Talking Tactics: Strengths and Weaknesses of 3-5-2

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterSeptember 5, 2012

KIEV, UKRAINE - JULY 01:  Head Coach Cesare Prandelli of Italyissues instructions to his players during the UEFA EURO 2012 final match between Spain and Italy at the Olympic Stadium on July 1, 2012 in Kiev, Ukraine.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

In this article, Bleacher Report will break down the structure, strengths and weaknesses of the resurgent 3-5-2 formation in world football.

The focus of the article will be how the formation affects the defensive line and wing-backs, as the central midfield and striking areas aren't too heavily influenced by the change of shape.

During Euro 2012, Cesare Prandelli lost Andrea Barzagli to injury and felt it necessary to switch to this formation in order to cope with Spain. The result? The Azzurri nullified the world champions and ground out a 0-0 draw.

Take a closer look, and you'll see it cropping up in certain places. Napoli, under Walter Mazzarri, have been running a three-centre-back system for several seasons now.

Roberto Martinez's Wigan Athletic switched to a three-man defensive system around Christmas time last season, while Manchester City have picked up the 3-5-2 during the preseason just gone.

The Formation

Is it a 3-5-2 or a 5-3-2? Formations are blurred at the best of times, but we can at least say there is a discernible back three and two wing-backs. The midfield can vary in terms of numbers and shape, and some managers play one up front while others play two.

Three at the back

With three central defenders, a back line will have a spare man even against a 4-4-2. The likes of Marcelo Bielsa—a devout proponent of the spare man—value a flexible squad that can adjust to certain situations in a game, and being able to deploy three at the back is a must.

Bielsa has often converted midfielders into versatile defenders, and a prime example of this was the 2010 World Cup. He used Waldo Ponce as a dominant central defender and slotted two quick defensive-minded midfielders either side of him in Gonzalo Jara and Gary Medel.

Later, Bielsa continued this trend by using Javi Martinez as a playmaker from the centre-half position at Athletic Bilbao and Pep Guardiola, too, saw the sense and converted Javier Mascherano into a centre-back for Barcelona.


True wing-backs are really just deep-seated attackers. Modern football is seeing the increased importance of attacking values in left- and right-backs—the very fact that Dani Alves is considered a right-back is simply astounding.

Having three centre-halves releases the wing-backs from most of their defensive duties, allowing them to maraud the touchline and contribute heavily to offensive duties.

This formation suits the likes of Glen Johnson and Rafael—two players who are excellent going forward but defensively suspect—as they would only have to track back half as far as they would in a regular right-back role.


This formation can be used with variant styles and tempos, making it incredibly accessible to most squad types and tactical ideologies.

Manchester City can elect to control a game using the central midfield three and one striker dropping out of the forward line, while they can also hit the wing-backs early and ask them to bolt forward in a direct manner.

Auxiliary left-wing-back Emmanuele Giaccherini of Italy was used heavily in his nation's first Euro 2012 game against Spain, as Andrea Pirlo pinged balls out to his feet in the wide position and launched attacks down the left side.

Having a player constantly positioned in the wide area stretches the pitch to its limit, creating plenty of room for passing in the middle of the park, and Pirlo thrived on this.

Prandelli effectively used both strengths of the 3-5-2—expansive passing areas infield to control games and the quick release option down the wing—to great effect, and Italy were the only team to even begin to contain Jordi Alba this summer such was their variant attacking potency.


In order to use this formation, you've got to have a talented squad. The centre-backs, in particular, need to be of a specific mould.

The outside two must be mobile and have good agility. You only have to look at how Eden Hazard turned Ivan Ramis in Chelsea's opening game against Wigan to see what can happen.

The central defender must be dominant in the air and happy to move forward with the ball—if he isn't positionally perfect, none of them are. It's flawless, or it's tragic.

When three at the back meet one up front, it can become tough to figure out who should mark the front man. If the central player man-marks, what do the others do? Little things can throw a three-man defence when it's inexperienced, as City found out at Anfield in the Premier League.

The biggest worry for a 3-5-2 is when one of the defenders is dragged infield, or gets lost. The success of a back three lies in its rigidity, so when the line is destroyed, the outside two will squeeze in to try and compensate.

This leaves massive holes, as there are no full-backs whatsoever. This is where the danger of the false-nine lurks, and why it proves Daniele De Rossi is a world-class thinking footballer as he refused to fall for Cesc Fabregas' traps in the Euros.


Do it right and the 3-5-2 is brilliant, do it wrong and it's self-destructive.

It's flexible, accessible and refreshingly different, allowing modern day full-backs to unleash their attacking potential and reduce the strain on their defensive duties.

For centre-backs, it ushers in a new dawn of clever players. If the 3-5-2 were to become mainstream, limited defenders who simply tackle and clear would be in danger of becoming redundant.