Welcome to the Wednesday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic – today's being the return to prominence of the 3-5-2 – and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the 3-5-2 was the most prominent formation in Major League Soccer. There was a time, not long before that, when it was the most prominent formation in the world. But by around 2008 or so, it became mostly extinct.
It hasn't exactly roared back to life in 2016, but it has returned at least a little bit -- most notably with Toronto FC. On Thursday Ben Baer will have a nitty-gritty, granular look at how the formation works for the Reds. My job today is to give you a brief history of the 3-5-2 and a bird's eye view of how it works.
The next four bullet points were edited out of Ben's forthcoming piece since he doesn't get to have all the fun. I get to cover some of this stuff, right?
• The origins of the 3-5-2 are somewhat disputed, as you can read about extensively in Jonathan Wilson’s book Inverting the Pyramid, but it became popular throughout world soccer after the 1982 World Cup.
• One of the formation’s main benefits is the ability to slot a playmaker into a lineup that is defensively rigid. Diego Maradona was the most notable player to benefit from this type of system -- though he played more as a second forward than as a true, midfield playmaker.
• Maradona ran up against West Germany in the 1986 World Cup final, who also played a 3-5-2 but in a very different way. Head coach Franz Beckenbauer had his players sit back in what in reality was more of a 5-3-2 that allowed his midfielders clog the center of the field. Felix Magath was the playmaker on that team, but the best passer (Lothar Matthaeus) was used as a man-marker defensively for the first 70 minutes of the game.
• By the 1990 World Cup, many nations had adopted the 3-5-2 to somewhat disastrous results. The games in that tournament averaged just 2.21 goals, a record low. Soccer legend Johan Cruyff called the replacement of the winger for the wingback as the “death of football.”
Let me (I'm done cut-and-pasting Ben for now) expand on that Cruyff bit. He was a 4-3-3 guy, and in his world the whole front line & most of the midfield would combine together with intricate passing combos and off-the-ball movement. In the 3-5-2 or 5-3-2, very often it was just the two forwards working together up top alone, with the wingbacks asked only to make late, north-south, back-post runs. Think about it... have you ever seen a wingback do something interesting combining in the final third? They have a very rigid lane and they have to stay in it or the midfield shape goes up in smoke. Wingers, on the other hand, can pop up just about anywhere.
This also shifted ALL of the hybridization duties onto the wingbacks, and in a very linear way. The three defenders were defenders, the three midfielders were midfielders, the two forwards were forwards. Maybe you'd have a No. 10 stationed in midfield (Magath) instead of as one of the two forwards (Maradona), but even that choice didn't lend itself to any sort of special flexibility. It's a rigid system.
And that's what eventually kind of killed it after the 2002 World Cup. The 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 basically held an equal share of teams throughout the '90s and very early '00s, but the rise of Zinedine Zidane's French juggernaut (4-2-3-1) in '98 & '00 was the death knell.
Why? Because the 4-2-3-1 allowed overlapping fullbacks a little more freedom (Lilian Thuram & Bixente Lizarazu, right?) without sacrificing the central midfield, which is the longtime Achilles' heel of the 4-4-2. As long as your No. 10 could be both facilitator and goalscorer, and as long as your back four was in sync (when one fullback overlaps, the other stays home), you got most of the benefits of each formation.
Added on top of this is simple math: If you're facing a team that starts one true forward, why do you need three central defenders?
You don't. Just about overnight the 3-5-2 became archaic (but I swear I'll revisit this point in a minute).
In the process there's been a shift in hybridization responsibilities. Two deep-lying central midfielders are a feature of the 4-2-3-1, with one usually more adept at dropping deep to help initiate possession and the other tasked with making late runs into the box to create more attacking avenues. Center forwards are doing more work in possession now than ever before, and wingers are expected to score more goals. How and where the game is played has changed a ton since the late '90s.
So much so that the 3-5-2 actually makes a ton of sense again, based upon three things.
First is this: Back in the 1990s zonal defensive schemes almost entirely replaced man marking, and it's much, much easier to institute a sound zonal scheme with a back four than a back three. It's taken a while, but -- globally speaking -- managers and players and armchair tacticians have all figured out a little bit more about how to run a 3-5-2 with zonal defense. So the simple mathematical question above is obviated -- nobody is specifically marking one true forward; rather, the three defenders are all working together to mark space and keep the game in front of them, just as they do in four-man backlines.
Second: Managers are bolder about pushing center backs into the attack than they were 20 years ago. Back then only the sweeper (and nobody uses a true sweeper anymore because of the adjustment in offside interpretations) was really expected to do anything with regard to shaping the game via distribution.
To that end, here's left-center-back Nick Hagglund initiating the second Toronto goal from the weekend:
Notice that as he pushes forward, TFC d-mid Michael Bradley is dropping back to cover the space he's potentially leaving for an NYCFC counter? This may seem intuitive but it's an important rotation that's often missed by even well-drilled 3-5-2 teams. And if Hagglund isn't there to provide that extra bit of offensive push from a different angle, the formation really does become too predictable.
And third: The thing about goalscoring wingers above... think about where those guys operate:
Against a four-man backline, do most goals come from between the central defenders, the "A" Gap? Or are they are coming from the "B" Gaps, between the fullback and the central defender on that particular side?
The answer is B. Every time you push your fullback forward, that side becomes exposed, and your opponent will go at you right there in transition.
Now look at a 3-5-2:
There are gaps, for sure -- no formation is impregnable. But they're in different spots than what we're used to seeing in the modern game, and that alone is enough to give at least a little bit of an advantage on any given day.
So that's the overview. Three other points that I'm not going to take the time to work in with any elegance:
1. Your wingbacks need to be super fit, because the amount of running they do takes the mickey out of them.
2. Your central center back needs to be loud and constantly thinking two steps ahead because he's the organizer.
3. It helps if your outside center backs are athletic freaks who can defend 1v1 in space, because eventually your opponent will overload one side and try to create a 2v1, at which point your wingback will get roasted. When that happens your center back needs to be quick, decisive and effective in how and where he/she challenges.
Anyway, welcome back to the 3-5-2. It's nice to have a little bit of variety to pick apart.
Ok folks, thanks for joining me this afternoon. Let's do it again soon!