How to Solve a Problem Like 3-5-2?

It’s the hipster’s new favourite formation and many managers seem to be following suit as a formation long ago thrown into the bin has been recycled by some Italians and has come to the fore once again.

Yes the 3-5-2 has even made its way over to England, the most un-European of European countries (or so I’ve been told) was adapted by the most English of Englishmen Steve Bruce and used fairly effectively with Hull being promoted, staying up and then making an FA Cup final to boot under the formation. Despite Brucey’s undoubted success everyone was still dismissing it as an ineffective formation which was best left to bad teams and Italians to play with, that was until the World Cup swept around and it turned out that everyone and their grannie was using it as well.

Even more shocking however was that 3-5-2 was being utilised by the next man to stand upon the biggest seat in English football, Louis Van Gaal. Was he going to bring a back three to one of the biggest clubs in the world, a club which has played with a back four since like forever! Turns out that it was exactly what he planned to do and with that the world changed forever because you know…’back 3’s aren’t effective in the mighty English game!’, yes the same mighty English game which is losing all of its big stars to another league…nonetheless standard English person makes a good point 3-5-2 hasn’t been an effective formation in England and it isn’t like you can use Hull (some diddy team) as a great example. For instance Liverpool tried to utilise 3-5-2 last season on a number of occasions but ultimately failed and ended up using a back four most of the time, but the big issue there was they didn’t have the personnel to utilise it effectively and Kolo Toure was thought to be a competent defender, both big mistakes.

So how is it you actually have success with a 3-5-2? I’m sure it is a question which many fans of Manchester United will be asking and the answer is harder than you would think. I find that most things in football (and life) can be linked back to computer games and in this case I am going to link this back to FIFA 13 (FUT) a game where I utilised a 3-5-2 formation Bundesliga team (because proper formations were expensive and 3-5-2 was cheap, naturally). In this team I had a back three of (from right to left) Lukasz Piszczek, Mats Hummels and Felipe Santana. The most important thing for a 3-5-2 to be successful is that you have the personnel to succeed, and as you can see I utilised Piszczek and Santana as the RCB and LCB respectively because they had pace something which was vital because every fucker has Theo Walcott in his team (you know what I mean).

If you’ve managed to stay with me so far and aren’t totally lost and confused you will notice what needs to happen when a 3-5-2 is utilised in real life; two fast centre backs and one who can play in the middle and sweep. To turn this onto Man Utd and their current personnel you can see that players like Marcos Rojo, Tyler Blakcett and Jonny Evans are all perfect left centre backs, as Chris Smalling, Michael Keane and Phil Jones are perfect right centre backs. The problem for Utd is that they do not have the personnel to fill the most important position the pivot centre back. The irony of this situation is that in Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic they would have had two players who could have been very effective in this role. If you look specifically at the Swansea game you will see that both Jones and Blackett played as expected, the major issue in defence was with Chris Smalling. The problem with Smalling in particular is that he is a reactive centre back, as in he can’t sense danger until it happens and doesn’t make adjustments until it is too late. What you often will find with Smalling is that he uses his athleticism to get himself back into position but to play the middle centre back of a three you can’t play like this. The middle centre back of a three must be a proactive defender as the left and right centre backs will be pulled out wide constantly and he must be able to see the danger and adjust the defensive line accordingly, that is not Chris Smalling. The problem Utd will soon suffer from is that the only two players who you could claim could play this position are Phil Jones and Michael Keane and both are untested at doing so.

Now onto the wing backs, this shouldn’t really be an issue because wing backs are either ex-full backs or ex-wingers who can defend a bit but the one thing which is required is the engine to get up and down the flanks. The problem with Utd against Swansea was that they used Jesse Lingard and afterwards Adnan Januzaj to play right wing back, when neither is really suited to the position. You can’t force wingers who can’t defend and don’t have the engine to defend and attack into a position which requires you to defend and attack vigorously.
Onto the centre of midfield, the last piece of the puzzle required to make a 3-5-2 effective and back to some FIFA analogies. In my Bundesliga team I had Ilkay Gundogan and Luis Gustavo in midfield, two industrialist midfielders who were apt at playing box to box and defensive roles. Now to go back to Man Utd and the team they put out against Swansea which saw Darren Fletcher line up alongside Ander Herrera. There isn’t actually a problem here, both players fit the role required and both could be effective in a 3-5-2 formation. The problem for Utd arises when you go beyond Fletcher and Herrera and there isn’t much left in the closet. Players like Fellaini, Cleverley and to a lesser extent Carrick don’t really fit in the system and this will cause problems as the season progresses.

You can look at each of the positions and point out the differences between the traditional back four formations and a switch towards a back three formation; however the biggest difference is the adaptations which must be made defensively and more specifically at centre back. It isn’t good enough to be a centre back in a back three, in two of the positions you have to also be a full back.

To take this back to Man Utd, you may have guessed from what has been written so far that Utd do not have the personnel to play this formation currently, something which I said was vital for it to be effective. Don’t get me wrong here, Utd aren’t far off of having the required personnel to play 3-5-2 effectively but they are still at least two players short. A centre back who can play the central centre back is a must otherwise the formation is going to fail before it even starts but another central midfielder is also required because there is a lack of depth and Darren Fletcher cannot be expected to play a full season in the first team.

If Utd were to go out and sign the two players required they would be more than capable of playing a 3-5-2 but as things currently stand Van Gaal’s desire to play 3-5-2 is destined to fail and Utd will likely have to switch back into a back four, which would raise several new concerns such as a blatant lack of wingers and full backs. Needless to say I’m sure these concerns will not be going through the Utd board as their heads are too busy being buried in the sand (one of my favourite past times as well).

So how do you solve a problem like 3-5-2? You buy the proper personnel and play them in their designated positions, sounds pretty simple! It will be interesting to see if 3-5-2 can be effective at the top end of English football in the manner it has been in Italy (although not in Europe, which is more of an indictment of Italian football than the formation). Leave a comment on what you think of 3-5-2 as a formation and whether it will catch on in English football or will ultimately die a slow and painful death.

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Author: bm23reviews

I watch TV and sports then write stuff.....that's about it.

6 thoughts on “How to Solve a Problem Like 3-5-2?”

    1. Almost certainly that will be the case but the current quality of English players isn’t something to write home about and they are grossly over priced so it is only natural. Of course this is a never ending cycle and will only hamper English players development but that is the current state of things.


  1. I just have to say you’ve got it wrong on Liverpool. Liverpool used a 3-5-2 formation to accomodate Suarez and Sturridge, to accomodate the numer of CB’s we had and so we could solve our lack of full-backs. To be fair to Kolo he was playing very well until he got injured and was then played at LCB. He was the biggest reason why we won our first 2 games of the season(bossed Benteke out of the game at Villa park). Good article otherwise. Just like Carra said, Van Gaal coming in means goodbye to the Manchester United of our lifetime!


    1. Thanks. I think the biggest issue with Liverpool’s attempt at 3-5-2 was that they were too willing to move away from it and ultimately the players never became comfortable playing it in match. I do agree that the reason 3-5-2 was utilised by Liverpool was because Rodgers wanted to play both Suarez and Sturridge.


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