Oct 30

How to get a 3-5-2 working against a 4-5-1


Teams are playing with fewer forwards than they used to, and yet the number of defenders has stayed the same. The “flat back 4” has pretty much achieved hegemony in top class football. Even in the Balkan states, where 3-5-2 used to reign supreme, the 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 have become more prevalent, especially at international level.

It hasn’t always been so; in 1990 the World Cup was won by West Germany’s 3-5-2, and even England ditched their favoured 4-4-2 to embrace the formation. But given that there are more and more teams using systems with only one recognised centre forward, why hasn’t a system which uses fewer defenders enjoyed a renaissance? Indeed, why has its decline accelerated? And how can we use this information in Football Manager Live?

The structure of the 3-5-2

germany90 How to get a 3 5 2 working against a 4 5 1First, let’s analyse the 3-5-2. What is it made of? Well, the system employs three central defenders, often with the centre-most of these deployed as a sweeper. Wide play and cover is provided by two wing backs. Then we have three central midfielders, arranged according to preference (the diagram shows the 1990 World Cup winning side of Beckenbauer, with two MCs and an AMC). And, finally, two forwards, set up similarly to the striker partnership in a 4-4-2.

Versus a 4-4-2

Against a 4-4-2, this provides excellent coverage. The wing backs can patrol the flanks and mark out the opposition wingers, as well as offering deep crossing options of their own. The centre of the midfield is flooded, making it both easier to retain possession in midfield as well as denying the opposition space to work in the same area. It also offers a spare player in defence – a libero – effectively meaning three defenders can cover two forwards. The only players unmarked in the opposition’s 4-4-2 are the two full backs, but these can be harried by the 3-5-2’s strikers. Besides, if the full backs have nobody unmarked to pass to, they become redundant anyway. In effect, the traditional 4-4-2 gets completely overloaded through the centre of the park, while the 3-5-2’s wing backs also offer enough width on the attack.

All very good. So why wouldn’t you use 3-5-2 all the time? Well, the rise of the 4-5-1 and of the attacking full back has exposed some of the formation’s inherent weaknesses and nullified most of its strengths.

Versus a 4-5-1

First, both teams use three central midfielders – so the 3-5-2 loses the numerical advantage. Second, three men are expected to mark one striker – so one of the DCs becomes a spare part. Third, the use of attacking full backs means that the opposition has a two-v-one advantage down both flanks – exposing the weakness in the setup. Only the two-v-two battle between the 3-5-2’s forwards and the opposition centre backs remains. But with so many issues in the midfield and defence, would they ever get any service?

Towards some solutions

The answer, in FML terms, is to build the right squad and intelligently use the players at your disposal. First, the wing backs need to be supremely fit. They will cover a lot of ground over the course of the game, having to both track back when the opposition get the ball and surge forward when their own team is attacking. Second, the central midfield battle has to be won with strong, yet technically adept players who can mix it up and provide excellent service to the forwards in equal measure. But third, and most importantly, the defensive issue needs to be solved – and this can be done by turning the defence on its head.

Simple mathematics – one striker needs one marker. In the old days, the two DCs would mark the two forwards, and the SW would be freed up as a “libero”, or free man; able to push into midfield when on the attack, but asked to cover the other defenders when possession was lost.

So, the answer, as Napoli attempted last year, is to use two liberi.

In FML, this would work something like this. The SW would be employed as the “bolt”. He will defend only. The two DCs, meanwhile, will become the “liberi”, ball playing defenders, able to step out of defence and into the midfield when the team is on the attack, but able to drop back and cover when required. This then frees the MCs to mark the opposition full backs or winger – since as they move wide to cover the wings, the DCs are able to step forward into the breach, providing full cover. Specific marking and opposition instructions may be needed here to force the MCs out wide.

All this requires a lot of intelligence, mobility and fitness. It would also be useless against a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 (in which case a reversion to the “traditional” 3-5-2 should suffice). But played well, it has a lot of potential.

The other 3-man defence option is the “W-M” back line, with the side centre backs pushed wide. Setting up a team like this (where either the side DCs mark the opposition wingers, or the formation is tweaked to permanently push them to the full back positions) would provide, man-for-man, coverage across the field. Unfortunately, it also means that if the striker-marking centre-most defender gets beaten, then the forward has a clear run at goal. The beauty of the 3-5-2 is the free defender, who provides cover and support in the centre. A defence with three backs will either leave gaps between the defenders in the channels, or it will leave the wing on the far side to the ball undefended. Either situation is far from ideal.

So, there are the issues with the 3-5-2 in a nutshell. Providing you have technical, hard-working players with good positional sense, it has the potential to utilise the midfield flooding positives of the 4-5-1 with the central attacking potency of the 4-4-2. Its weakness, however, is on the wings. Solve that, and you could have yourself a secret weapon in your gameworld.

Written By Gareth Millward
"Millie" is a long-standing member of the FM community and a co-founder of Gameworld One.Com. As part of FM-Britain, he was a contributor to TT&F and involved with the new tactical interface in FM2010.
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  • L

    I don't think that you got the Napoli "solution" right. Coming from the part of the world where 3-5-2 was commonplace till couple of seasons ago, libero is a term that has come to be used to describe any kind of sweeper, not necessarily the Beckenbauer ball playing type of player. Napoli were in fact perfectly happy to play one man marking stopper and two sweepers against one striker teams. It was partly a game of chicken, they just waited for opponents to give up first and put another striker on, pretending that they were essentially happy to play 38 0-0 games in a season if it came to that. They certainly didn't play two ball playing central defenders.

    And it kind of worked, they sucked people into attacking them and won lots of games on counterattacks in the first half of the season. But then the reranking came on :P and teams were a lot less inclined to attack them at any cost. They had pretty horrible second part of the season once their bluff was called, coach Eduardo Reya got fired, and is now in Hajduk, Split.

  • the 3 (or 5) men defense is quite common in Italy, also Udinese, not a top team, in the past years often played with a 3-4-3 that could be interesting to simulate in FML. I think that the last ME makes 3 (or 5) men defenses more effective and realistic, using it until not long ago was a tactical suicide.

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