Traditionally an alien formation in England, the 3-5-2 and its variations look likely to be the new flavor of the Premier League season.

Carlos Bilardo is often credited for his tactical nous. This man coached Argentina to 1986 World Cup glory, making full use of Diego Maradona’s passing and vision from midfield, by employing a 3-5-2 formation, brand new on the international stage. As a midfield anchor himself, in the talented Estudiantes side that beat European champions Manchester United in the 1968 Intercontinental Cup, Bilardo realized soon enough that the key to winning matches was winning the battle of numbers in midfield. This revelation dawned on ‘Der Kaiser’ Franz Beckenbauer in the 1990 World Cup too.

So, what makes this formation work? For one, it needs a hugely talented group of players. The wingers must double up as wing-backs, and even at times step up and cover for a centre back who has drifted out of position. The three centre backs themselves must be in perfect co-ordination, being aware of whom they are marking. These three must also be positionally in sync with one another. The centre back in the middle, known as the sweeper, must not only be ready to sweep-up any mistakes made by the other two centre backs, but should also be confident with the ball at his feet, and good at distributing the ball when in possession.

The advantage of such a system is that it frees up a player to play the roaming role in midfield, dictating play and the pace of the game. This player might be in a number 10 role or might play as a deep lying playmaker in a double pivot in midfield. Michel Platini often played as a marauding number 10, while Andrea Pirlo prefers spraying passes from a deep lying playmaker position, with a defensive minded midfielder next to him. In either case, the 3-5-2 formation and its variations, most effectively use the attacking talent of a side, without compromising on defence, if orchestrated to perfection.

Juventus

Andrea Pirlo was the fulcrum of a 3-5-2 formation, three time Scudetti winning Juventus team

Recent times have seen Serie A adopting this system. Juventus, under Antonio Conte, won three successive Scudetti starting 2012, playing in a 3-5-2 formation. Napoli, under Walter Mazzarri for a long time, used this system as well. Outside of Italy, Athletic Bilbao used this system for a while under Marcelo Bielsa, who used Javi Martinez in the sweeper role. Italy used this system at Euro 2012 to stifle Spain – Daniele De Rossi being cleverly used as a sweeper against Cesc Fabregas in a False 9 role –and coming away with a 1-1 draw. Certain teams in the World Cup in Brazil, like Mexico and the Netherlands, used variations of this formation well. Netherlands, coached then by new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, used this system to overcome defending champions Spain in a masterclass of attacking football. And now, in his first pre-season game in charge, Van Gaal successfully employed the 3-5-2 formation as United battered a hapless L.A. Galaxy side 7-0.

Louis van Gaal has spoken of his decision to use this formation to make best use of an “unbalanced” United side, which has “four number 10s” and “four strikers”. In the past in the Premier League, managers have toyed with the idea of using the 3-5-2, but with limited success. Brendan Rodgers flirted with the 3-5-2 during his first season at Liverpool. Roberto Martinez too, then at Wigan, tried out this formation but the 3-5-2 has never stuck. However, it was used as a tactical weapon last season by Aston Villa and West Ham to get results against the big teams. In recent time, this formation has mostly been used as a tactic to counter a stronger team, whether it be Italy or the Dutch countering Spain’s attacking talent, or Aston Villa out-thinking mighty Manchester City. It has never been used as a consistent system to success, barring Juventus’s Scudetti winning streak. This is because of the unforgiving disciplined way of playing that the players must engage in, which Juventus have mastered.

There are two main reason for the formation not sticking in the Premier League in the past. For one, the game in England is more dependent on power and physical dominance, rather than exceptional ball control. Defenders in England learn to play the no-nonsense approach of clearing the ball out of danger – that is the way the English game has been built over decades. Playing three at the back requires at least one, if not all centre backs to be ball players, good passers with vision for distribution.

They must be excellent readers of the game and be brave enough to come out of their deep comfort positions to try and stop an opponent playing the False 9 position. This was one of the notes Sir Alex Ferguson, smarting from a second defeat to Barcelona in a Champions League final in three years, made. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were excellent defenders, but not ball players who could come out of their deep positions to hassle Lionel Messi and David Villa, in their deep lying forward positions.

Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher recently spoke about how uncomfortable he was playing with the likes of Spaniard Jose Enrique who would take the ball out of defence to distribute it to his team-mates. Gary Neville explained it as a cultural difference between defenders in England and countries where ball playing defenders are favoured. Defenders in England are not comfortable with playing the ball out from the back. Even when Premier League teams have ball playing centre halves, they prefer to bench them in favour of traditional powerful defenders, because a traditional four-at-the-back formation in the English game does not accommodate them well.

Sakho gets a look in over Daniel Agger, Per Mertesacker will be preferred over a fit Thomas Vermaelen and David Luiz was moved from defence to midfield. David Luiz was criticized by a lot of English football purists for being an adventurous centre half, who left the entire defence open when going forward. The travesty with David Luiz was that his attack minded approach would have worked well, had he been part of a three man central defensive partnership, where even if he bombed forward, there would be two centre halves still in position, and a wing back covering for him.

The other problem is that the game in England is played with a higher speed and tempo than in Italy and Spain. Playing three at the back, you are more likely to risk a counter attack in England, if your wingers are caught up field. Solving this problem requires a huge amount of discipline, as was shown by the Netherlands at the World Cup. Right wing-back Janmaat never really bombed forward beyond the half-way line, staying back to cover the defence as left wing-back Daley Blind raced forward with the ball and distributed it to the attackers.

Van Gaal seems to be trying to make Manchester United play the way the Dutch team played at the World Cup. United have the perfect mix of wing-backs and number 10s to use this formation. Luke Shaw looks to be a shoe-in for the left wing back position, flying forward like Daley Blind did for the Dutch. Antonio Valencia, though a natural winger, has the right discipline to be first choice at right wing-back, a characteristic lacking in Rafael. Either of Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa will operate in the number 10 position, a role both these players relish and thrive on. Ander Herrera is the Pirlo-esque presence in a midfield double pivot, calmly receiving the ball and spraying passes out on the wings.

Vermaelen might be the sweeper in Van Gaal's 3-5-2 system

Vermaelen might be the sweeper in Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system

What is lacking, however, is the defence. None of the current three centre backs, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, look confident on the ball, or assured at the back in reading the game. Phil Jones looks the most likely of this threesome to play the sweeper role, which should make many Manchester United fans nervous. Van Gaal must already know this, something that can be gauged from his active interest in the ball-playing centre half Vermaelen. What this system also does is, make players like Ashley Young and Nani useless. These are players who do not have the discipline to play on the wings in a 3-5-2 system and will more likely be done away with. United probably need two more attack-minded wing-backs who have strong work ethic and are good going ahead, as back-ups to Valencia, Rafael and Shaw. The recently departed Alexander Buttner might have done well in such a system.

It’s not just Van Gaal who is trying to implement this system in the Premier League. United’s 7-0 win comes after Queens Park Rangers manager Harry Redknapp has revealed that he would be going with three at the back for the new season, with newly acquired Rio Ferdinand partnering Steven Caulker and one of Clint Hill, Richard Dunne or Nedum Onuoha. Redknapp, again, might be thinking of this formation to counter the Premier League big boys, unlike Van Gaal, who looks likely to attack with a 3-5-2 formation. It will be interesting to see if United persist with this formation or if Van Gaal switches back to a back four as the season goes on. With the current defenders they have, United will find little success with three at the back. If Van Gaal can get the players he needs, we might see the 3-5-2 being used by one of the big teams in England consistently. It’s make or break time for the 3-5-2 in the Premier League.