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 system's finest moment never really took off until 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.
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 its 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 vs. 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? In 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 looked to counter through Lavezzi.
This kind of tactic won’t be music to 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.
Maybe the three-man defence could make a comeback as defenders are becoming more mobile, as a proposition, maybe as a back three version of Roma's 4-6-0 formation?
In the face of the changing game, it seems time has run out for the 3-5-2, but as its swan song, Napoli and Sampdoria will try and do the system some justice while exposing its flaws at the same time.