Blog > Tactics and Formations

The 5-2-3 Formation: Its Uses, Benefits and Weaknesses

The 5-2-3 Formation: Its Uses, Benefits and Weaknesses

A lot can be interpreted from a soccer formation. When the team line-ups are announced before kick-off, fans, it sparks pundits and commentators into waves of speculation about how exactly the starting XI will shape up, what the job of each individual player will be, and what we can learn about the tactical strategy of each manager from their decisions in these intriguing early stages.

Part of the reason that football lovers spend so much time wondering about this stuff is because of the huge variety of formations, shapes and tactical plans there are available to head coaches and their staff. From low blocks to high counter-pressing structures, double pivots to inverted full-backs, there are tons of tactical philosophies, buzzwords and positional ideas that are tossed around in the modern day. But one of the simplest and most important elements of a tactical set-up is the formation.

In this article, we'll be demonstrating the importance of formations in soccer by honing in on one particular shape, the 5-2-3 formation. We're going to explain how managers set up with a 5-2-3, working our way through each element of the formation. We'll then analyse the key strengths and weaknesses of the system, before diving into some well-known examples of managers and teams that have utilised this formation. Finally, we'll wrap up by giving a few pointers to the coaches out there about how to play against a 5-2-3 shape.

How Do You Play a 5-2-3?

5-2-3 is a slightly unusual format that you might have to look a bit harder to spot at the highest level — it's not as popular as super mainstream formations such as 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. However, it's still been used in elite matches by a wide variety of different coaches. So how do you set up with a 5-2-3 shape?

At the base of this formation is a back line of five defenders, organised as a right wing-back, three central defenders, and a left wing-back. Those centre backs will typically form a tight central defensive unit, supported by the wing-backs on either side of them, who can be used as basic full-backs, but who can also be shifted up into more advanced positions, supporting the midfield.

That job can be particularly important given the lack of bodies situated in the midfield area with this formation; in front of the defence, you've got a double pivot in central midfield, providing defensive support to the defenders behind them and performing the role of building possession and moving the ball up from lower areas of the pitch into more dangerous territories. And in those zones, you'll find the final section of this formation: the forward line of three attackers.

These players will usually be structured as a left winger (or left forward), a central striker (or centre forward), and a right winger (or right forward) on the other side of that attacking talisman. The front three in a 5-2-3 are relied upon for creating and finishing chances, providing a counter-attacking threat, pressing opposition defenders, and tracking back to support the midfield and defensive players behind them.

What Are The Strengths Of a 5-2-3 Formation?

Viewed by many as a variation of the 3-4-3 formation that's based largely on wing-back fluidity, arguably the biggest strength of the 5-2-3 formation is its flexibility. This W-W shape can shift and change throughout a match depending on whether a team is attacking or defending, and the wing-backs play the most important role here, moving up to support midfielders when necessary and dropping back to add defensive cover on other occasions.

Despite this potential for fluidity, the 5-2-3 formation is, at its core, a highly defensive one. The system is designed so that at least eight players can remain behind the ball when out of possession, and coaches will often deploy it against superior opposition in order to ensure that the defensive is tight and well-organised and the deep midfield areas difficult to break into.

However, 5-2-3 can also offer a strong attacking presence; with three forwards operating in the more advanced areas of the pitch, creating chances shouldn't be a problem with this system, and no striker should be left isolated up top. And if a coach chooses to push their wing-backs high, creating overloads in attacking areas becomes even easier.

What Are The Weaknesses Of a 5-2-3 Formation?

It's important to note that 5-2-3 also has its weaknesses. While this defensive-minded set up can be great for sustaining long periods out of possession, squeezing the pitch and keeping things tight at the back, when the game becomes more stretched things can get a little more risky.

5-2-3 can be vulnerable to counter-attacks, particularly if the wing-backs push forward and the opposition are able to exploit key gaps across the pitch.

This brings us onto another potential weakness; this system can risk leaving big gaps between the lines. Given that the central midfield double pivot is primarily focused on marking space and protecting the back line rather than pushing too far forward, there can be a big space left between the midfield and the three forwards, particularly if those forwards press high up the pitch (for example in a gegenpressing-style structure). If you don't reduce these gaps as much as possible, you'll be punished. Also, if your opposition are strong in midfield, your two central midfielders may become outnumbered, overworked, and overwhelmed by the task of constantly chasing and harrying the opposition.

Another key point to make is that while the vast majority of players will be able to do a job within the basic positions of more popular, widespread formations like 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, this less common formation requires some specialist player skills. For example, the two central midfielders need to be dynamic, disciplined, competent on the ball, and capable of controlling central areas while also being dominated in terms of numbers by the opposition. Meanwhile, the wing-backs need to be great at getting the balance right between dropping into defensive areas and providing solidity, and getting forward to join attacks. If you don't have players that are confident when it comes to performing these very specific positional roles, you might be in trouble.

Which Clubs And Managers Have Used The 5-2-3 Formation?

5-2-3 isn't a shape you see a huge amount in the modern game, but it has been used in top leagues such as the Bundesliga in recent years, particularly when weaker teams are looking to bolster their defence against the stronger sides. For example, during the 2016/17 season, teams such as Werder Bremen deployed this shape when playing against the intimidating attacks of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

In these conditions, the system worked because it's the exact reverse of 3-2-5, which is how both teams would be shaped whilst in possession (playing 4-2-4). During the same season, Juventus took a leaf out of Bremen's book and used it in the Champions League round of 16 against Bayern, scoring two goals (but ultimately losing the game 4-2).

A more successful application of the 5-2-3 shape saw Pep Guardiola structure his Barcelona team as a 5-2-3 during the 2008/09 season, providing the perfect set-up for his renowned XI to dominate possession and control the tempo of their games. You might not be surprised, given Pep Guardiola's reputation, to hear that he didn't use 5-2-3 for defensive solidity, but in fact adapted it in order to control the ball, with the "back five" divided into a line of two and a higher line of three that allowed him to build up through the lines.

Argentina national team coach Cesar Luis Menotti also used this formation at the 1978 World Cup, deploying the 5-2-3 shape in the final and beating a star-studded Netherlands team 3-1 thanks to a blistering attacking performance led by talismanic forward Mario Kempes. More recently, another South American national team used this system effectively at the World Cup — Uruguay. This was at the 2010 World Cup, when Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan's side managed to reach the semi-finals thanks to the counter-attacking power provided by this formation.

How Do You Play Against a 5-2-3 Shape?

There are a few options for managers looking to build a team capable of countering the 5-2-3 shape. One good shout would be to exploit the wide areas of the pitch, because a key weakness of 5-2-3 is that it can be a little narrow. Using dangerous wingers and attacking full-backs to create overloads out wide can be a good way to exploit the weaknesses of this formation.

As mentioned earlier, 5-2-3 can also be vulnerable to counter-attacks due to the gaps that can be created when the wing-backs push forward. Therefore, if you have a strong, well-structured counter-attacking plan built around intelligent, well-timed runs and quick, direct passes, you can cut through a 5-2-3 shape and create dangerous attacking opportunities. In order to further aid your counter-attacking gameplan, it can be worth defending deep in order to pull the opposition toward you, limit the space that the front three can operate in, and create gaps in behind for you to exploit once the ball is won.

One final option when it comes to exploiting the vulnerabilities of this shape is to play with a high press. Putting lots of pressure on the defensive line can prevent those defenders progressing the ball into midfield and the players further up the pitch can therefore become isolated. In addition, this can give you the opportunity to win possession high up the pitch and build dangerous attacking chances.

A number of different formations besides 5-2-3 can be used to gain these key advantages. If you'd like to discover more about some of football's most popular formations, head over to the tactics and formations section of our blog.