Despite its fall in popularity since the early 2000s, the 3-5-2 has had a renaissance in both club and international level - Juventus, Manchester United and the Dutch national team being the more notable of teams that have recently employed the unique approach. Despite having its fair share of critics, it is very effective when implemented correctly.
Our sport is often viewed in simple manner by even the most respected analysts and experienced coaches in the world; attacking football is almost exclusively associated with possession and defensive play with counter-attacking. The reality is it is much deeper than that. For instance a team could try drain out the match by aiming to retain possession and not even look to score, as well as sides with impressive athletic abilities can absolutely dominate matches by focussing on getting the ball forward quickly and pressing while their more technical opponents trying to retain possession while failing to keep up with the tempo and intensity of the match.
The above are just two examples as to why it is much more accurate to assess the game and systems used in terms of proactive/reactive.
In recent years I have watched countless matches and I can state with utter certainty - the 3-5-2; is fantastic as a reactive system, ineffective when used as a proactive one. In other words, it is a great formation to use when the match can be played on your terms, for example; when leading your opponents, but a stale one with a lack of any real cut or thrust when the opposition is happy to sit back and counter.
What can this be put down to?
Simply put, there is a clear lack of triangles in the forward half and a cavity that separates midfield and attack. Creating triangles is critical in maintaining possession and triangles in high in your opponent’s area is key to breaking down stubborn defences, hence Juventus’ poor display in the 2013/14 Champions League failing to qualify for the knockout stage from a relatively simple group. The same can be said about this season’s campaign. Their attempts to play an aggressive 3-5-2 yielded consecutive 1-0 losses to Atletico Madrid and Olympiakos - two sides whose philosophy were both one based around traditional reactive football, withstanding pressure and striking on the counter. Since the low point of another 1-0 loss away to Genoa in week 9 of the Serie A, Juventus then switched to a diamond midfield and have gone from strength to strength both domestically and in Europe, and now find themselves with a final place up against the might of Barcelona - very contrasting outcome from to being bested by Galatasaray with almost the same personnel.
The same can be said regarding Manchester United’s poor showing this campaign. Early struggles seem to have been overshadowed by moments of inspiration from their many talented attacking players – tape over cracks in a foundation. For those who say 4th spot was an achievement was an achievement for the red devils, understand the level of monetary investment that was put in this squad that finished a massive 17 points from Chelsea and a mere 6 points above Tottenham, whose fans chanted, “We’re f***ing shit. We’re f***ing shit!” after a 3-0 loss to Stoke City.
Manchester United is one of the most powerful clubs in the world and shouldn’t rely on a system that benefits from a reactive mentality week in, week out. Next season they’ll be in for a rude awakening in Europe assuming they use 3-5-2 as their preferred tactic.
Looking more in-depth in terms of reactive football - let’s focus on times without possession: Assume your favourite side is up by one goal. They’re up against a very strong side that is using 4-3-3 - to help visualise say that team is Real Madrid. The strengths of the 4-3-3 are really obvious; triangles are in place all over the field (critical for maintaining possession hence Barcelona’s preferred system) and overloading is a very effective means of creating chances, one which this formation aids. Ronaldo receives the ball in his favoured left wing position and he is running directly at his opponents on a 45 to the goal. While this is happening, the attacking fullback, Marcelo is sprinting forward to provide the overlap. This is what is known as overloading. The scenario caused Ronaldo’s opponent, Lichtsteiner for Juventus, to get caught in two minds – “Do I track the runner who will drill a cross from a dangerous area or do I stop Ronaldo shooting from distance on his preferred foot?” Regardless of choice he makes, it will take a minor miracle not to be faced with a goal scoring threat while using a back four in this scenario.
In case you didn’t watch the return leg of the semi-final in Madrid; it came as no surprise to see Allegri switch to a 3-5-2 after Morata scored to put his side up on aggregate.
Now we are face with the same situation as the above but instead it is 3 at the back – What is different?
Firstly, Lichtsteiner is in a more advanced position resulting in Ronaldo more likely to receive the ball facing his own goal rather than receive it being orientated to where he can run at his opponent (unquestionably his greatest strength). Now for the rare occasion he manages to do so and Marcelo is getting forward in support. Lichtsteiner is able to focus on one of closing down Marcelo or Ronaldo knowing that the right centreback is now closer to him and will can provide more effective cover as second defender – see our upcoming blog “first defender, second defender”.
In a general sense the midfield structure congests area just outside the defensive third which can help drain out the match.
LookIng at times when in possession – the 3-5-2 creates a diamond shape amongst the team’s deepest players in the three centrebacks and a deep lying midfielder who is flanked by wingback either side of him. The wingbacks with their backs against the touchline, orientation facing inwards have three clear passing options made up of the closest defender, deep lying midfielder, and nearest box-to-box midfielder. The abundance of triangles in your own half makes retaining the ball much simpler and it is this emphasis on possession that is much deeper in the field which invites the opponent forward, more specifically the fullbacks. Once pressure feels overwhelming or if the opportunity presents itself, a direct ball forward is almost always an option to the two strikers who must favour their chances of not being so outnumbered. In short – this is known as counter-possession. In essence it is reactive football but is very unlike traditional counterattacking which focuses on soaking up pressure and quick transitions once the ball is won.