There are a number of teams recently in the Premier League using the formation 3-5-2. There have been a number of teams in Italy using it to great effect. Here’s a look-in at how the 3-5-2 works and the burning question: Can an English team successfully use the 3-5-2?
The main reason Napoli in particular have had success with this formation is the facts that they have a collection of fantastic wing backs, and each of them can do a job. Christian Maggio is more defence minded. He will wait until the wingers in the 5 man midfield bomb forward, then he will occupy their position to keep things tight. Andreas Dossena is equal to either. He doesn’t work the line to the fullest. He likes in whip in crosses from deep for the striker to get on the end of. Juan Camilo Zuniga will get up and down the flank without relenting, giving Napoli another dimension when then balls in from deep aren’t working. He’s very hard to keep quiet. This, combined with Maggio hanging back or Dossena staying relatively forward, creates a ‘lopsided’ effect, which is very good for suppressing vibrant wingers.
The Central Three
Against Milan in their recent draw, the central three was Dzemaili, Inler and Hamsik. This is the major contributor to the ‘lopsided’ effect. They lined up like this: DM CM AM. This allows them free rein to do what their instincts tell them to. Dzemaili, as the most defence minded of the three, naturally dropped deeper and played in the ‘hole’ that attacking midfielders are most effective in. Hamsik, as the most attack minded of the three, naturally pushed forward and orchestrated the attacks in the aforementioned ‘hole’. Inler, holding the middle ground, did a little bit of both. In this way, Napoli always have threat whilst defending because there is always an attacking midfielder ready to start a counter.
Because of the wing backs, the strikers are limited in where they can go; they can’t work the lines like in a normal 4-4-2 because they are blocking of Napoli’s outball in the wing backs. But the space they lose on the wings, they gain by coming deeper. In an orthodox formation, there would be at least two midfielders pushing forward, but in a 3-5-2, there is only one. This means that one plays almost as an attacking midfielder, whilst the other makes runs off the ball to open up gaps. For Napoli, the former is Insigne and the latter is Cavani. By making diagonal runs to pull the centre backs close together, Cavani creates space that a striker lurking in the ‘hole’ can run into, giving the man on the ball (either the wing backs or the attack minded midfielder) an easy defence splitting pass, and Insigne showed in the AC Milan match that he can finish.
This is the main stumbling block for English teams. In Gamberini, Cannavaro and Campagnaro, Napoli have a defence who all have experience playing in a 3-5-2, and who are all very tactically and positionally aware of what is required for their role. For City, only Nastasic has any experience of playing the formation and he lacks a combative Dzemaili style midfielder. He has to work on it on the training ground before they can use it on the pitch. And Aguero and Tevez spend an awful lot of time on the wings. To make this formation work, they’d have to stay central and that would suppress their style of play.
Out of all the teams in the Premier League, the team probably best poised to use this system would be Liverpool. They have already shown an understanding of it in their 2-2 draw with Everton, and they have most of the tools already at their disposal. They have three solid centre backs in Agger, Skrtel and Coates; Johnson and Wisdom as wing backs love to attack and have the engines to work the line; Lucas is a fantastic defensive midfielder, Suso looks set to be one of the world’s best attacking midfielders; Gerrard would be the cool head and the link between attack and defence; Sterling and Downing could create that ‘lopsided’ effect, with Sterling the more attacking; and Suarez can adapt easily. What he needs is a partner, and if Liverpool supply him one, then the y could become the pioneers of the English 3-5-2.