The standard 3-5-2 employs three fullbacks, five midfielders, and two forward players. Among the fullbacks, one is a center half (playing in the central defense) and two are outside defenders to the right and left of the center half. Typically, the fullbacks play in an even line (a "flat" back three). The five midfield players are arranged with two holding central midfielders in front of the fullbacks, one attacking central midfielder (a "10") in the most advanced position, and two wide midfielders to the right and left. The two forwards play in the most advanced positions on the field, to the right and left.
The 3-5-2 is a possession-based formation. The objective is to maintain possession as high up the field as possible and to create attacking runs from varied and unpredictable angles. The forwards are the primary targets in the attack and work interchangeably, often switching across and in front of and behind one another looking for runs in the gaps in the defense. The midfielders work together to maintain possession and exploit vulnerabilities in the opposing defense. The two holding central midfielders dictate the direction of the attack while the attacking central midfielder serves as the focal point of the attack, with the other midfielders and forwards moving in response to the attacking central midfielder. Often, the five midfielders will move interchangeably, with no clearly defined positions, in order to maximize possession and confuse the opposing players.The fullbacks serve supporting roles in the attack, with the center half often playing deeper than the outside backs in order to relieve any opposing pressure. The outside fullbacks are much less likely to make deep attacking runs than they are in the 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formations.
When played well, the 3-5-2 dominates possession of the ball. Further, the 3-5-2 is very difficult to defend as it features a great deal of unpredictable movement and unexpected angles.
Because it employs only three fullbacks, the 3-5-2 is vulnerable to counterattacks. With players often compromising the basic shape in attack, any loss of possession can lead to confusion in the switch to defending.
When to Employ the 3-5-2
The 3-5-2 is an effective formation for highly-skilled, intelligent teams. Creativity is essential to success in a 3-5-2. Teams with very skilled and athletic fullbacks benefit from the 3-5-2 because such players provide the midfielders and forwards confidence to alter their shape in the attack and to take aggressive chances moving up the field. The fluid movements in attack elicit a high work rate from the opposition; for this reason, the 3-5-2 is effective against less-fit opposition.
Derivatives of the 3-5-2
The 3-4-3 is a version of the 3-5-2 with a few variants. The standard 3-4-3 is arranged with three fullbacks (positioned as they would be in a 3-5-2), four midfielders in a diamond shape (with a holding central midfielder [#6] at the base, an attacking central midfielder [#10] at the top, and wide midfielders at the right and left), and three forwards (a center forward [#9] in the most advanced position with right and left forwards to either side). A more conservative form of the 3-4-3 features the four midfielders in a flatter arrangement across the field. In this form of the 3-4-3, the center forward often drops into a deeper position and plays as a False 9.
The 5-3-2 utilizes five defenders, with three center halves and two very wide wing backs at the left and right and in more advanced positions on the field than the center halves. The three midfielders are arranged as they are in a 4-3-3, either in an inverted triangle with a #6 at the base (more attacking) or in a standard triangle with a #10 at the top (more conservative). The two forwards play as they would in a 3-5-2.
The 5-4-1 employs five defenders, with three center halves and two very wide wing backs at the left and right and in more advanced positions on the field than the center halves. The four midfielders are arranged in a diamond shape (with a holding central midfielder [#6] at the base, an attacking central midfielder [#10] at the top, and wide midfielders at the right and left). The wide midfielders in a 5-4-1 play in a more advanced position on the field than the wide midfielders in a standard 3-4-3, which leads to a more aggressive attacking formation and style of play.