The 3-5-2 formation has been around since at least the 1980s and was made famous by the 1986 World Cup-winning Argentina side that included Diego Maradona. The Argentina manager, Carlos Bilardo, is credited with creating the formation to allow the team’s star player, Maradona, to have enough space to cause untold damage to opposing teams.
One of the greatest strengths of the 3-5-2 formation is its flexibility. At the start of the game, the formation has three central defenders, two wingbacks, three central midfielders, and two strikers. The wingbacks drop deeper into the backline, creating a block of five defenders.
Suddenly, this attacking formation has suddenly become much more defensively solid. Against a weaker team, the two wingbacks can push forwards into the midfield, creating a 3-5-2 with five midfielders, with the two wingbacks now operating as wide midfielders.
You’re now facing a very different lineup that looks threatening and has a serious goal threat when in the attack.
In Maradona’s case, the superstar player was used as an attacking midfielder, dropping behind the lone striker and creating an overload in midfield.
It also meant defenders would have to step out of defense to mark him, offering even more space for the wingbacks to exploit. It’s a nightmare formation to counter, as it can fluidly become one of several formations.
Let’s look at four formations that could be used to counter the 3-5-2 formation and see how a well-drilled team could combat this most flexible of formations by springing a few surprises of its own.
It’s not going to be easy, but by identifying the main threats and trying to nullify them, a solid tactic can turn the tables on the 3-5-2 formation.
Here are the 4 best formations to use against 3-5-2.
4. 4-2-3-1 (Nullify by attacking)
One of the most popular modern formations around is the 4-2-3-1 formation, a sleek, attacking, fast-paced tactic that allows teams to overload opponents from both the wing and through the middle.
Many elite teams use the 4-2-3-1, and as an option to use against the 3-5-2 formation, it has many benefits.
The two attacking wingers can force back the wingbacks of the 3-5-2, forcing the opposing team back into their own half. The wingbacks are two of the most dangerous players in this formation; you’re forced onto the back foot when they attack.
Having two excellent wingers in your team forcing the opponent toward their own area means you’re under less pressure and can concentrate on attacking.
The 4-2-3-1 is slightly outnumbered in central midfield, which means your central attacking midfielder has to drop deep to help out, but on the counter-attack, they can move forward into attack again.
A formation that relies on forcing the opposition backward, especially one that relies on just two players to make that happen (in this case, your two wide attacking players), runs the risk of falling down if the wingers cannot maintain their attacks.
On the front foot, the 4-2-3-1 formation is a great choice; you can find the team needs more cohesion on the defensive.
- It’s a great attacking formation that many elite teams are comfortable with.
- When the wingers are in form, it forces the 3-5-2 into a very defensive shape.
- These two formations make for a great game, and the fans can see superb attacking soccer from both teams.
- If the wingers can’t maintain their onslaught, the wingbacks get free rein to move forwards.
- If the wingbacks begin attacks, the wingers will be out of position, and the wingbacks will get control of the wings, which can be devastating.
- Team cohesion can be lost as players leave their positions to try and cover unfamiliar areas of the pitch.
3. 5-3-2 (Counter by copying)
The 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 formations are very similar in that both use wingbacks as a primary attacking threat. Trying to counter the 3-5-2 by having a similar shape can nullify the opposing team in all the key areas.
By accepting from the start that your wingbacks are going to be more defensive and playing them as defenders or fullbacks, you can stop the opponent’s wingbacks from being as much of a threat.
The 5-3-2 formation does lose some of its attacking capabilities when the wingbacks have to stay deeper in their own half, but as a counter to the dangers from the 3-5-2, it’s an excellent choice.
A weaker team could choose this set-up and try to play long balls from deep for the two strikers, pushing the center of the three midfielders further forwards as a false 9. This will force your opponents into more defensive work and give your team more attacking threats.
On the flip side, when under extreme pressure, the central of the three midfielders can drop into defensive midfield, shoring up a defense that’s been under a lot of stress.
- It’s a very fluid tactic that can change quickly, even into a 3-5-2 to match the opponent.
- Defensively, the team can have five defenders, as well as see a midfielder drop into the defensive midfield role.
- Offensively, when in possession, the players can quickly shift into more advanced areas and cause serious problems for an opponent. The 3-5-2 is susceptible to counterattacks.
- This tactic can be over-complicated and hard to train, especially if not used regularly.
- It can also be over-reliant on the wingbacks.
- If the wingbacks and midfield fail to track back or transition into the attack, the formation fails, and the strikers are left wholly isolated.
2. 5-4-1 (Ultra-defensive)
Sometimes, all a team can do to see out a game is to sit as many players as possible behind the ball and see who has the guts to see out the game.
With the attacking threats the 3-5-2 formation brings, especially if the team using it is familiar with it and has the players to make it work, the 5-4-1 formation says one thing; try and break through if you can.
The 5-4-1 formation relies on discipline, teamwork, and concentration; if the five defenders lose focus for a minute, the attacking overload that the 3-5-2 can bring can be fatal.
A team that’s setting out a five-person defense, with four defensive-minded midfielders dropping deep in support, has to maintain their shape.
Setting out your stall for 90 minutes of defensive work can be exhausting, mentally and physically, so the team must be fit, fired up, and ready for a fight.
Bullying the opposition is an excellent way to get them to lose focus; you might get lucky, and the opponents have a player sent off. If that happens, the formation can quickly change into a more attacking variant.
Without relying on luck, the 5-4-1 tactic isn’t pretty to watch, but it can be very effective. At times, it’s not winning that matters; it’s not losing that’s important. A creditable draw against a superior team, especially one using the 3-5-2 to good effect, is a point well earned.
- This formation can completely shut down an opponent, frustrating every effort to score.
- A weaker team can compensate for a player who isn’t as talented, the unit as a whole makes up for the shortcomings of weaker players.
- Set pieces such as corners or free kicks; the team can overload the attack in the hopes of scoring a cheeky winner.
- It’s ugly. The fans won’t thank you for it, and the game can stagnate, which, to be fair, is precisely what you want in this situation.
- Offensively, you’re very limited. As soon as you move players into attacking phases, there’s the risk of being counterattacked.
1. 4-3-3 (DMC and Attacking Wingers)
By far, the most effective formation to use against the 3-5-2 formation is the 4-3-3, which comprises a flat-back-four, a defensive midfielder, two central midfielders, two wingers, and a striker.
The 4-3-3 (sometimes referred to as the 4-1-2-2-1) combats the threat from the 3-5-2 formation by bolstering the defense and combating the wingbacks by using wingers.
The defensive midfield role is vital as the player in this position has to patrol both sides of the pitch to slow the opposing wingbacks down.
The DMC also has to push forwards to help the two midfielders, closing down, harrying everyone who has the ball, and being a general nuisance. The other vital positions in the 4-3-3 are the two attacking wingers in the team.
Wingers force the opposing wingbacks into their defensive duties, something they’d prefer not to do, as they can no longer offer any creative threat.
The further back the wingbacks are forced, the more the formation begins to look like the 5-3-2 formation we discussed above. It’s defensive, less threatening, and invites the team set out in the attacking 4-3-3 to push forwards.
Overall, the 4-3-3 ticks every box; it’s attacking, has the fluidity to cover the defense under pressure, and nullifies the wingbacks to significant effect.
The lone striker may seem isolated, but the wingers cutting inside can either take a shot on goal or play in the striker. The formation can quickly look like it has three strikers and immediately change into a defensive shape until possession has regained.
The versatility of the 4-3-3 makes it not only the best formation to use against 3-5-2 – I also listed it as the best soccer formation overall.
- The 4-3-3 is as fluid as the 3-5-2, with the added bonus of having four defenders at all times.
- A defensive midfielder adds even more security, while being able to act as a deep-lying playmaker at times, adding more attacking threat.
- The wingers force the opponent’s wingbacks into an area where they offer no attacking threat, causing the opponent’s formation to become compact and toothless.
- The two tactics can, at times, cancel each other out, but this is a small price to pay for the added security.
- A complex tactic that can be tough to master; until the team has cohesion, this formation can be disjointed and prone to mistakes.
- If the wingers are marked out of the game, it’s up to the lone striker to provide the goals, which can be challenging when being marked by three center-backs.