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A Brief History of the 3-5-2

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” – Stephen Hawking

Diego Maradona Presented as New Argentina Football Coach Photo by Lalo Yasky/Getty Images

As a follow-up to Josh Bagriansky’s excellent analysis of how the 3-5-2 formation worked for Atlanta United so well last weekend, we thought it’d be a good idea to give you, Gentle Readers*, a broader overview of the formation, taking a look at its history, strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s start off with a bit of math. It might seem that a coach’s choices of formation are virtually infinite. Ultimately, that is effectively true, but the vast majority of those formations are variations on a relatively few basic themes. Indeed, if you break a team down into the three basic groups – defenders, midfielders and strikers – mathematically that reduces the potential formations down to just 66 (n(n=1)/2 where n=11). Eliminating any formation in which you have 0 players in any one line cuts the total down to 36. But you can split the midfielders into two groups, of course, adding another 84 possibilities, for a total of 130. Far from infinite, but still a lot to choose from.**

Thankfully, we have the mad genius of soccer, Marcelo Bielsa, to make things a bit easier for us. Bielsa, of course, had considerable influence on our own Tata Martino, and so it behooves us to pay attention to him. He has asserted that there are in fact a total of 29 soccer formations, which are listed here:

The 3-5-2 is #6 on the list, and the 3-1-4-2 (which to a large degree is what Atlanta United actually played Sunday evening) is #7.

The History

Bielsa, however, was not the first major proponent of the 3-5-2. That honor falls to Carlos Bilardo (that’s him on the left of the title picture), another iconic Argentine, best known for managing the Argentinian team that won the 1986 World Cup. The formation was intended to give Diego Maradona more room. Note that it benefitted Miguel Almiron in much the same way. Bilardo first experimented with it two years earlier in 1984 on a tour of Europe, first using it in a game against Switzerland, and prompting journalists to accuse him of a mistake:

“They told me I was wrong, that I’d named three central defenders. But I told them I was not confused. We were going to use three defenders, five midfielders and two forwards. We had practised it for two years, and now I was going to put it into practice in tough games.”

He proceeded to beat Switzerland and Belgium 2-0 each and then West Germany 3-1 on that tour, and went on to ultimate success at the World Cup. After that, the formation began to spread everywhere. But, as they have a habit of doing, things changed and it fell out of favor. Systems based on 4 defenders became almost de rigueur. By the mid-2000s, it was little used outside of Brazil and Eastern Europe. Perhaps the nadir of the system was in 2012 when Paul Lambert ill-advisedly tried it out with Aston Villa. The opponent he rashly picked was Chelsea, who proceeded to pummel our own Brad Guzan’s goal ruthlessly on the way to an 8-0 thumping.

But then they changed again, and a variety of formations based on a 3-man back line started to appear again. Antonio Conte used them effectively at Chelsea, as has Pep Guardiola. It is perhaps most popular in Italy’s Serie A. This is somewhat surprising given the defensive focus of Italian soccer and the catenaccio concept. Nevertheless, the 3-5-2 is used to great effect in that league, most notably by Juventus, and also by Inter and AC Milan. As a result of these recent successes, the 3-5-2 is coming back into favor again.

Its Strengths

First and foremost, the 3-5-2 is a flexible formation. Take a look at the basic lineup:

I’ve drawn it up this way, because in most cases the wingbacks are converted fullbacks (Greg Garza being a case in point; Julian Gressel not so much). This tends to suggest that the formation is slanted to the defensive side. This isn’t really the case, because the expected movement is this:

In this scenario, Jeff Larentowicz is the central mid, who is tasked with dropping back into a defensive role, freeing the wingbacks to press up. In other words, the formation adjusts to a standard 4-4-2 when necessary.

To demonstrate how much more attacking a role the wingbacks have as compared with traditional fullbacks, let’s take a look at the heatmap for Garza and Gressel last weekend:

And the heatmap for all Atlanta fullbacks (who, let’s remember, are a major part of the high press system) in the playoff game against Columbus last October:

As can be seen, in the 3-5-2 the two wingbacks had virtually no defensive responsibilities at all. This is the primary purpose of the 3-5-2, and the term “wingback” is pretty much a complete misnomer. Indeed, to a degree, in attack at least the formation is really a 3-3-4. This has the obvious advantage of completely overloading the opposing defense. This is especially true if you also have strong attacking midfielders such as Almiron and Darlington Nagbe.

This permits improved possession in the attacking phase of the game, as passing options are greatly increased with the extra men, and also increases the odds of completing the passes, as the passes are likely to be shorter and the defense is stretched to mark all the players anyway. Further, the attacking players can overlap both vertically and horizontally, creating constantly rotating triangles for more passing options (of which, according to Dr. Bielsa, there are 36. Don’t ask me why). Again, Almiron did this a lot during the game, as did Gressel and Nagbe.

It should also be noted that the system also gives some liberty to the outside centerbacks to join the attack. Again, we saw this to great effect on Sunday, with Michael Parkhurst for meaningful stretches of the game the only field player in Atlanta’s half.

Defensively, it makes the midfield much harder to penetrate, as there are five guys to get through rather than three or four.

Its Weaknesses

Observers are divided on at least one potential weakness of the 3-5-2: its susceptibility to counter-attacks. Granted, it’s tough to penetrate the heavy midfield, but if you do, you have a potential 2-on-3 situation with the defenders.

That might not seem too bad, but bear in mind that each member of the three-man back line needs to cover a much wider area, especially on the sidelines. Opposing attackers have much more room to manoeuver around the defense. This is compounded when you have a wide field, such as at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Thus, a well-schooled and capable central midfielder is essential to this formation. He has to remain constantly aware of the defensive exposure while also supporting and distributing for the attack.

In fact, the overall formation is generally highly dependent on well-trained players who understand their roles well, as well as the roles of the other players on the team. Discipline and constant communication are key, and any lapses can be costly. In this respect, it was a real roll of the dice for Tata to use it.

* That’s another famous scientist reference, by the way.

** Go on, check my math.