Figure 1 (left): One of Muricy Ramalho's many and myriad formations at São Paulo.
It is almost common knowledge to observers of European football, that 3-5-2 is dead. Or at least dormant.
Regardless of which nation he comes from or which one he works in, whenever some benighted coach raises the prospect of setting up his team with anything other than a back four, he is greated as a mothballed eccentric oblivious to the march of progress. Now, clearly the Dutch-orginating 3-4-3 systems are granted an exception, as they have always seemed so avant-garde, almost too futuristic to become dated, and in terms of their 'etymology', they have very little history in common with the popular interpretations of 3-5-2.
None of the above is meant to discredit popular wisdom on the issue; indeed, European football's systems of three centre-backs have all tended to share common characteristics and have by-and large been superceded by back four systems largely because their effectiveness became neutralised by the latter. On other counts, even in those departments where comparative advances were seemingly offered by back-three systems, such as allowing both full-backs to advance simulataneously, these advantages have been largely co-opted by the back four, whose modern full-backs now benefit from improved athleticism and stamina and thus do a splendid imitation job of the old wing-backs.
Already, right here and speaking of terminology alone, we are entering murky waters: is it correct to speak of wing-backs as the liberated full-backs who accompanied three central defenders (in a 5-3-2 for example)? Or, post-liberation, were they now wide midfielders in a 3-5-2?
Some will argue it makes little difference, but here again some elaboration is crucial, since there were some substantial differences, not only in terms of how they historically developed, but more broadly in the sense of how they represented a team's general approach. Was three (or five) at the back a statement of stinginess or a declaration of risk-laden attacking intent? We can enter into greater detail and pay greater heed to these nuances later on, but now let us turn the focus to Brazil and assume for simplicity sake, that a European's perception of 3-5-2 has been boiled down to two major strands.
These two varieties are not, as one might presume, 3-5-2 and 5-3-2: rather, they have more to do with the composition of the back three. Whether it is three defenders marking zonally, or two man-markers and a sweeper. Yes, the sweeper himself can be anything from another centre-back with good ball control and distribution to an erstwhile midfield playmaker (Beckenbauer, Schuster and Scirea).
In countries where the back four was firmly engrained, there were -largely confused- attempts to introduce 3-5-2 and wed it to the prevailing characteristics in place. Thus, across much of northern Europe, the tendency was to maintain the existing back four and simply add an extra centre-back. This was fairly perceived as a more cautious approach, as players who had been accumstomed to marking zonally found it difficult to reconcile themselves to man-marking, despite the cover of the spare man, and still the attacking width was being provided by those same full-backs from the preceding back four, which was not often given their more conservative nature.
Why not so often? Because under a back four system, and until the Brazilian-inspired trend would reach European shores a decade later, both full-backs did not attack simultaneously. While one advanced, the other would move closer to the centre-backs to form a back three strung across most of the width of the pitch. This was intended to be reciprocal, with each full-back deputising for the other. Moreover, a keen defensive positional sense was a must of both players most notably when both were to align themselves tightly on either side of their centre-backs when around their own 18-yard area. In other words, neither full-back was autonomous of the defensive line. None of these requirements apply to a wing-back. Indeed, it is a common criticism modern attacking full-backs in a line of four that they are postionally suspect. Equally, the charge levelled at more conservative full-backs such as Gary Neville is that while they are terrifically solid players and great defenders of wide areas they are insuffuciently thrusting in attack for the requirements of today's game (-my own personal solution for the supposed obsolecence of such players is that they necessarily become natural candidates for wide-defender roles in a back three, but that's a matter for another day).
Suffice to say, that a plausible defintion of a pure wing-back is that of an wide player equally disposed to defence and attack (and who is not a winger, let that be clear!) and who lacks the positional nous of a full-back. In other words, he is a pure wide-midfielder. An attacking full-back is a wing-back with the positional nous (and usually the height) required to play in a back four.
In many British teams who converted to 3-5-2, another, different kind of difficulty arose; the existing inclination towards zonal marking extended to the newly constituted back three. Even the Balkan and later Italian variants (particularly 3-4-1-2), in which the system was zonal, were still predicated on the opponent using two strikers, and so redundancy was one tactical adjustment away if the opposition simply used one less forward than there were spare defenders. Hence 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 and the like could render the 3-5-2 unbalanced, overmanned (in defence) and even undermanned (in midfield) to varying degrees.
In Brazil, these deficiencies have yet to be faced, mainly because most teams play with two forwards of some description and wingers have yet to make a reappearance. But another explanation for this persistence lies in the increasing complexity of some Brazilian formations, particularly 3-5-2. Asymmetry is common, often intentionally so (as was the case under the famously lopsided zona mista which was both a back four and a back three at the same time) with many coaches simply laying out the formation in such a way as to account for their players' natural tendencies. In attempting to redress inherited defensive problems, Brazilian coaches who adapted 3-5-2 conversely found new opportunites for offensive play unfold before them. An example of this is Flamengo and São Paulo sides of recent years.
Deliberate unbalance: how this can make a team more solid
As mentioned before, some Brazilian takes on 3-5-2 are asymmetrical and therein evocative of gioco all'italiana, albeit clearly without a sweeper system. Take one of the cagier Brazilian sides like Sao Paulo, for instance: coach Muricy Ramalho was forever tweaking his side and so well rehearsed were they, that the same starting 11 could play as a back four or a back three without any recourse to for substitutions. They would typically play with three centre-backs, a full-back, a wing-back, two holding midfielders, an attacking midfielder (stationed wide), and two forwards.
In 2006, Ramalho inherited a solid side at a club already reknowned for its institutional stability behind the scenes. He was loathe to risk changing the team's style: defending deeply and springing counter-attacks, and also using a target man upfield as an "out-ball". They would go on to win three consecutive championships. But where Muricy did lend a distinctinctive touch was in the arrangement of his players on the field.
The whole system was one of weights and balances so that hardly any defensive position would be vacated without another player filling it in. The midfield behaved almost like a chain - much the same way a classic back four tends to. So, for example, how to explain the gaps behind the wing-back on the left - who would cover for him? As shown below in Figure 1, that would be one of the volantes (defensive midfielders) who would then move out to the flank. But in doing so, he would abandon his post just in front of the back three and so the right-wing back (who was often a full-back or even a volante by trade) would tuck into the centre to become the screening presence there.
Normallly the attacking midfielder (meia), who was stationed to the left would move infield thus leaving room for the left wing-back to overlap. But equally, the meia could stay relatively wide and thus allow the wing-back to launch a diagonal run infield. So we are left with a two man left-sided midfield who alternated their inside and outside movements. Who would help the advancing right-back when the weight of the side was tilted towards the left? That would be the job of the second striker who would drop out wide to assist. As can be seen, there was no symmetry to Ramalho's system but there was an intensely-laboured synchronisation about the collective movement.
Freeing the wing-backs to advance infield
In the case of a more attack-minded team, we have the example of Flamengo, and we see a more interesting use of the the third centre-back, in this case a conservative full-back or a tenacious volante. This formation was not borne out of a desire to shore up the centre-backs, but rather to maximise the dynamism of the wing-backs.
Below left: Flamengo's more adventurous 3-5-2 (or 3-1-4-2).
In Leo Moura and Juan, coach Cuca had at his disposal two bonafide wing-backs whom he did not trust to perform in a back four. The solution lay in an interesting back three consisting of two centre-backs plus a conservative full-back, with a defensive midfielder just ahead plugging whichever spaces were most vulnerable. The central midfield was occupied by the dynamic box-to- box player Kleberson with a genuine playmaker Ibson playing in a slightly more advanced position. Cuca's system gave both wing-backs (now defacto wide-midfielders) plenty of licence to cut inside, not just in rapid counter-attacks, but also to participate in passages of patient build up play. Both are expected to double back and assist the quasi-full backs (the centre backs who push out to defend the flanks).
In this aspect at least, the system echoes England's variation at Euro '96 whereby Terry Venables played Neville and Pearce as wide defenders in a three, with Ince dropping in from midfield and with wide midfielders ( two from Anderton and McMannaman or Le Saux ) pushing on. In effect we are left with a back three that can behave like a back four without resorting to a designated sweeper. In Flamengo's set-up, we see a novel use of the third centre-back. By sucking the opposing markers into the centre, Leo Moura leaves space for the pseudo centre-back behind him to bomb ahead as a surprise element to the Flamengo attack as illustrated in Figure 2.
Emphasis on defense: wing-backs not trusted to defend in a back four.
Below: Palmeiras line-up in a 3-5-2 (which leans towards 3-4-1-2 when in possession and 3-4-2-1 when not) despite the coach's misgivings about the system.
It must be said however, that in complete contrast to Flamengo, there are many Brazilian teams who use 3-5-2 for the purposes of playing an overtly defensive game, hoping to hit teams on the counter-attack. The most puzzling exponent of this (in that he is hardly amongst the more defensive of Brazilian coaches) the Palmeiras side coached by, until recently, Wanderley Luxemburgo. Palmeiras tend to play very deep and adopt 3-4-2-1 in defensive phase (sometimes even dropping the second-striker for another 'meia' as a more cautious approach.) Paradoxically, Luxemburgo is a big critic of three-at-the-back but offers as his defense a lack of trust in the ability of his wing-backs to defend properly- amongst the most common of the justifications cited by European coaches who are reluctant to switch to a back three. Luxemburgo laments that Brazilian defences have lost the chain effect whereby if one full-back advances, both centre-backs shift across and the other full-back tucks in tightly defend as a temporary centre-back.
Another such coach who is reticent about 3-5-2 is current Grêmio boss Paulo Autuori, for whom the 3-4-1-2, as practiced by the side he took command of in May 2009, is prejudicial to midfield creativity. This is because, Autuori claims, (and though I do not profess to understand his reasoning) one of his two meias (from his preferred 4-2-2-2 system) finds himself obliged to drop deeper into midfield, or else be replaced by a second volante. Evidently the presence of a third central defender is not enough comfort for even this more liberal of Brazilian coaches. Which again leads to that inescapable point; that there is no getting away from this.. the besottment of most modern Brazilian coaches with destructive volantes.
A future post will deal with this and analyse the possible ways out for those coaches who want to keep a solid midfield base but without inhibiting decent circulation of the ball from the back.