The 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation, or at least, playing three central defenders has enjoyed something or a renaissance this season (2016-7), most notably with the success enjoyed by Antonio Conte at Chelsea once he switched to tactics similar to those he employed at Juventus and as coach of the national team. More recently, Gareth Southgate has experimented with a similar formation for England, a brave move not only in a country which seems to be stuck in variations of 4-4-2, but with an FA advocating a 4-3-3 formation. Regular readers of this site will be aware of our previous look at the 4-4-2 Diamond Formation – this is probably the most popular post on our site, certainly from a coaching perspective, and our tactical videos on our YouTube channel have also had plenty of visits.
From a personal point of view, the 3-5-2 formation was one I had used before while coaching teams, and you will remember from the 4-4-2 Diamond article, that we had considered using 3-5-2 at the same time. As time moves on, so the squad make-up has changed, however we retained some common elements – strength in the centre of the pitch, including new centre-backs and central midfielders, and attacking full-backs who were not out and out wingers. It therefore made sense to adopt three at the back and after some hard work in pre-season, it has been our regular formation. Those who think the formation leaves you exposed defensively should consider that we currently lie joint-top of the league with the best defensive record – similar to Chelsea who at the time of writing have the joint best defensive record in the league. The team that shares the record is second placed Tottenham Hotspur…guess which formation they adopted this season?
The 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 Formation:
According to the excellent Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson, the 3-5-2 was an evolution of a system employed mainly in Italian football, which focused on zonal defending and the employment of a sweeper behind the central defence. Indeed, many early interpretations of three at the back were seen as effectively a back four, with a free player or sweeper behind – this included the Argentinian World Cup winning team of 1986, which saw José Luis Brown sweeping behind two central defenders, Sergio Batista playing as a defensive midfielder, Ricardo Gusti and Julio Olarticoechea as wing-backs, and Jorge Burruchaga and Diego Maradona interchanging positions behind the main striker of Jorge Valdano.
Despite the earlier tongue-in-cheek reference to England’s preference to playing with a back four, Terry Venables employed a variation of three at the back in Euro ’96. The difference here was that this really was a defensive three, with the wide centre-backs (usually Gary Neville and either Stuart Pearce or Gareth Southgate) responsible for dealing with attacks down either wing, with defensive midfielder Paul Ince dropping in as central defensive cover. Similar to the Argentina formation, the use of an attacker who liked to drop deep (Teddy Sheringham) allowed more freedom to attack for the likes of Paul Gascoigne and David Platt. This also allowed Venables to employ two wingers in the wing-back roles – Darren Anderton and Steve McManaman. Two years on, Glenn Hoddle’s team employed a similar line-up, albeit with the addition of Graeme Le Saux on the left as a stronger defensive option.
In more recent times, as already discussed, former Juventus and Italy coach Antonio Conte has been an advocate of 3-5-2 or variations thereof. At Juventus, he played with a consistent back three, who also filled the same positions in the national team. The two wide centre-backs, Barzagli and Chiellini were also capable full-backs so were cover for when the wing-backs were caught upfield. The midfield three were usually Arturo Vidal, who could also cover right, Paul Pogba who could also cover left, either side of the deep lying playmaker, Andrea Pirlo. Claudio Marchisio was another option. In defensive shape, there was rarely much room between the midfield trio. Both Pirlo, and the other centre-back, Leonardo Bonucci were particularly adept at playing longer passes from deep. At Chelsea, after starting with the established 4-3-3 formation, Conte switched to 3-4-3, which enabled more freedom for the likes of Eden Hazard while going forward and more protection for defenders such as David Luiz, with two defensive minded central midfielders shielding in the shape of N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić. Both systems demanded much from the wing-backs, to get into a back five as early as possible, but also to be quick to break out in attack.
Strengths of the 3-5-2/3-4-3 Formation:
- Solid in central areas with three central defenders and either three midfielders or three forwards
- At least two strikers reducing likelihood of forward players becoming isolated
- Potential for overloads in defensive and midfield areas
- Extra protection for attacking full-backs
- Flexibility for defensive or attacking formation depending on the state of the game
- Plenty of scope for flexibility in individual roles
Weaknesses of the 3-5-2/3-4-3 Formation:
- Overloads in wide areas
- Back three can be wasted when opposition play with a single striker
- Can easily become a back five or six if players are not dynamic enough
- Players need to be comfortable defending zonally or space can open up
- Wing-backs can easily be overworked and require excellent stamina
Individual player roles in the 3-5-2/3-4-3 formation:
As above, the player roles in these formations can be quite flexible depending on the strengths of the individuals and opposition.
There are no particular special requirements for a goalkeeper in a formation with three at the back. It could be argued that a team adopting the system with a deeper lying “sweeper” in the three may not require the more modern “sweeper ‘keeper”, however inevitably with the modern laws, the goalkeeper will be required to be comfortable playing with feet or hands. The formation is set up to play a possession based game.
If the tactics are for one of the centre-backs to be a “free” player, or a “sweeper”, it is most likely to be the central player of the three. If playing as a free player (defined as the one who isn’t responsible for marking an opponent), this can be either behind or in front of the other two centre-backs. In more modern interpretations, the three centre-backs play zonally, therefore the central player would likely be shifting across the width of the penalty area, flanked by the other two. With the central position, this player would need to be vocal and a good organiser, and be comfortable receiving possession from the goalkeeper or other outfield players.
The right and left centre-backs need to be comfortable defending in both central and wide positions, so experience of playing as a standard centre-back and as a full-back is useful. They will be required to cover for wing-backs caught forward, to defend against opposition attacks from wide areas on their side of the pitch. They should look to receive possession from the goalkeeper, and also make themselves available as an option when recycling and switching possession. When the team is pushing forward in attacking scenarios, they may be required to push forward into a more full-back type role and provide crosses from wide areas.
Depending on the interpretation of the formation, and whether you play with three central midfielders or deploy an extra forward player, there may be one or two players employed as defensive midfielders. With a team playing with only three defenders, the primary role of the defensive midfielder is to provide protection in central areas. Where the wide centre-backs are expected to push out to cover wide areas, the defensive midfielder may be expected to drop in as an auxiliary centre-back to prevent overloads in the penalty area. When the wing-backs have pushed forward, the defensive midfielder may be called to delay counter-attacks in wide areas. In any interpretation, the defensive midfielder must be disciplined and positionally aware. When playing out from the back, they must be comfortable to receive the ball to feet from the goalkeeper or back three, and be able to play positive forward passes or switch play.
These players are only really used in the 3-5-2 interpretation and unless very defensive tactics are being used, there will be two central midfielders in front of a single defensive midfielder. As with all midfield players, stamina is a key attribute, as is being positionally disciplined and from an offensive point of view, to be good passers of the ball. Where the formation has one striker dropping deeper to receive, the ability to break from midfield and beyond the front line is key, examples here are Paul Gascoigne (England) and Jorge Burruchaga (Argentina).
Two key players in this formation are the wing-backs. Whereas previously, their roles were seen as quite unusual, the modern day full-back is expected to contribute far more offensively, hence the requirements for these players may not be hugely different from playing as a full-back in a formation with four defenders. Nevertheless, the players are expected to be extremely fit, to be defensively sound, likely to also have a decent turn of pace, and to be able to produce effective crosses in attacking situations. Depending on the interpretation of the system, the wing-back may be expected to cover an area from tucking in at the far post in defensive situations, to overlapping and attacking the far post in attacking situations.
In the formation with two strikers, it’s likely one will drop off in a no.10 type role, looking to drop into space between the lines, while the other will play as the main striker, looking to hold the ball up, stretch the opposition back line and of course score goals. Where three strikers are utilised, it is usual to set up similar to a 4-3-3 formation, with one central player similar to the main striker above, and two wide players. The wide players are likely to combine with the wing-backs to create chances, and also may tuck in to create space for their team-mates to overlap. In defensive situations, the central player is likely to screen passes into central areas, with the wide players assisting the wing-backs in an area that can be a weakness when out of possession.
Tactics – Key Principles When Out Of Possession:
See the accompanying video for some thoughts when out of possession and defending when playing with three at the back.
Although we are looking at making the pitch as small as possible, it is important to be aware of the areas of weakness – that is the balls in behind the wing-backs into deep wide areas. If playing in 3-4-3, the wide attacking players can provide some additional support when defending in wide areas, otherwise there should be a tactical plan for covering wide areas, and if this means a central player (such as one of the wide centre-backs) closing down, that there is sufficient cover in the areas vacated.
The formation does benefit a team comfortable to sit reasonably deep, soak up pressure and hit teams quickly on the break.
Tactics – Key Principles When In Possession:
See below our video focusing on the formation when in possession.
As mentioned when we looked at the team out of possession, the formation does lend itself to quick counter-attacks. With strength in central areas, it is possible to break quickly through the wing-backs, and where used, the wide forwards. Overlaps in wide areas are also important, and as mentioned earlier, in interpretations with box to box central midfield players, the ability to break from deep and make runs in behind the opposition back line.
We would love to hear your views and experiences, both good and bad, of utilising a three at the back formation in the comments below.