Not many people like the 3-5-2 formation. “I’m not a fan of 3-5-2” Gary Neville mused, as “when you play that, you end up with your centre backs being the free men and that becomes a careful option, then it kicks into your mentality: ‘I’ve always got a safer pass’”. Not many teams have used it successfully; even on paper, it just looks flat.
If a 3-5-2 was deployed rigidly, breaking the opponents’ defensive line and creating consistent chances would indeed be tall order. However, isn’t there some benefit in knowing that if players take risks with the ball there will always be the insurance of three central midfielders and three centre-backs behind them? In addition, with the playmakers being wide midfielders rather than wingers, the ball is less likely to be lost in transition and the team are less exposed to counter-attacks out of possession. Essentially, with creative enough players, anyone with space and room to roam forwards can be the playmakers.
The problem with a similar 3-4-3, which looks better in an attacking sense, is defending counter-attacks. With three central midfielders, the wider areas are better covered when the wide playmakers are caught forward. Every tactic brings uncertainty with it, and this article will try to lay out the steps to take if you want your 3-5-2 tactic to provide a sustained attacking threat along with the defensive insurance.
In terms of personal experience, this is a fairly recent deviation from the 3-4-3 which suited my attack-orientated possession-based football well, but left my team too exposed to counter-attacks.
I’d been playing with the 3-4-3 since the Olympiakos game, and the 3-5-2 since the Tottenham game. Throughout the period, the tactics have been set up with similar principles, and there hadn’t needed to be any changes before the Liverpool game.
- Build your attack around primary playmakers who have the positional fluidity to drift across the entire field.
Most tactics probably have more direct ways to create chances than this one. After all, only the sweeper keeper even has an attack duty, and there’s no one directly going in behind the opposition defence. However, the wide playmakers are set to drift inside here, which naturally gives them a lot of space to run into. In turn, this gives the opposing player a dilemma: should they leave the wide playmaker unmarked, or follow them and leave space for another player to run into? The wide playmaker isn’t likely to lose the ball often, as they aren’t set to dribble more often, while they always have plenty of passing options.
If the wide playmaker does manage to create space, the players ahead of them should be well-positioned to take advantage. On one side, when the wide playmaker cuts in, the false nine should appear in the ‘hole’, whether that’s right in front of them or out wide. When the false nine then receives the ball, the other should make a run; this is often in behind the opposition defence.
This screenshot shows Moise Kean running from his left midfield position to the right side, showing the positional fluidity of the primary playmakers, despite the team shape being highly structured and a team instruction being stick to positions. When the ball reaches the front four, they largely interchange positions in the holes.
From there, the team try to get as high up the field as possible and draw their opponents back. For most of this game, PSG left Neymar alone up front, resorting to just hitting long balls to him. Unfortunately, it worked once, but that was primarily because the ball-playing defenders were set to ‘stopper’ duties instead of ‘cover’.
- Use the partnerships to create the necessary space to get in behind the opposition defence
Even discounting set-pieces, there are enough routes to get behind the opposition defence, although having that as the first and only means of creating chances can be risky. It can result in a propensity to lose the ball with too many players caught forward. The main direct threats here are the false nines working in tandem to engineer space in the opposition penalty area, the wide playmakers either cutting inside or drifting towards the line to set someone up, or the deep-lying playmakers making late runs.
There are multiple ways to create space like this effectively. It relies on the combinations of player roles and duties complimenting each other, rather than having a set style or tactic. This tactic largely has the same roles and duties for each position for two reasons: we’re conservative in possession and averse to losing the ball, and the formation’s expected to work in terms of four lines. Respectively, those lines are the centre-backs, the central midfielders, then the wide midfielders, and finally the strikers. All those lines should complement each other in and out of possession.
However, especially in a 3-5-2, you never know where the space will open. If you want to space to open in a particular area, rather than patiently probing for 90 minutes, you could pick two roles next each other that work well; for example, deep-lying and advanced forwards, or ball-winning and box-to-box midfielders. Despite that, as the aim of the attacking game is to convert the 3-5-2 into a more attacking shape on the ball, it’s advisable to give as many players as possible some freedom to drift forwards and move the opposition further back. Support duties are advised in midfield.
- Use team instructions to pin the opposition back
If it seems like the roles and duties weren’t particularly attacking, these instructions go a long way towards the style being implemented. Considering the aggressive defensive setup, complemented by every opposition instruction being selected, the opposition often never have space to move out of their own half. One of the few tactical observations from Pep Guardiola in All or Nothing: Manchester City was the fact that if you take the opposition winger to the half-way line, they still have enough room to counter-attack if the team win the ball back; however, if you pin them back to the edge of the six-yard box, they’ll become too tired and the amount of yards to make up will be too much.
In this screenshot, it’s safe for the two strikers to run so aggressively because they know there will always be enough support behind them if they lose the ball. As the 3-5-2 makes it more imperative to take advantage of any openings, giving the attackers free, playmaker-esque roles, complemented by aggressive team instructions, can be needed. After all, the look for overlap and exploit the middle instructions might be unnecessary and expose the team to counter-attacks if the formation already more attack duties.
- Use the other players’ roles and duties to prevent counter-attacks
Often, during counter-attacks, opposition wingers look like they have a lot of space, but their final balls are usually cut out. This is also the case with through balls. If the wide midfielders and strikers drift, it’s vital that those around them and hold a defensive structure; having roaming or advanced playmakers in central midfield, or anything other than ‘cover’ duties for the centre-backs, is not advisable in this scenario. The sweeper keeper on attack helps here too, as they push the team up when they get the ball, often shift possession to the other side of the pitch and are reliable cover for any centre-back filtering out wide to deal with an opposing threat.
In summary, it mostly comes down to understanding how the roles and duties work, in order to work out which ones complement each other. The biggest challenge is making some of the midfielders consistently test the opposition defence, while not leaving too much space for the opposition to counter-attack out wide. Even the tactic above could be a lot better. If these steps are considered, then 3-5-2 could be an ideal formation, especially if you want to create possession-based football.
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