If you’re watching soccer on TV frequently you will hear a lot of talk about three center backs in a 3-5-2 formation. Teams all over the world are (re)inventing this system of play.
Historically the 3-5-2 was played with a sweeper and two central defenders. There were three central midfielders, typically one of them being a defensive, or holding, midfielder. The outside midfielders, also called wing backs, provided attacking width when in possession and tracked back to be outside defenders when defending. The two strikers were central.
Today the three defenders are playing in line, zonal, no more sweeper. The three central midfielders are arranged either with a defensive midfielder, in line, or with an attacking midfielder. While the execution of the 3-5-2 has changed a bit, the advantages and challenges haven’t.
The advantage is that the central defensive zone is typically packed with three defenders. That makes it difficult for the opponents to penetrate and provides lots of coverage. The same is true for central midfield. When attacking this system offers a lot of punch with typically 4-6 players being deep in the opponent’s end, or in the penalty box. Variability can be provided by strikers and outside midfielders exchanging positions or central midfielders and outside midfielders.
The challenges are a few. The outside midfielders do an enormous amount of running up and down the sides, with little support, turning the formation into a 5-3-2 when defending. Rarely do the central defenders overlap and thus offer a bit of a break for the wingers. When defending against a team playing with a flat back 4 the 3-5-2 is vulnerable to being doubled up on the wings by overlapping defenders. This will draw a central midfielder or central defender wide for support and open up holes in the middle for opponents to exploit with quick passes and switches. And finally, the 3-5-2 will become predictable and easy to defend and exploit.
All these challenges are reasons why the system fell out of favour.
I believe coaches are looking to change their shapes to challenge the opposition, which is good. I have always advocated to coach teams to be able to change formations within a game and not hold on to a static system of play. In that context the 3-5-2 is best as an in-game option, not as a sole and permanent tactic.
For a review of ALL systems of play and their advantages, challenges, and responses to opponents check out our book Soccer Systems of Play & Strategy