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Football tactics explained: the most common formations – and how to beat them

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3-5-2

While most popular in Italy, the 3-5-2 has enjoyed something on a mini-renaissance over the past five years or so. Both Louis van Gaal and Mauricio Pochettino have employed it on occasions this season in the Premier League, while a handful of national teams have also favoured it in major competitions.

If you want to stop the counterattack then you'd be wise to consider the 3-5-2

You must have wing-backs who are incredible fit and tactically aware in order to have any chance of making the system work.

Strengths

If you want to stop the counter-attack then you'd be wise to consider the 3-5-2. The three defenders should be able to, between them, handle any combination of an opponent's strikers and No.10, while the wing-backs are well positioned to intercept opposing wide players before they can advance too far.

Defensive structure is aided by a central midfield who tends to sit quite deep in order to help cover the wing-backs should the need arise.

Paulo Sousa

Fiorentina coach Paulo Sousa has enjoyed Serie A success using 3-5-2

However, the 3-5-2 is just as effective as a launch pad for the counter-attack as it is as a weapon against it. The three midfielders and two wing-backs offer plenty of potential attacking variety for the opposition defence to worry about, while playing two strikers means it's possible for the frontline to create and score chances with minimal assistance – particularly if the ball arrives at their feet early in a counter-attack.

Weaknesses

The complexity of the formation, particularly when it comes to covering team-mates and beginning attacks, demands not only a certain kind of player but a certain blend of players. The back three must include at least one player who is a more-than-competent passer, while the other two must be incredible adept at man-to-man marking and disciplined positionally.

The complexity of the formation, particularly when it comes to covering teammates and beginning attacks, demands not only a certain kind of player but a certain blend of players

It is possible to play a zonal defensive marking system in a 3-5-2, but doing so requires players with a superb sense of positioning and the speed to track opponents as they inevitably wander in and out of zones looking for gaps between defenders. For this reason, it's not uncommon to see a player typically considered a midfielder to fill one of the three backline positions.

Who uses it?

Juventus, Torino, Palermo, Fiorentina (see above), Netherlands (2014 World Cup).

Which formation does it trump?

4-5-1: Not only does the 3-5-2 match the midfield numbers of the 4-5-1, the fact that they're playing against just one lone striker means there's opportunity for one of the back three to push forwards slightly and provide extra midfield support when in possession.

4-4-2 • 4-3-3 • 4-2-3-1 • 4-5-1 • 3-5-2

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