Thursday, May 21, 2009

Brazilian debate over 3-5-2 and midfielders

The following is my response to an article by Brazilian journalist Marcelo Costa on the thorny subject of playing 3-5-2. Marcelo works for, amongst other publications, Estado de Minas and Hoje em Dia , plus PUC TV. He was stating a current disillusionment with the system of three-at-the back, not so much, as he sees it, due to the system itself, but rather because of the personnel entrusted to execute it, and the counter-productive effects that their prevalence is having on even those systems which feature a back four. Most specifically his gripe is with a target identical to what I have identified in a previous post, namely the preponderance of destructive midfielders clustered around the centre and the decadence of build-up play from the defensive-to-middle thirds of the pitch.
*** Please note: correction to the piece below since it was written: I had wrongly attributed the invention of the Pirlo role as the creation of coach Carlo Mazzone. It emerges that Pirlo himself was the one who suggested he adapt his game in such a way.

Below is a link to Marcelo's excelent blog,

" I fully agree with you, Marcelo.

That having been said, why don’t you write an antitdote to the ills of those teams that currently play 3-5-2? This way, you could suggest some alternatives illustrating where for example Tcheco ought to play in this formation, or to find a way for Sport to relieve Paulo Baier of sole creative responsibility. Just an idea.

The thing about Pirlo is that we have one of those rare cases in modern football in which a coach makes a completely innovative tactical revolution: Pirlo used to play as a technically exquisite No. 10, with almost no defensive traits. The idea of coach Carlo Mazzone (in Brescia) and later copied by Ancelotti was to place him behind two ‘pit bulls’, and so the team gained in creative capacity, even more so than would have been the case were it an organising holder such as Rafael Carioca, Fernando Redondo, Marcos Senna or Xabi Alonso. And yet without losing the ability to press and rob in the middle.

By my reckoning there are three types of holding midfielder in modern football (and this excludes box-to-box midfielders such as Ramires, Vieira or Muntari), and then there is the ‘auxiliary centre-back’ or terceiro zagueiro.

1) CLASSIC HOLDING PLAYER: No.5, Clodoaldo, Toninho Cerezo (and later Redondo, Carrick, Xabi Alonso); overtly tactical, great reader of the game, with capacity to disarm but without running around or pressing so much, also, an excellent distributor of the ball.

2) VOLANTE DESTRUCTIVO: a more modern version, with a greater ability to destroy tempered by more limited vision and technique: see Dunga, Makelele and Mascherano.

3) THE PIRLO ROLE: almost unheard of before or since; converting an offensive linkman into a creator deep inside his own half. Needs the assistance of one or two enforcers.

4) TERCEIRO ZAGUEIRO (AUXILIARY DEFENDER): in a 3-5-2, this is the centre-back who usually brings out the ball into midfield. In a 4-4-2/4-3-3 etc, he tends to be a destructive midfielder.

I believe that the tone of the team, and the style which it intends to impose in a game, is in great part determined by the type(s) of holding midfielder(s) chosen to start.

Let us take for example the Brazilian 3-4-2-1/3-4-1-2 from World Cup 2002; at least Scolari was forced to make a change, bringing on a box-to-box player to partner the holding midfielder Gilberto Silva; imagine what would have unfolded if Emerson Gaúcho, the destructive midfielder who was to partner Gilberto, had not been injured. Something ugly surely would have ensued.


  1. Olá. Gostei muito das suas observações no meu blog. Apareça sempre e deixe seus comentários que só contribuem para o bom debate acerca dos esquemas táticos. Vou fazer um outro texto em breve seguindo a sua sugestão. Abraços. Marcelo Costa.

  2. Wouldn't have Guardiola and Paulo Sousa played the Pirlo role before Pirlo himself????

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Pardon the above deleted comment; it is mine.


    while I can see the similarities between Guardiola and Pirlo, there is a substantial difference. Guardiola had been trained in that role by Carles Rexach from an early age without ever having played in the hole. Pirlo, however, had done so. You could say that Pirlo was even more of a luxury player who had previously played with his back to goal. Also, Guardiola played without the protection of midfielders like Gattuso and Ambrosini. About Sousa, I would say he was more similar to Xabi Alonso, had always played in that position and was physically robust enough to intercept without being a Mascherano-type tackler.

  5. I see what you mean Pep never played as a #10, where as Pirlo as a youngster was hyped as the next Baggio. I never thought of the Sousa and Alonso comparison, but they are quite similar Alonso is probably more elegant on the ball but not sure he is better. Sousa was quite the player before his knees gave up on him.