After years and years of back-four systems being the dominating dogma in world football, back-three systems are now starting to take over. Former Italy and Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has been a long-time proponent of back-three systems throughout his career. Now, top of the table with Inter Milan, Conte has experimented with three different versions of the same shape: 3-5-2. Here are 3 Ways To Play 3-5-2.
A compact, five-player midfield playing in a defensive shape such as a “Flat” 3-5-2 can be incredibly hard to break down. It’s been one of the keys to success for clubs like Wolverhampton Wanderers and Lazio in recent years and one of the main reasons why both clubs have been able to frustrate some of the top sides in their respective leagues. The flat 3-5-2 resembles a very similar shape to the 3-1-4-2, however any one of the three central midfielders may go forward at any one given time and even the designated ‘number 6’ may enjoy the odd burst forward from deep. With that being said, midfielders in a flat 3-5-2 usually stay very compact. The two central midfielders might hold their positions more often than in a 3-1-4-2 and the defensive midfielder won’t be as far apart from them. These are two of the key differences between the flat 3-5-2 and the 3-1-4-2, which on paper might look very similar. Defensively, the flat 3-5-2 can also easily change into a 5-3-2 with the help of the wing-backs dropping in and the lack of a natural ‘number 10’ in the team. For teams looking to frustrate their opposition via compactness and narrowness, the flat 3-5-2 is an excellent option. But as evidenced by Wolves and Lazio, it also gives teams loads of outlets in possession and going forward.
The 3-1-4-2 is slowly becoming one of the most popular formations out there. Set to be popularized by Antonio Conte’s highly successful Inter Milan, this formation also caught the eye of clubs like Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and 1899 Hoffenheim in the past two years. With the success of the 4-1-4-1, which positions two more attacking midfielders in front of a defensive midfield pivot, the 3-1-4-2 perhaps gets its roots. When you consider the success of some of the teams mentioned above, it’s easy to see why this formation has quickly become so popular. The 3-1-4-2 looks to be incredibly balanced and can be used for teams who keep possession of the ball (e.g. Inter Milan) and teams who play on the break (e.g. Eintracht Frankfurt). Defensively, the formation can also easily be shifted into a 5-3-2, while the defensive midfield pivot generally has a greater role in covering for an out of place wing-back. But with two attacking midfielders further forward, if the ball can get out wide to one of the wing-backs, several players will be waiting to get on the end of it and nod in a goal. This is why there is such great balance between defense and attack in Antonio Conte’s new favourite formation – the 3-1-4-2.
Another more traditional version of the 3-5-2, the 3-4-1-2 is the inverted cousin of the 3-1-4-2. Instead of having two attacking midfielders, a team may decide to opt for one and play with two defensive midfielders instead. This midfield triangle makes the 3-4-1-2 or “traditional 3-5-2” a very similar option to another one of the most popular formations out there at the moment: 4-2-3-1. Eintracht Frankfurt used this formation heavily last season with the illustrious front three of Luka Jovic, Sebastien Haller and Ante Rebic. Antonio Conte has also experimented with this formation as a back-up plan with Inter Milan. This is not much of a surprise given that clubs in Italy have been using this formation for decades. For a final example of the success of this system of play, one should look no further than the fantastic performances by the Dutch National Team under Louis Van Gaal at the 2014 World Cup. The benefit of the 3-4-1-2 as opposed to its cousin is that there are two defensive midfielders who can be used in build-up phases and defensive transitions. For teams that lack a ‘number 6’ capable of covering ground from left to right, it might be advantageous to utilize this system of play instead and allow the ‘number 10’ – usually a more skillful attacker, the ability to get on the ball as much as possible further forward. Defensively, this shape takes the shape of a more unnatural version of the 5-3-2. But if a talented and skillful number 10 is in the side, they may not be required to come and defend anyway. Perhaps, the most popular of the three in recent times, the rise of the other two might soon cause a shift in how we think of a “traditional 3-5-2.”
All of these options are great ways to play the fantastic and popular 3-5-2 formation. Each offers slightly different outcomes and benefits slightly different types of players. As with any formation, the players and what they bring to the table needs to be the primary concern. But with this guide to the 3-5-2, any team looking to play this great formation should now have a better understanding of how they want to employ their shape. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
You might also enjoy -> 3 Ways To Play in a 4-5-1.