For modern managers and the vast teams of assistant coaches and analysts that assist their preparations each week, the options are almost endless when it comes to tactics. The evolution of the game over the course of the last few decades means there are countless different ways to set up a team to try and win in any given match.
Probably the most important tactical component for a head coach to get right is the formation, which dictates the team's shape and guides how many players will be in each area of the pitch both in and out of possession. Formations are designed to put emphasis on certain areas in order to gain key overloads, whether it's in defence, midfield, or attack. And there are a wide variety of different systems that can be used to this end.
In this article, which is part of our ongoing series of explainer pieces on the most popular formations in soccer, we'll be diving into the 5-3-2 shape, examining its key purposes, strengths and weaknesses, as well as listing a few well-known teams that have used this system over the years. This formation isn't one that you see being deployed on a regular basis, but it still has some interesting uses in the modern game, which we'll delve into shortly.
A 5-3-2 formation is made up of three units: defence, midfield, and attack (as well as a goalkeeper at the back, of course). The defensive line is made up of five players, with three central defenders (or center backs) being flanked by two wing-backs, who are essentially like traditional full-backs but often stationed a little higher and wider and with more freedom to move forward.
In front of the wide defensive line of five, there is typically a fairly tight midfield unit of three players. It's possible for managers to set up this midfield three in a number of different ways depending on what their gameplan is. For example, they could use a strong double pivot of two central defensive midfielders to provide lots of stability and cover for the back line, with one central attacking midfielder stationed slightly higher up the pitch with more creative responsibilities. Alternatively, a coach could place their three midfielders in a fairly flat, closely-linked line, or perhaps in a more forward-looking triangle with a single defensive pivot and two attacking midfielders in front.
Antonio Conte often used a 5-3-2 when out of of possession, transitioning into a 3-4-3 in attack
Finally, ahead of this midfield trio is a strikeforce of two players. This is where the offensive fire power is coming from, and it can be set up in multiple ways; there could be two quick, dynamic forwards dedicated to running into the channels and pushing through on goal, there could be one focal targetman supported by a more creative, fluid player capable of dropping into attacking midfield areas, or there could be two big, physical strikers both focused on winning aerial battles and getting on the end of crosses from out wide.
We've already hinted at what the most useful aspect of the 5-3-2 formation can often be: defensive solidity. By setting up your team with five defenders and also giving yourself the option to station three defensive-minded midfielders ahead of them, you're creating a really stable foundation at the base of the soccer field.
When managers are accused of "parking the bus" and throwing the vast majority of their players behind the ball to try to shut out the opposition and protect a result, it's pretty common that they will be operating with some variation of a 5-3-2 formation. 5-3-2 can be rigid and tight, preventing the opposition from finding gaps in the final third of the pitch and essentially putting lots of bodies in front of the penalty area to crowd out attacking midfielders and forwards.
This defensive strength of the 5-3-2 formation also lends itself to the kind of offensive system usually used by teams employing a "park the bus" strategy. Typically, teams playing this way will focus on providing threats on the counter-attack, through quick, decisive transitions. 5-3-2 couples a solid defensive structure with a regular presence in the final third; the two strikers in this system are constantly ready to pounce into action, and when they're joined in the other half by players from the midfield three or by the wing-backs, a strong counter-attacking threat can be created. This is a key benefit of the 5-3-2 formation.
While its key focus is reducing space and forming a rigid defence, this shape can also offer flexibility when needed. Players can drop deeper to defend a lead, and one of the two strikers can tuck in to form a midfield four for extra support, but equally things can be tweaked with attacking in mind; for example, the wing-backs can be pushed forward to transition into a more offensive 3-5-2 formation.
The main problem with 5-3-2 as a system is that its focus on defensive solidity can sometimes leave teams lacking in more offensive areas.
With five defenders and only two forwards, there is typically a lot of pressure on certain midfielders to get up the pitch and support attacks when they are launched, but even when those midfielders do get forward, it's possible that a team playing with a 5-3-2 system will struggle to overload opposition defenders in advanced areas.
It's also worth noting that in soccer, defending with a low block is a tactic that requires a huge amount of positional discipline and clear communication, and players will be punished if they switch off and fail to perform their duties for even a second. The primary role of this shape is to limit opposition chances and space in the final third, but to do this effectively the midfielders and defenders need to work extremely hard to cover gaps across the pitch and constantly communicate with each other to ensure that they mark both players and space. As well as having these high focus levels, players slotting into this system also need to have excellent fitness and stamina levels, because they will often be on the defensive and tasked with covering large distances.
A final weakness is that this formation can leave teams vulnerables to attacks from out wide. While wing-backs offer width in defensive areas, the midfield three is usually located fairly centrally, and so opposition wide midfielders can find plenty of room on the flanks to attack in and get crosses in the box.
The 5-3-2 system has been used effectively by numerous top teams, but in particular the Brazilian national team have helped popularise this system over the years.
In the 1960s, coach Aymoré Moreira was known for using this shape to help get the best out of the likes of Pele and Garrincha, but it was 40 years later at the 2002 World Cup that they most famously took advantage of the benefits of the 5-3-2 formation.
At this edition of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, Felipe Scolari's Brazil utilised an offensive 5-3-2 system in which wing-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos pushed forward and focused heavily on attack while also operating as more defensive full-backs when needed. They were given the license to do this by the defensive solidity of centre-backs like Lucio and Edmilson.
Over the years, certain clubs in Italy — a country that takes pride in its rich defensive tradition — have also used a 5-3-2 formation effectively. At Inter Milan, coaches like Antonio Conte and Simone Inzaghi have used a 5-3-2 out-of-possession that shifts into a more attacking shape in transition. Over in the Netherlands, Ronald Koeman has also had success using a 5-3-2 system both with the national team and with clubs such as Feyenoord, where he managed from 2011 to 2014.
5-3-2 is a formation that has its strengths, but ultimately it's one that can also be exploited. The fact that this system isn't used as often as more popular shapes with three central defenders (such as 3-5-2 or 3-4-3) shows that it has its weaknesses.
The key thing you want to focus on when playing against a 5-3-2 shape is width; as we mentioned earlier, the narrow midfield can mean there's plenty of space in wide areas. By pushing your full-backs forward, you can create overloads out wide that the defensive team will struggle to deal with, creating chances by overwhelming a particular wing-back and centre-back on one side.
Similarly, you could choose to target the midfield. Here, the trio in a 5-3-2 may be able to provide defensive solidity, but they will struggle to control possession if additional players on your team join the midfield to create a larger, more dynamic unit. Playing with a formation like 3-4-3 can help you accomplish this goal by creating a packed-out midfield while also throwing lots of bodies into the opposition final third. That being said, there are a variety of different formations that can help you achieve these goals, including 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 (both of which offer great balance), 3-5-2 (which focuses more on targeting wide spaces) and 4-1-4-1, a solid shape that allows you to dominate the midfield battle.
If you'd like to find out more about these alternative systems, you're in the right place. Why not start by checking out our guide to the 4-1-4-1 formation?