The 3-5-2 enjoying final lease of life before it’s impending doom

After Argentina had won the World Cup 1986 with the 3-5-2, who would have thought the formation would be all but dead and buried as its use declined. However, it has made a so far successful reappearance by Napoli and Sampdoria though this reemergence looks short lived in the context of the modern game.

The slow death of the 3-5-2 may have coincided with the death of the libero or sweeper. Of course there had been many variants of a back three formation but not with the sweeper.

The role of the sweeper came to more prominence in the 1960’s in the Catenaccio (“door-bolt”) formation used by the coach Helenio Herrera of Inter Milan. At first it was a defensive position but had evolved to the focal point of the team, bringing the ball out of defence and begin counter-attacks while being the man to read the danger and also double mark the attacker.

“The original libero stayed back and didn’t touch the ball for more than two minutes a game. Then they started to participate more and more and balance the midfield,” says Renato Zaccarelli, a former libero himself for Torino.

Argentina won the World Cup in 1986 with the 3-5-2 but what was the systems finest moment never really took off till then.

Arrigo Sacchi, the former Milan coach and possibly the greatest tactical innovator of modern football may have been the reason for the downfall of the sweeper. His influence can be seen across Europe and England from Benitez, to Hodgson, Capello and in Serie A coaches in particular.

Sacchi’s all conquering AC Milan side heralded a change in direction of formations, especially in Italian football. The sweeper was moved to the central defence as a back four in the form of Franco Baresi as the pure essence of the sweeper, man marking was replaced by zonal marking and the aggressive carrying out of Sacchi’s tactic and pressuring.

“The player needs to express himself within the parameters laid out by the manager…Then the player makes decisions based on that…it’s about being a player. Not just being skillful or being athletic. I didn’t want robots or individualists. I wanted people with the intelligence to understand me, and the spirit to put that intelligence to the service of the team. In short, I wanted people who knew how to play football.”

“Pressing is…about controlling space. I wanted my players to feel strong and the opponents to feel weak. If we let [them] play in a way they were accustomed to, they would grow in confidence. But if we stopped them, it would hurt their confidence. That was the key: our pressing was psychological as much as physical. Our pressing was always collective.”

When attacking it was all about dictating play and when defending it was controlling space. Deviating from the plan as the sweeper would do had no place for Sacchi when defending.

Still the traces of the libero is still alive today but in midfield. The deep lying playmaker can do a similar job, dictating and creating play but at the same time cover for the defence and read danger. The increasing deployment of players like De Rossi and Pirlo (and why Arsenal are using Denilson) part of the tactical trend of the modern game; the between the line players. Less are there of box to box type players and more who are part of steps (i.e. 4-1-1-1-3-0 of Roma) and hence Chelsea’s problems in midfield where there are too similar styled players playing.

If this is the case then shouldn’t the 3-5-2 still be able to exist even without the sweeper? The answer seems unfortunately no, as in the changing face of the game falls second best at nearly every hurdle and ultimately too complicated a system.

Firstly the wing backs, lambasted by Cruyff as not being skillful players but more as athletes. They need to be quicker and fitter, to cover more ground and reorganise themselves, and especially in the Premiership with it’s speed hard to implement. Serie A is slower and more tactical but with the teams trying harder to compete with top European clubs we may see a slight change of emphasis.

Secondly it requires, all over the pitch and especially the defence, high levels of organisation. Thirdly and most crucially, it uses more men to compete against the opposing teams less numbers (think 3-5-2 v 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 situations) while the advantage of having three central midfielders is lessened. Overall it is an overly hard formation to play but why then are teams like Napoli being successful? The recent game against Chievo they lost 2-1 but the most notable play about them was how deep they were.

With essentially two libero in front of the defense in Hamsik and Blasi, the former’s weak defensive skills compensated by the three man defense, they let the opposition take the game to them and look to counter through Lavezzi. This kind of tactic won’t be music in the ears for bigger clubs but it suits Napoli and can be typified by one man; Ezequiel Lavezzi.

“El Pocho is a phenomenon. He has the three fundamental ingredients needed to be a great player – physical, tactical and technical. He’s top of the tree in all three,” said Ramon Diaz, who sold the Argentine when coach of San Lorenzo.

In the face of the changing game it seems time has run out for the 3-5-2 but as it’s final swan song Napoli and Sampdoria will try and do the system some justice but at the same time seriously expose it flaws.

5 thoughts on “The 3-5-2 enjoying final lease of life before it’s impending doom

  1. Quality analysis of the 3-5-2. I agree with the emphasis more on pressing, the use of a sweeper become less feasible. As the game is being played today, the wingback are often deployed as additional width which would not be possible in a 3-5-2 formation. It may be possible to play this formation in places where pace is slower or playing against a 4-5-1 system. The two holding midfielders would mark the forward and attacking midfielder, the sweeper playing as last men and the wingbacks covering the wide men.

  2. I think that the ‘3’ at the back may return very soon, sooner than most think. Udinese have been expert proponents of using 3 at the back for the last two seasons with rapid attacking from elsewhere on the pitch.

    With more teams using ‘athletes’ opposed to ‘footballers’ in their line ups, having 4 at the back may not be as useful, 3 can do the job of 4 as they are more athletic and teams defend more from midfield.

    In short, Brazil won the World Cup in 2002 using this strategy, even Lucio could bring the ball out of defence, Bayern tried it early in the season but never had the players and time to fully implement it, but this formation will return in the very near future. Seria A has always been an indication to the future, it will catch on soon again.

  3. It’s interesting as I was writing this I was thinking the same but I think Serie A has been the indication of the future because they are the masters of tactics.
    Although players are fitter now and have to do more running, the serious shortcomings come in the form that it’s too easy to exploit gaps. i.e. down the channels and by transitions.
    It requires highly athletic, mobile and flexible players and although that is the trend it seems too hard.
    I think Euro 2008 blew open the fact that players need to be strong as athletes, more stamina and on the bio-mechanics.
    Anyway I remember last season Udinese played 4-3-3 as Dossena was the left back but they had mobile centre backs. Excuse me if I’m wrong though.
    3-5-2 looks dying but as you, S.C.Lndn point out it may reinvent the back three into a better system like a back three version of 4-6-0.

  4. great analysis. I am one really likes the 3-5-2. when i play fifa manager and fifa 09, i build my style around a 3-5-2.

    it depends on the quality players you have. i believe that if you have 3 extremely athletic players who have speed, grit and defensive mind would be a good back 3. example of a solid back 3 would be like sagna – ferdinand – ramos.. players of these attributes speed, height and grit provided by ferdinand and ramos, ball control and calmness of ramos and sagna..

    the midfield is where it has to be the best..
    you need 2 solid holding midfielders. both athletic, great passing, and who have the energy of 50 kids. the idea being both can switch between offence and defence quickly. ideally u want one of them who specializes in staying back, but also has the skill to go forward. the other specializing in moving forward, has good ball movement and who can run anywhre on the pitch.
    examples of 2 soild holding players would be essien- flamini combo. or de rossi-gerrad. any of those 4 would be great holding players, and all have the offensive and defensive minds..

    the other 3 of the midfield need to be great speedy wingers and a play makers.
    c. ron – fabregas – kaka as an example..
    there role is self explanatory.

    the 2 strikers..self explanatory as well..

    the key is the “back 3 + 2 holders” positioned something like

    1 2 3

    4 5

    6 7


    players 4 and 5 have crucial role of being box to box midfielders who can run back in place when out of position, and who can help other players when responsibilities are left on fast breaks.

    its very incomplete explanation. its easier when u can freely draw and explain the movemenet of the players.. but i think you guys can get the idea of the importance of the 2 holding players (box to box midfielders in my view) who are both great defensivly and offensivly, and can switch without thinking..

  5. the diagram of player positions wasnt that good..lets retry that



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