Chelsea like to play in a 4-3-3 formation. Andre Villas-Boas prefers a 4-3-3 system. Neither of the two statements is a secret, but since selling Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, and letting Joe Cole leave, the club hasn’t really replaced the wingers – key ingredients for making this much-loved formation, or for that matter any other contemporary formation work.
Villas-Boas knows this, as Chelsea have stepped up their efforts to bring Juan Mata from Valencia and Kevin de Bruyne from Genk to Stamford Bridge before the transfer window closes, but as it stands, Florent Malouda remains the only player who can be called a winger in the first team squad.
In such a scenario, we couldn’t resist the temptation of analyzing the possibility of Chelsea, occasionally, taking the field in a 3-5-2 system – a rarity in world football today.
Jonathan Wilson credits the birth of 3-5-2 to Carlos Bilardo, the World Cup winning coach of Argentina. In a tour of Europe in 1984, with traditional wingers on the decline and full-backs becoming increasingly attacking in nature, the coach decided to play his full-backs further forward, as midfielders, and deployed an additional central defender to provide adequate cover. This tactical evolution culminated in Argentina winning the 1986 World Cup. Ever since then, traces of 3-5-2 could be found in the teams that won subsequent international tournaments – West Germany in World Cup 1990, Brazil in World Cup 1994, and Germany in Euro 1996. In the following years, the formation slowly disappeared from top-level football, with observers fearing that it has met its end. However, Napoli in 2008, Udinese in 2010-11 season and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge this year have shown that the system can still succeed.
What constitutes a 3-5-2 System?
There are three central defenders, one of them playing as a sweeper behind the other two, who generally mark the two central strikers. Two wing-backs, who are none other than attacking full-backs, play higher up the pitch, in midfield. With no offensive player ahead of them, they are responsible for covering the entire length of the flank, contributing in attack and in defence. Naturally, they are the defining components of the formation, components which can make or break the system. Three midfielders form a triangle in the centre, with two strikers leading the line.
Why 3-5-2 can Potentially be a Useful Surprise Weapon for Chelsea
1) Chelsea have four quality center-backs in Terry, Luiz, Alex, and Ivanovic, out of whom at least David Luiz is a proper ball-playing defender, capable of spreading both short and long range passes from deep.
2) In Ashley Cole, Chelsea have arguably the best left-back in the world. Further, in Patrick van Aanholt and Ryan Bertand, there’s no dearth of talent in this department. Moreover, in the presence of an additional defender and with a licence to attack, we never know what van Aanholt, in particular, is truly capable of, once he’s unshackled.
3) Jose Bosingwa has been inconsistent ever since returning from injury last season, but his energy and the ability to cover the whole flank still remains his primary asset. Yes, a young, dynamic right-back would be an ideal addition, but there’s a chance that the beleaguered Portuguese would relish playing in the role of a wing-back, with a 70-30 realignment in favor of attack.
4) Chelsea may lack quality wide forwards, but in Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Daniel Sturridge, Romelu Lukaku and Salomon Kalou, the West London club has an assortment of riches, as far as center-forwards are concerned. They have players who can lead the line, as well as those who can play as second strikers.
In addition to this, Mikel can be used in defence, a position to which he drops even now to cover for the full-backs, when they are out of position. It’s incredibly tough for someone to the get the ball off Mikel, and he is a reasonably good passer as well. In such a scenario, Chelsea can make the midfield triangle even more dynamic by deploying a box-to-box midfielder such as Ramires in front of the three defenders, and two attacking midfielders in front of him.
Chelsea have all the ingredients to make this system work, occasionally, as a surprise weapon. Why an emphasis is there on the word occasionally will be clarified subsequently.
Scenarios for which the 3-5-2 is not an Ideal System
Before we get into these scenarios, let’s look at an ideal case for this formation to work. If the opposition has two central strikers, together leading the line by playing horizontally and not vertically, two central defenders can be used to man-mark them out of the game, while the additional defender can act as a sweeper, providing additional cover. If the opposition has a dangerous full-back, then the advanced wing-back will keep his opponent rooted in his own half, thus denying service to the forwards.
This is exactly what Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool did in Fernando Torres’ debut game for Chelsea. With Torres and Drogba leading the line and Anelka playing behind them, in the hole, Liverpool always had an extra man in defence to cover the Frenchman’s forays into the box. Otherwise also, Lucas was always present to cut the supply line to the forwards. Another stark difference between the two sides was that Johnson and Kelly, playing as wing-backs, were always in advanced positions on the pitch to receive a pass and join the attack, whereas Bosingwa and Cole had to make their runs from a deeper position, hence delaying the transition. Further, the Chelsea full-backs had to be extra careful too, considering the advanced position of Liverpool wing-backs.
Typically, there are two cases when this formation may not work:
1) When the opposition is playing a single-striker system (4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1), there’s a risk that two out of three defenders will be wasted, and will lead to numerical disadvantage elsewhere on the pitch.
2) When the opposition has a proper three-pronged attack (4-3-3), with wingers capable of exploiting the width of the pitch. In such a case, the defenders will be forced to move wide to counter them and help the wing-backs, thereby leaving the remaining defender vulnerable to being exploited by the center-forward.
Considering the number of team that today use a single-striker system, a 3-5-2 may not be an ideal formation for Chelsea to embrace, regularly. However, on close examination of resources available at Stamford Bridge, this can indeed be a plan C, after 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1: the two formations preferred by Andre. This system has the potential to be a lethal weapon against English sides playing in a 4-4-2 shape (diamond or otherwise), or as a tactical change, midway through the game, when the opposition manager brings on another striker. Villas-Boas can substitute Malouda for McEachran, moving Mikel into defence, unleashing Cole and Bosingwa on unsuspecting opponents, adding a distinct attacking edge to the midfield, and letting the two remaining forwards hunt in pair.
In today’s ever-evolving world of football, tactical flexibility can be a manager’s most trusted ally. Having already suffered at the hands of this system once, it would serve Chelsea well to keep their friends (4-3-3) close, and their enemies (3-5-2) closer!