, as said above, the formation's weakness appears during defending runs.

© 2022 Nigel Koay Talks Football

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