Soccer formations have evolved a lot over the years. For the first half of the 20th century, the dominant system was an attack-minded W-M Formation, which is extremely rare today. In the decade leading up to the millennium, the shape used by most British teams was the 4-4-2 formation. Things are constantly evolving, and one of the most important soccer developments of the past decade is the rise in teams playing with 3 at the back. But what exactly does that mean? In this article, that's the question we'll be answering, as we focus on the 3-5-2 formation, and explore its key strengths, weaknesses, and uses.
Argentine coach Carlos Bilardo is credited with being the inventor of the 3-5-2 system. Manager of the famous World Cup-winning Argentina team of 1986, he developed this shape as a way of creating space upfront for star player Diego Maradona to exploit. At the same time, the 3-5-2 is designed to offer a strong degree of defensive stability. Argentina's triumph highlighted how effective it can be, and the fact that it sustains today backs this up further. But how does the 3-5-2 shape work in practice?
This formation starts with a modern back three. These 3 central defenders are supported by two wing-backs (a LWB and a RWB) who can drop back and become part of a back five if a team is defending deep. Usually, though, these wing-backs will be the widest part of a midfield 5, with 3 central midfielders between them. These center midfielders can be organized in different ways; sometimes this will be a flat 3, while on other occasions, there will be one central defensive midfielder sitting deeper, and elsewhere there could be 2 CDMs protecting the center-backs, and one CAM offering a more creative outlet ahead of them. Finally, a 3-5-2 uses an attacking partnership. These two strikers are able to press the opposition back four and win the ball in advanced areas while connecting smoothly with the fluid midfield behind them.
We've just hinted at one of the critical strengths of the 3-5-2 formation, which is the flexibility that it offers. This is achieved partly through the wing-backs, who are absolutely crucial and can easily switch between defense, midfield, and attack. Primarily, their role tends to be offensive, and the attacking width provided by players like Chelsea RWB Reece James can be incredibly difficult to stop. And unlike with the 4-3-3 formation, having your full-backs attack doesn't leave so much space to be exploited in defensive areas, because there are 3 central defenders providing added cover.
3-5-2 can also be great for dominating possession because it allows teams to create overloads in a variety of areas of the pitch. With its 3 central midfielders, this shape is ideal for dominating the midfield battle, and it also creates opportunities for moments of real fluidity in these spots. For example, it's not uncommon to see one central defender push forward into midfield with the ball, leaving the opposition outnumbered and creating confusion when it comes to who should be marking who. Newly promoted Premier League side Sheffield United used this overlapping center-backs technique to great effect during the 2019-20 season, finishing 9th.
This is one of many variations in build-up play that the 3-5-2 formation allows for. It's possible for the back 3 to progress the ball through the center of the pitch or via the wings, where wing-backs will tend to hug the touchline with plenty of space. Further up the pitch, plenty of additional flexibility is provided by the two strikers, who can drop back into midfield and link up with creators, or if they're up against two central defenders, can cause absolute chaos by pressing them in tight 1v1 situations.
It may sound like this system is infallible; and it's true that when played right and coached to perfection, the 3-5-2 shape ticks all the boxes. However, there are a few weaknesses that are worth mentioning. The midfield, for instance, runs the risk of getting congested, particularly if the wing-backs become more compact. And if this heavy midfield is breached by the opposition, teams can be susceptible to counter-attacks, with the back 3 ending up in 1v1 defensive situations.
Another potential weakness is that if your team's wing-backs bomb forwards a lot and focus the majority of their energy on attacking, gaps can be left in behind them, and it can become difficult to defend wide positions. This essentially comes down to the fact that this system is highly dependent on well-trained, well-disciplined players who have a really strong understanding of what their roles are. It's an advanced formation that requires serious coaching, which explains why it's most common at the game's elite level. Let's look at some of the best examples of the 3-5-2 in practice.
Arguably the most famous and successful modern proponent of this system is Antonio Conte. Currently the manager of Tottenham Hotspur, Conte has used this shape at the majority of the teams he's coached, most notably at Juventus, Chelsea, and Inter Milan (all of whom he won a domestic title with). Conte consistently uses quick, endurant full-backs such as Achraf Hakimi, Marcus Alonso, Victor Moses, and Kwadwo Asamoah, often molding them so that they suit his favored formation better. The ability of these wing-backs to move up and down the pitch with speed is crucial to their role within his teams.
Thomas Tuchel is another coach with a reputation for using the 3-5-2 system at the highest level. This is his go-to shape at Chelsea, along with a 3-4-3, but he was also known to deploy this system at PSG and Borussia Dortmund. His interpretation of the 3-5-2 shape at PSG used Neymar as a central attacking midfielder, or No.10, pushing on past the more defensive-minded center-mids Marquinhos and Rabiot to support the team's front 2. This system was particularly effective in the Champions League, where Tuchel's back 3 provided defensive solidity and created space for his forward players to flourish. Check out this video for further explanation of Tuchel's approach to 3-5-2 at PSG.
It can be hard to defend against a well-drilled, highly-organized 3-5-2 system. But that doesn't mean it's impossible. There are different ways of approaching a game in which you know that the opposition is likely to use this formation. In this section of the article, we'll take you through some useful methods.
The 4-2-3-1 formation can give your team a competitive edge and help you exploit the zonal defending system of the 3-5-2. This is achieved by moving the opponent from side to side using high-quality passing and movement. A key part of tackling the 3-5-2 comes down to matching the positional fluidity it's built on, and using that flexibility to create overloads in attacking areas.
And on the subject of matching up, it's worth mentioning that one of the most popular approaches to lining up against a 3-5-2 is to simply structure your team in the same way. Mirroring the formation can allow you to fill the same areas of the pitch and have a spare man at the back; however, matching up man-for-man can cause problems if the team you're playing against has greater individual quality, meaning they can exploit weaker individuals in 1v1 battles.
One potentially effective way of causing problems against a 3-5-2 formation is to try to bypass the midfield (where space is largely filled by the opposition's heavy midfield) by playing long balls. Hitting the ball into forward areas with pace and accuracy can put the back 3 under pressure in dangerous positions, and this is particularly effective if you have deeper players (wing-backs, for example) who are skillful crossers of the ball. Outside attackers can help create the space for their wing-backs to make these crosses by staying high and wide.
However, even this tactic, which can be super successful at times, has the disadvantage of essentially forfeiting possession of the ball for large periods. This ties into the broader difficulty of facing up against a well-disciplined 3-5-2 shape, which you'll now realize can be tough. At the same time, if you're able to exploit the zonal defending system of a 3-5-2 and move the ball away from the heavy midfield that it relies on, it's possible to negate its impact.
Hopefully, you're now well aware of the key uses, strengths, and weaknesses offered by the ever-more popular 3-5-2 formation. The opportunities it provides for dominating the ball, creating chances, and simultaneously staying solid at the back make it one of the most powerful formations you can use. It takes some serious coaching, but the tactical and positional versatility it provides should not be underestimated. For some more guidance on the importance of the soccer formation, check out our guide to 9 of the best formations explained or learn more about the different soccer positions.
Carlos Bilardo is recognised as the pioneer of the 3-5-2 system in elite soccer, designed to give Diego Maradona as much freedom as possible whilst retaining a strong, compact defense.
As always, it depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the team (as well as the oppositions), but 3-5-2 is widely recognised as one of the best formations for defensive solidity.
Generally speaking, the 3-5-2 is considered a defensive formation, with three center backs and three central midfielders giving a strong, compact core to the team. However, with effective and athletic wing backs, this can quickly be turned into a potent attack.
Fred Garratt-Stanley is a freelance writer and long-suffering Norwich City fan with experience reporting on football for a number of titles. He also has a background in music and culture journalism, with bylines in NME, The Quietus, Resident Advisor and more. Currently, he's working as a content writer for a variety of online health and fitness publications.