Aston Villa Tactics: Pros and Cons of the 3-5-2 Formation
Paul Lambert is the most tactically reactive manager in the English Premier League, but his use of the 3-5-2 formation is more than just a one-off with Aston Villa.
He's started nine games with it so far, with its latest appearance a solid 2-2 draw away at Midlands rivals West Brom.
We run the rule of the system and list its pros and cons.
Con: Lack of Midfield General Results in Lack of Shape
Generally speaking, it's tough to marshal a midfield in a 3-5-2 formation.
The fabrics of the basic 4-4-2—and any variation of it ranging from 4-4-1-1 to 4-2-3-1—are gone, leaving you with new pockets of space, new areas to fill and different passes to play.
It takes a true midfield general to control a team playing this formation, and it's no surprise to see its success stories across Europe involve Andrea Pirlo, David Pizarro and Marek Hamsik.
Villa don't have a star central midfielder, and the lack of structure and protection provided by an uncomfortable trio isn't helping a creaking defence.
Pro: Disrupts the Oppositions' Game Planning
Paul Lambert was absolutely determined not to let the Harry Redknapp factor overcome his side at Loftus Road in December.
The new boss' home debut had the crowd geared up and always threatened to be a tough outing for Aston Villa. The former Norwich manager then did what he does best and mixed it up to confuse his opposite number, playing a 3-5-2 formation that Queens Park Rangers took a full half of football to adapt to.
He then persevered with the formation for successful outings against Stoke, Norwich and Liverpool, only to change it when visiting Swansea.
He went 4-2-3-1 at home to Southampton, then 3-5-2 away to West Brom.
How do you game-plan for that?
Con: Are the Full-Backs Comfortable as Wing-Backs?
Modern full-backs are more like wing-backs, neglecting their defensive duties and pushing forward with every attempt.
Joe Bennett is very attack-minded and on paper looks a natural fit at wing-back, but in reality he struggles. He's not sure when it's OK to go forward, if he should stay back, if he should plug the hole and whether he can trust the left-sided centre-back.
Matthew Lowton is far more conservative and defensively very sound. His ventures forward are positive and he's great on the ball, but crossing is something he very much needs to work on; that's a big part of a wing-back's job.
Pro: Two True Strikers
Aston Villa have four decent strikers, but in a 4-2-3-1 formation only one can play up front.
Christian Benteke is the team's best player, undroppable under Paul Lambert and a firm fan favourite at Villa Park. Gabby Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann have the pace, versatility and willingness to move over to a wide position but Darren Bent lacks these skills.
He's a fox-in-the-box, a poacher extraordinaire. Getting involved out wide or deep in the build up play isn't this thing, but the 3-5-2 gives Lambert the opportunity to play Bent and Benteke together up front.
Con: No Wingers
Marc Albrighton is a traditional No. 7—hit the byline, get it in the mixer. He's been injured for huge chunks of this campaign since hurting his foot in preseason and Charles N'Zogbia has also struggled for fitness.
That left Paul Lambert with just one fit winger in Brett Holman, so the 3-5-2 was a natural fit considering the medical bills piling up on an unfortunate Aston Villa side.
Now N'Zogbia is back, Gabby Agbonlahor looks comfortable on the left and Andi Weimann is forging an understanding with Matthew Lowton on the right, however, you see key performers benched if you choose to field the three-man defensive system.
The 3-5-2 sees "Zoggie" move inside into an incredibly important role, while one of Villa's key forwards is benched. Holman is moved to central midfield where he struggles to keep pace.
If you've got fit wide men, these compromises aren't necessary.