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Football tactics basics: The 3-5-2 formation explained

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This week the tactics column looks at the 3-5-2 formation and how it can lead to disaster for an unprepared side.

3-5-2 - Football tactics and formations

The 3-5-2 features three centre-backs and out on the wings are a pair of wing-backs, who replace the full-backs (see my previous analysis of the full-back here) of a back 4, pushing up to support the midfield and largely relieved of defensive duties. A three-man central midfield will generally line up in some variant of a triangle, behind a pair of forwards.


The 3-5-2 can seem like a dream come true in that it allows teams to continue to field the two strikers of the traditional 4-4-2 (previously analysed here), but still provides three central midfielders who can outnumber or match the opponents, and width via the wing-backs.

Defensively the 3-5-2 matches up particularly well against the open 4-4-2, which I have previously analysed in this column, neutralising the two strikers and the wingers. Suddenly the two strikers are confronted with three men who always have a spare to mop up danger, there’s no space for the winger and the two central midfielders will always be outnumbered.

A modern tactic, often practiced by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, is to play a 3-5-2 when in possession, while switching back to a standard four at the back when the other team has the ball. A defensive midfielder drops between the centre-backs to start off the attack and distribute the ball, while the full-backs temporarily become wing-backs, providing passing options.

This video shows how Sergio Busquets often drops back into the defensive line for Barcelona to start the attack, forming a temporary 3-5-2 as the full-backs push forwards. All credit goes to YouTube user Tony Molina.


However the three centre-back model is a tricky one. In a centre-back pair, the defenders have the constant reference point of their partner, working to limit the space between them and leaving the wings to the full-backs.

Three centre-backs don’t have that constant reference point so they have to be a very well-drilled unit, combining the qualities of traditional centre-backs (strength in the air, close co-ordination, good tacklers) with those of full-backs (mobility, confidence to carry and pass the ball). Sometimes they have to shuffle over together and allow the wing-backs to fill the space that leaves on the flank, but the left and right centre-backs also need to be ready to act independently and race out to attackers cutting inside when there’s a lack of defensive cover, especially against overlapping full-backs.

Finding defenders who combine those qualities can be difficult. Outside of Italy's Serie A where the 3-5-2 is still a common sight, there are few specialists in the formation. Several coaches who use the 3-5-2 such as Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa, have even chosen to convert midfielders into centre-backs instead, players who are happier leaving the defensive line to play the ball out, but their teams depend on a very high share of possession or incredibly intense pressing, which few other teams can replicate.

The 3-5-2´s biggest challenge is when the other team plays a single striker, in which case three defenders are suddenly left marking only one man. This is even worse if that striker is a ´false nine´- a single centre-forward who drops back and opens up space for runners from the midfield or for wide attackers. The three centre-backs may be left marking absolutely no-one. If one of the centre-backs tracks the striker up the pitch they’ll be dragged out of position, but if they don’t then the opposition will have an extra man in midfield.

Spain vs Italy in Euro 2012 was an international example of Spain playing a a false-nine in Cesc Fabregas, normally an attacking midfielder, against the 3-5-2 of Italy. The Italians benefited from having a pair of forwards for their goal, but then watch from 2.15 as the Italian back three are sucked towards the ball and the wing-back fails to cover Fabregas coming from deep to score. All credit for the video goes to YouTube user Tutoriales y Fútbol | TheNightAdri

Lambert’s 3-5-2 and the heaviest defeat in Villa history

Paul Lambert made some questionable tactical decisions well before 2014-15’s absolute horror show, and the sporadic appearance of the 3-5-2 through 2012 and 2013 led to Villa's heaviest league defeat.

Struggling with a lack of wingers and without an experienced centre-back pairing, Lambert tried to solve both by playing Ciaran Clark, Chris Herd and Nathan Baker in a back-three while Joe Bennett and Matt Lowton became wing-backs. It was a hell of an experiment with a young side and while it achieved a few unexpected successes, it’s vulnerabilities were repeatedly exposed by top sides, culminating in an 8-0 thrashing by Chelsea (I'm not posting the video, those of a masochistic bent can seek it out themselves).

The 3-5-2 and Villa right now

The 3-5-2 may be on Tim Sherwood’s mind because of the arrival of Micah Richards, one of the few defenders whose skill set naturally covers lends itself to being part of a back-three, being an athletic runner but also a powerful physical presence. Jores Okore also seems like he might be a good fit for the role.

It’s also a possible solution to Villa’s problems in finding reliable full-backs. Leandro Bacuna is a natural fit at wing-back, able to swing crosses in from deep and make up ground down the wing, but not a great dribbler in tight spaces or defensively gifted.

While the 3-5-2 may be a useful tactical option, especially facing a 4-4-2, it would be strange to see Villa prepare for the new season without at least a notional back-four with proper full-backs. QPR made that error last season and suffered for it when injuries left them without the proper personnel to play a 3-5-2. Top sides with very talented wide attackers can also rip the formation apart if the defense is unprepared, and another defeat like the loss against Chelsea would be disastrous for the confidence of Sherwood's side.

More articles in the 7500toHolte Football Tactics Basics series can be found here:

The 4-4-2  formation explained

The 4-3-3 formation explained

The 4-2-3-1 formation explained

The full-back position explained