This piece originally appeared on ValleyTalkBlog.com.
When discussing formations it is critically important to remember that they are neutral: mere templates for the strategies that managers want to use in matches. Therefore, there is nothing inherently offensive or defensive about the shape in which a team lines up.
For example, at the 2010 World Cup Germany sometimes appeared to be parking the bus with their 4-2-3-1, when actually their deep positioning laid the foundations for numerous counterattacks and scoring opportunities. Conversely, Spain have in recent years kept a very high line, dominated possession and played with two or three forwards, but have then tried to keep the ball instead of score.
The 3-5-2 was popular in its 1980s-1990s heyday not because it is inherently attacking or defensive but because it offers flexibility and solidity. Back then, managers across the world could guarantee that they would be facing a front two on match-day, so having three central defenders made perfect sense: two could man mark and the other could cover.
Having three back also allowed the team’s wing-backs to be used primarily in attacking roles, so eye-catching surges down the line would be made throughout the game. Either configuration of the midfield triangle (3-4-1-2 or 3-1-4-2) would see a 3-5-2 numerically superior to an opposing 4-4-2, giving them an obvious advantage in the central third.
The spare midfielder would conventionally be the team’s playmaker and either supply the front two from the fabled number ten position or dictate play with long, probing passes from just in front of the defence. Such luminaries as Diego Maradona, Michael Laudrup and Gheorghe Hagi owed their freedom and consequently their achievements to their coaches’ use of the 3-4-1-2 variant of the formation.
The major drawback with this approach eventually became obvious: with so much of the play going through one player, all opponents had to do was tightly mark him or tactically foul him and his team’s rhythm would be irreparably disrupted. The strikers would not get any chances to score, nor the wing-backs to cross or get forward, because the number ten could never give them the ball.
There are also two obvious problems from a defensive perspective. Firstly, while talented wing-backs have often been made to look fantastic by the system when in the attacking phase – Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Christian Maggio, to name a few – the fact that they have the entire flank to themselves becomes an issue when the opposition uses any variant of 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 and attacks down the wings.
It is often the case that the 3-5-2’s wing-back finds himself confronted by both the 4-4-2’s winger and full-back, creating a simple overload that no player can do much about. This mismatch creates the second problem: that the back three cannot spread itself over a wide enough area to remain entirely watertight.
When the wing-back is obviously outnumbered, the centre-backs naturally move towards the ball so as to cut off the attacker’s advance into space. This will usually stop the initial run but it will almost always leave the centre-backs two-versus-two in the middle and allow space to develop at the back post or at the edge of the area.
For these reasons the 3-5-2 fell out of regular use but football moves in cycles and the formation has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. It has become something of a novelty for a team to play with a back three and observers such as Jonathan Wilson have noted that coaches seem to have forgotten how to expose one using the shortcuts outlined above.
It can therefore be considered a safe option from a defensive perspective and a sensible way of getting as many strikers and creators onto the pitch as possible at once.