Sportsthoughts (118) – The return of 3-5-2

The England team

England 1990. Photo David Cannon/Allsport, from Google Images

I apologise in advance if my statto tendencies have got the better of me in this blog! But I love the analysis of tactics and structures – and then the fact that the players can blow it all apart with a moment of genius, or an horrendous error…

A strange thing is happening in the Premier League. More teams are playing with a 3-5-2 formation. Man Utd, Hull, QPR, with others dabbling. Essentially that means three central defenders, three midfielders and two wing backs and two forwards. A few sides tried it from time to time last season, including Liverpool. But there is more this season, possibly encouraged by its successful use in the World Cup, by Holland, but mainly the Latin American teams: Mexico and Costa Rica, for example. Juventus have been using it in Serie A too, winning the Scudetto three times in a row.

What’s behind this trend? It’s very retro. It’s in tune with what’s happening culturally – fashion, music. Still quite eighties-influenced, moving into the nineties. It could be that players who played in the formation in the nineties are now reaching the higher echelons of coaching and management? But it’s also a response to previous tactical developments. Football is always changing. When one style becomes supreme, people work out ways of countering it. Look at the experience of Barcelona. The ultimate football team, playing a 4-3-3, with intense pressing in midfield and a high back line. No-one who could really be called a centre forward, just three highly mobile attackers, with Messi as the “false nine”. But the top teams started to work them out, sat deeper on the whole, surrendered possession and waited to pounce, attacking the vulnerable central defence. And the Barca team grew older, maybe not quite as mobile, or hungry. Their style could only work with the most intense and disciplined of approaches. So maybe it wasn’t built to last.

The main counter to the Barca style, and the one most favoured in the Premier League last season, and at the World Cup, was the 4-2-3-1. Designed for defensive solidity, with two midfielders protecting the back four. Allows the full backs to get upfield. But also needs the midfield three to act very much as auxiliary attackers, given that there is only one real forward. The best teams play it very well: Man City in England, Germany in the World Cup. But lower down, it can become over-defensive and the central striker can become isolated. Negative sides, sides just looking to survive, often turn it – and 4-3-3 – into a 4-5-1, a packed midfield clogging up the central areas of the pitch. One striker trying to hold the ball up, hoping someone in midfield might make it up in support. A reliance on set pieces to score. Sadly, this describes the West Ham of last season very well (but possibly not this one – there is hope).

So 3-5-2, apart from being a fad, and inspired by the World Cup, is a response to the 4-2-3-1. First, if you are only marking one striker, why do you need four defenders? Second, it allows the return of two strikers, one target man with the other playing off him – the classic No10. I like this. It gives two attacking players a chance to establish a really effective partnership, gives a team a better focal point and relies less on players arriving from midfield for goals. It means talented strikers don’t get shunted out into wide positions. It means the return of the “man in the hole”.

The midfield remains well-stocked, with three central players. Width is provided by the wing backs: overlapping full backs really, but with more licence to roam.

So, 3-5-2 is essentially an attacking response to defensive formations. So far, so good. There must be flaws though; otherwise everyone would be playing it. And yes there are. The good thing about football is that 11 players aren’t enough to cover all the requirements. Something must be sacrificed. Under 3-5-2 it is defensive cover out wide. In theory that cover should be provided by one of the centre backs, depending on where the threat is coming from. But it doesn’t always happen – centre backs are always wary of deserting the central positions and getting isolated. So the counter to a 3-5-2 is to put balls in behind the wing backs, or get your own wide men to attack that space. It was this defensive flaw that led to its abandonment in England after its use in the late eighties and early nineties. Its most famous use in England was by the national team in the 1990 World Cup after an awful start in the first group game, against Ireland – possibly the worst game of international football I have ever seen. It is said that the players insisted on the switch to manager Bobby Robson. In fact it was more a 5-3-2, with the full backs still cautious about advancing. But it tightened up the defence and midfield, and while it wasn’t used rigidly in every game, it gave England a solidity and freedom which allowed them to progress to the semi-final, where, of course, they lost to Germany on penalties.

The 3-5-2 system is essentially Latin American. Argentina used it in the 1986 World Cup, releasing Diego Maradona, and winning the tournament with a pretty average team (apart from Maradona!).

West Germany and Italy played a variant of it in the seventies and eighties, a 5-3-2, which had a sweeper, or libero, playing behind a four man defence, and having licence to roam forward. The great Franz Beckenbauer is perhaps the finest example. This never really caught on in England – it was far too sophisticated. And Steve McClaren’s disastrous adoption of it in 2007, in the last Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia, looked to have killed it off forever. We have carried on with our essential 4-4-2 until quite recently, when the influx of foreign players and, especially, managers, has led to much greater variety.

I still quite like a 4-4-2, played intelligently, so your two wide midfielders don’t leave the two central midfielders vulnerable to being overrun by more numerous opponents.This has often been the problem for the England team. But it doesn’t have to be. The wide midfielders can tuck in, letting the full backs get forward. One midfielder can drop back, to provide defensive cover. In fact you can end up with a 4-1-3-2, which I reckon is the best system of all. The risk with 4-1-3-2 is a loss of width, unless the full backs get forward. And if they do, you are practically playing a 3-5-2!

All this shows is that none of these formations are really all that different. The virtue of 4-4-2 is its simplicity as a starting point. You can improvise from there. Improvise? It seems that some managers give such detailed instructions these days that players feel afraid to improvise. But the best ones still do: that’s how you win matches at the very top. And, as matches progress, players tire, and the best of systems can start to fall apart. That’s when simplicity becomes really important. And it’s why some English teams, notably Man Utd in this early part of the season, under Louis van Gaal, are struggling to adapt to 3-5-2. They’ll probably be OK when all their best defenders are fit and available, but right now it looks like the three centre backs don’t know who’s supposed to be doing what, and they have two wingers trying to be wing backs – not very well.

That’s the problem with sudden changes: players sometimes can’t adapt. You would think that they could, given that they are all highly talented at the top. But remember they have always got an opposition trying to outdo them. If you have too much to think about you make more mistakes, they get exploited and trust and confidence evaporates.

So will many teams adapt 3-5-2 as their default mode? I doubt it. It takes a degree of sophistication which isn’t inherent in English football (even when foreigners play it) and is inherently risky, if those wide areas get too exposed. It takes very good wing backs to make it work well. Super-fit and equally good in attack and defence. That’s quite a lot to ask.

But then, what do I know? Even Big Sam might have West Ham playing before we know it!

By the way, there is a very fine book on the history of football tactics, called “Inverting The Pyramid”, by British football writer, Jonathan Wilson. The title is relevant to the 3-5-2/5-3-2 debate. From the mid 1880s to 1925 apparently, most teams played with 2 defenders (full backs), three in midfield (half backs) and five forwards. Now that would be good to see! A pyramid on its point. In that 1986 World Cup, Argentina had reversed the formation. The pyramid had been inverted.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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7 Responses to Sportsthoughts (118) – The return of 3-5-2

  1. Resa says:

    The scary part is that I get what you’re saying about the formations.
    The incredible part is how much info you have gathered , and obviously love! You could write a book about it.. after you finish your music book, of course!

  2. Dood says:

    Looks like a quiet Bank Holiday Sunday, J?

    All good stuff, though I was intrigued by the idea that the original “Pyramid” died out in 1925. My earliest memories of watching the big games in the sixties and early seventies were of sides that seemed to be more or less propelled by five forwards (Ball, Charlton, Peters, Hurst, Hunt / Gray, Giles, Clarke, Jones, Lorimer / Armstrong, Graham, Radford, Kennedy, George), But I think that was partly because of the numbering – when we were kids, numbers 7 through 11 were invariably attacking roles (two wingers, two inside forwards, one centre forward), whereas now, with the exception of the keeper, numbers are totally meaningless. And we have all these falsies too.

    So the above sides were actually playing something more akin to 4-4-3, with attacking midfielders like Bobby Charlton, Johnny Giles, George Graham and Ray Kennedy supplementing two- or three-man strike forces. In theory, the football should have been more exciting then; with hindsight, though, I don’t think it was. I think that we were just more excitable.

    • John S says:

      I like 4-4-3!

      1925 was pivotal because the offside law changed. Before that three players had to be between the forward and the goal for him to be onside, and defences had become expert at springing the offside trap (sounds familiar?). So the law was changed to two, including the keeper. This led to the “W-M” formation, pioneered by Herbert Chapman. Essentially that meant the centre-half withdrawing into defence, though even to this day we often still call central defenders centre-halves. So it was a kind of 3-2-2-3 formation, with the inside forwards also playing deeper than before.

      As you know, the numbers reflected the original 2-3-5 formation right until teams started messing around with numbers – I recall Liverpool starting the rot with Ray Kennedy playing left midfield with a 5 on his back – and eventually adopting squad numbers.

      Sunday started with a cycle to Hammersmith, and then got writing. This blog and the start of a new music chapter: Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide sound!

  3. dc says:

    who are the “best ” man utd defenders who will make the system work?

    shaw is a wing back, so is rafael. not sure who is on the bench that is going to make them defensively sound this season. Rojo? Maybe but will take time to get used to new country, new league, new system.

    they’ve lost Vidic, Evra,Rio all in short order and none of the current crop look anywhere near those players.

    so lots of room for optimism.

    • John S says:

      Shaw and Rojo the wing backs – that’s a start. Evans I suppose in the centre. Plus a quality purchase, I assume, and Smalling or Jones. Er, I haven’t convinced myself…

      They’ll be back to a back four soon!

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